In old Europe, St. Nicholas was a religious figure, patron saint of children. And pawnbrokers. And perfumerers. A skinny, stern saint in long robes and mitres. But not in North America. Canadians knew St. Nick from a poem, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” that Clement Clarke Moore wrote in 1822. Clarke made him jolly, jelly-bellied, more elf than man. “He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.”
What kind of fur was it? What colour? Where did he get it cleaned? Moore didn’t say. An 1837 painting depicts a scene from the poem, Santa’s short and sinister in a fur cape, brown pants and a navy-striped jacket. The look never caught on.
In 1863, during the American Civil War, Santa got a make-over from Thomas Nast, an illustrator for Harper’s magazine. One illustration has him dressed in garments borrowed from Uncle Sam: a fur-trimmed, star-spangled coat, striped trousers. When war ended, Nast put Santa in fur union suits. They came in brown, black and green. Santa wore them skin-tight, with patent pilgrim shoes. A tasselled hat. Holly sprays. It was Nast who first depicted Santa residing in a palace at the North Pole. An 1866 Harper’s illustration shows Santa spying on children with a telescope. His palace is made of snow and ice – ideal for storing furs. “Thomas Nast was an observer of Parry and Franklin and other early Polar explorers,” Santa Victor explains. “Perhaps that’s where he got that look.”
So why did the red suit stick? Cultural critic Karal Ann Marling calls it a “highly decorated business suit.” It appealed, she argues, to an American idea that Santa was a businessman, an entrepreneur overseeing a toy factory. I don’t know if that’s true. What I do know is ‘Santa’s a winter’. Scarlet suits his complexion.
“The early department store Santas took their costumes out of tickle trunks,” says Santa Victor, “or what the store had lying around for them to wear. Ads and promotions in the early days were usually local in nature, and as such there was no standard look. That’s why you see a wide range of outfits, from fur coats to tuxedos. It took Coca-Cola’s international marketing campaign in the early 1930s to give everyone a standard Santa look.”
Haddon "Sunny" Sundblom drew Santa for Coke. Santa, to Sundblom’s mind, was a big man – broad, and burly. “I prefer the look of Norman Rockwell’s Santa,” Santa Victor says. “He’s an elf, not a human. It’s more true to who I think Santa is.”
By the late 19th century, Canadians were dressing up as Santa. Surprising their kids, amusing church groups. Most men didn’t own scarlet suits. They put on togas, swaths of red felt or muslin tied at the waist. Boots were bolts of black oilcloth wrapped around shins. Any trousers would do.
Some Santas wore red bathrobes. Some wore whatever. “We heard a great noise, and the boys, they said it was old Santa Claus come,” said a Blackfoot boy in a letter to the Calgary Herald in 1894, “and we all ran out and there he was coming over from the Mission house with a long white beard, and a dress like an old woman, and a bundle of things on his arm and we all laughed at him ….”