Santa Claus, A Century Ago

Born in the 1960s, I was in the prime audience for Rankin/Bass Studio’s stop motion animation productions. For me, movies like 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, 1970’s Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and 1974’s The Year Without a Santa Claus defined what I knew about the guy in a red suit who delivered toys on Christmas Eve. In fact, even though I was in college by the time it came out, it was a 1985 Rankin/Bass production that opened my eyes to a wider world of Santa lore. That year they released a production of L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. This was the first time I’d learned that the guy who created The Wizard of Oz actually wrote a Santa story. It also struck me that the Santa portrayed was somewhat different than the one portrayed in those earlier Rankin/Bass productions. He lived in a magical land, not at the North Pole, and he had a whole assortment of magical helpers and foes, not just the little elves I’d known from the shows I’d grown up with.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was published in 1902. As it turns out, this was during the era when the popularity of Santa Claus really began taking off, not only in the United States but around the world. It’s also the era when Santa really began to take on his most familiar characteristics. As you can see in the book cover, when The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was published, the publisher didn’t feel the need the put Santa in his now-iconic red suit. Here we see Santa in a black suit with leopard fur and red pants. Up until this point, the most iconic Santa had been the version popularized by Thomas Nast, who portrayed Santa in a number of different colored coats (when he appeared in color) and often with a hat that was more fur or holly sprigs than red with a white pom-pom.

Curious about how the modern Santa developed from the beginning of the twentieth century through World War I, I started looking for images online. I found a wonderful article tracing the development of Santa Claus in illustration at The Public Domain Review, which is the source of the illustrations in this post. Go there if you want to see even more about Santa’s development.

Our modern, iconic image of Santa is often credited to a series of advertisements painted by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola beginning in 1931. However, the article at The Public Domain Review suggests that Santa in his modern form first appeared on the cover of Puck magazine in 1902, illustrated by Frank A. Nankivell. This is also the earliest illustration I can recall with ladies showing their appreciation for Santa’s gifts. As a bearded man who had grown somewhat broader around the mid-section as I’ve grown older, I must admit a certain appreciation for this trope.

Puck, Christmas 1902

As I continued my explorations of Santa Claus’s development through the early part of the twentieth century, I came to the blog “A Signal from Mars,” which discusses material from the Lowell Observatory archives. In it, I found a wonderful post depicting several photos of Percival Lowell, the man who popularized the idea of Martian canals, dressed as Santa on the observatory grounds in 1911. You can view the images at:

Public Domain Review shares evidence of Santa’s growing worldwide appeal with the following 1914 illustration of Santa from Japan. We also see that Santa’s now-iconic image is making its way around the world a few years before the Coca-Cola ads.

Santa Claus visits a child in 1914 Japan.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself wondering how Santa fared during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. I couldn’t find many photos from that period, but I did find an account of a visit by Santa to western Nebraska. Santa arrived in town by Union Pacific Railroad on December 2 and was immediately mobbed by children. Unfortunately, this put Santa in violation of a public gathering ordinance. The police soon arrived and stripped poor Santa of his hat and beard and put him in jail. The kids came together, though, and raised Santa’s bail money.

US Food Administration Poster

I’ll wrap up with this poster produced by the US Food Administration in 1918 showing Santa, Uncle Sam, and a soldier. It’s message “Peace: Your Gift to the Nation” seems especially apt today in the wake of a contentious election. I hope as COVID-19 vaccines roll out and a new year dawns, our nation can once again find peace and unity. Wishing you all a happy and peaceful holiday season!

The Horror of Christmas

This past week, my regular break from the observatory straddled the Christmas holiday. I spent some of that time celebrating with friends and family. I spent some of that time working on Tales of the Talisman Magazine. I also spent some of that time working on a new horror novel tentatively entitled The Astronomer’s Crypt, which is the story of dark forces being unleashed on an unsuspecting observatory one stormy night. On one hand, it seems a little strange to spend the Christmas holidays writing a scary novel. On the other hand, when one looks at Christmas, there are some pretty scary traditions associated with the darkest nights of the year.


This year, Krampus seems to be getting a lot of attention. He’s a goat-like creature from Germanic folklore who travels with St. Nicholas. Whereas St. Nicholas brings presents to good children, Krampus takes evil children directly to Hell. (Do not pass “Go.” Do not collect $200!) Essentially, he’s Santa’s scary enforcer. The traditions say he’s chained. Apparently Santa captured him and controls him. As a writer, I see definite story potential in that idea. In countries such as Austria, Hungary, and Croatia, people dress up as Krampus and rattle chains and bells at children, reminiscent of a Halloween monster in an American haunted house.

As it turns out, you don’t have to go as far as Eastern Europe to find Christmas chills. Just look at one of the novels most associated with Christmas itself, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. To me, Marley’s ghost and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come have always been frightening. Their whole job is to scare Scrooge into being a good man. Even the Ghost of Christmas Present, who is generally friendly and jovial frightens Scrooge by presenting the loathsome children Want and Ignorance.

Marley's Ghost 1843

Even recent popular culture associated with Christmas has some scary elements. I grew up watching Rankin Bass holiday specials such as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with its Abominable Snow Monster of the North and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town with its Winter Warlock. Although these bad guys eventually become good and are relatively tame, I remember them scaring me when I first encountered them.

The joy and light of Christmas are so emphasized that we sometimes forget that they symbolically triumph over darkness and evil. It actually feels right to have a few monsters lurking in the dark corners of the holiday so they can be chased away by good spirits. As we wrap up 2013, I wish you peace and prosperity in the coming year and hope all the dark spirits remain in the shadows.