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: https://asignalfrommars.wordpress.com/2018/12/03/up-on-the-rooftop/

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!

Beards and Horror

Let’s face it, some people think bearded men are scary. In this post, I’ll introduce you to some scary, bearded men. However these men aren’t scary because of their beards. They’re scary because of the stories they’ve created.

I grew my own beard while working on my physics degree in the late 1980s. My older brother had grown a beard during his college days and I always liked way it looked. In addition to that, I attended a technical university where many of my classmates grew beards. All those factors combined to make growing a beard an easy choice.

A decade after I first grew my beard, I experimented with writing horror. I also decided to experiment with my beard and I shaved it down to a goatee. I liked the way it looked and have, for the most part, kept it that way ever since. Some people say beards obscure a man’s appearance, but my beard has always seemed a natural part of my face. Trimming it to a goatee is a minor concession to fashion.

To write well, you must read well. Over the years I’ve read a lot of horror fiction, including many classics of the genre. It was fun to discover that many of the authors whose work influenced me and shaped the genre also had the good taste to grow beards. Without further ado, allow me to introduce you to some of the pioneers and greats of the field.


Sheridan Le Fanu

Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu was an Irish writer who lived from 1814 to 1872. His specialty was writing mysteries and ghost stories. His most famous work was undoubtedly the vampire novella “Carmilla” which he wrote in 1871 and predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by twenty-six years.

I pay tribute to the story in my tale “Fountains of Blood” which appears in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone edited by David Boop. In most pictures of Sheridan Le Fanu, he rocks the neck beard. However, later in life he grew a full beard. You can learn more about Straight Outta Tombstone at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1481482696/


Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn was a journalist who lived from 1850 to 1904. Born in Ireland, he immigrated to the United States, lived for a time in New Orleans, and finally moved to Japan. I write a lot of stories set in the nineteenth century and I find Hearn a valuable resource. He makes the people he knew and the places he saw come alive on the page.

The reason he earns a spot on this list was that he not only wrote the obituary for Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, he also assembled collections of frightening Japanese stories. One of those collections was made into the 1965 movie Kwaidan. Most photos and illustrations of Hearn show him with only a mustache, but while in New Orleans, Hearn waxed his mustache and sported a goatee. He appears as a character in my novel Owl Riders, which you can learn about at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html


Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker, who lived from 1847 to 1912, gave us Dracula. I first read his most famous novel while working at Kitt Peak National Observatory in 1994 during a fierce storm. I particularly remember reading the scene where the ship Demeter comes into Whitby harbor and the vampire, in the form of a large wolf, runs from the ship. My duties required that I had to leave my nice, comfortable reading nook periodically to check on the weather. Every time I stepped outside, I imaged the creature would run out of the shadows to attack me.

The experience of reading Dracula first led me to write my novel of vampire mercenaries called Vampires of the Scarlet Order. You can learn about this novel at http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html. Years later, I would write a novel of a monster that prowled an observatory’s grounds called The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn about this novel at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html. Mr. Stoker maintained an epic, full beard worthy of admiration!


Around the beginning of the twentieth century, beards tended to fall out of fashion. I’ve often wondered why that happened. A recent article at Vox.com suggests that beards fell victim to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Claims were made that beards were unsanitary and led to greater rates of infection. According to the article, this isn’t necessarily true. It says shaving abrades the skin and can slightly raise the risk of infection. You can read the full article here: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/3/30/21195447/beard-pandemic-coronavirus-masks-1918-spanish-flu-tuberculosis.

Of course this all makes me wonder whether the current pandemic will have an impact on beards or fashion in general. Do you have any predictions? Any favorite bearded writers? Share them in the comments.

Pandemic Past

Most of us are working to find ways of coping in the era of social distancing imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. My friend, Kenneth Silsbee, has come up with an innovative approach to create some social time by hosting a Friday evening “cocktail hour” where friends can gather via a Zoom conference call. It’s allowed me to connect to some of my college alumni friends and make some connections with Kenneth’s Seattle-area friends.

During the first of these cocktail hours, Kenneth asked whether any of the attendees had any family stories from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. All I remembered was a brief mention that my maternal grandfather was serving in the Army Air Corps in France during one of the pandemic’s waves. However, the question did make me think of a book I read two years ago when I prepared to moderate a panel called “Magical History” at the Tucson Festival of Books. The photo below shows me with the panelists, Beth Cato, Mindy Tarquini, and Gail Carriger.

The book I’ve been remembering is Mindy Tarquini’s The Infinite Now. In the novel, Fiora Vicente, the daughter of an Italian immigrant fortune teller living in Philadelphia, loses her parents to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and is taken to live with a friend of the family in a tenement house. She takes possession of a magical curtain that allows her to see five minutes into the future. Afraid that the old man who has taken her in will die, she creates a bubble around the house to keep time from progressing. Meanwhile, a frightening healer seeks to entrap Fiora and take the curtain. The magic is subtle and metaphorical, and the author even introduces a bit of Clarke’s Third Law, the notion that sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic, at the novel’s end.

I’m sorry to have seen this year’s COVID-19 outbreak force the cancellation of the Tucson Festival of Books. That said, it’s clear from the way the virus is spreading that the organizers made the right call. Still, the Tucson Festival of Books has long been one of my favorite venues to meet and talk with authors from all around the country. In the panel, I not only discovered Mindy’s book, but I read books by Beth Cato and Gail Carriger as well. I highly recommend all their works if you’re looking for something good to read while social distancing.

As it turns out, the 2018 Tucson Festival of Books was not my first opportunity to meet Beth Cato. I had actually published her work on a few occasions in Tales of the Talisman Magazine. Volume 9, issues 2 and 4 along with Volume 10, issue 4 all have poems by Beth Cato and they are still in stock. As long as the post office is deemed an essential service, I’d be more than happy to pack up copies and send them to you. You can find all the issues of Tales of the Talisman at http://www.talesofthetalisman.com.