Pagan celebrations around Yule coupled with folkloric depictions of holiday figures like Sinterklaas and Father Christmas laid the foundation for what would become the rosy-cheeked and jolly Santa Claus that people know and love today. Yet, this seemingly innocuous figure's 19th and 20th century roots are deeply intertwined with rising commercial interests and industrialization. So, let's peel back the layers on Kris Kringle's coat and see just what stories lie beneath.
Historical Context: Christmas in the 19th Century
Interestingly, the origins of Santa Claus in his conventional imaginings didn't arise until the early 20th century; but several developments across the mid and late-19th century directly contributed to the need for the jovial and friendly figure which children line-up to have their picture taken at the mall with every year. Prior to the mid-19th century, Christmas festivities still had strict religious overtones with most communities denouncing overt celebrations as being morally taboo. In fact, the custom of gift giving didn't develop until the 19th century, when even the most devout individual could accept gift exchanges as Biblically derived (aka the Three Wise Men's gifts to Jesus), and the first American advertisement featuring the word "Christmas Gifts" wasn't placed until 1806 in a Salem, Massachusetts newspaper.
Yet, it was the rise of the department store model in the 1870s that catalyzed the overwhelming Christmas culture of the 21st century. Rapid industrialization in the late-19th century meant that products could be created in greater quantities and a quicker pace, and these ground-breakingly massive department stores grew to have stockpiles of available goods that they needed to create a market for. The newfound custom of gift-giving made Christmas the obvious choice, and department stores began feeding the wonderment of the season in a variety of ways. Stores like Macy's, Selfridge's, and Harrods decorated their store fronts with lights, wreaths, and fake snow, and people's new 'Christmas bonuses' meant they had money to spare on new goods. Thus, the true commercial Christmas season was born.
Santa Claus Enters the Market
There's some debate over who was the first department store Santa Claus, but the fact remains that by the 1890s, it wasn't unusual to see Santa Clauses posted inside large municipal department store buildings as a fixture for setting the holiday mood. However, you can see that this early connection to the commercial capitalist industry implies that there wasn't ever a modern Santa Claus who didn't have commercial attachments.
Santa Claus Gets His Gimmick
Interestingly, contemporary Santa Claus' profit-oriented origins only weaves a deeper web in the 1930s when America's favorite soft drink got a hold of him. In 1931, the Coca-Cola Company was planning a Christmas advertisement campaign for a series of magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and The New Yorker, and the marketing team commissioned Haddon Sundblom, a talented illustrator, to create images of Santa Claus specifically for this print campaign. Inspired by the character's descriptions as penned by Clement Clark Moore in his 1822 poem, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," and using a salesman friend of his for facial reference, the snowy-bearded, rosy-cheeked, smiling Santa decked in red was born. In short, without Coca-Cola's constant need for attracting new customers and new profits, your idea of Santa Claus would never have existed.
Santa Claus and Commercial Camouflage
By the mid-20th century, Santa Claus had become firmly entrenched in the Christmas holiday, with countless numbers of films, songs, and advertisements communicating his importance during the season of giving. Rising family income in the post-war period stabilized the Christmas traditions that were forming fifty years earlier, and by the end of the century no-one would remember what exactly Santa Claus had gotten his start doing.
There is little doubt that Santa Claus has remained a largely commercial figure in the popular culture of the 21st century; after all, the price of admission to let children have their pictures taken with jolly St. Nick has only risen with inflation rates, with one Philadelphia mall reporting in 2015 that they would charge a minimum fee of $35 for people to see their Santa Claus. Additionally, the National Retail Federation reported that Americans planned to spend almost $1,000 on Christmas gifts and decorations in 2020. Does this negate the wonderment that the Santa Claus mythos provides to children around the world each Christmas? Assuredly not. But it is important to be aware that the mythos behind the big-bellied man is just that - a myth.
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town…to Take Your Money
Undoubtedly, the modern iteration of Santa Claus, with his red coat and hearty laugh, began as a marketing scheme which has quickly integrated itself so tightly into the visual language of the season that there isn't a Christmas without a Santa Claus. Just be aware the next time you're tempted by the catchy jingles or ever-present '90s M&M holiday add that Santa Claus will be kind to your children, but not so kind to your wallet.