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Images of Saint Nick

Original post made by John Barry, Danville, on Nov 29, 2010

I’m about to head off for the holidays and contemplate prospects for the coming year and column. When I return, I plan to start a culinary/visual arts tour of some local restaurants and bars and highlight the kind of art they’ve arrayed to complement the dining/drinking experience. Meanwhile, a brief look at how the images of Santa Claus have evolved over the years:

If you go to Google Images, for example, you’ll see numerous representations of the man--most of them depicting a jolly, portly old gent; twinkle in his eye; luxuriant white facial tresses; red-and-white outfit; pipe protruding from bow-shaped mouth; and a bag of goodies slung over his shoulder.

Or, as Clement Clarke Moore put it:

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. . . .

That’s the current image most of us have of Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nick, Père Noël, Kris Kringle, Weihnachtsmann . . . . The name “Santa Claus” comes from the Dutch “Sinterklaas,” short for “Saint Nicholas.” According to the lazy writer’s source (LWS), Wikipedia:

“Sinterklaas is a traditional Winter holiday figure in the Netherlands, Belgium, Aruba, Suriname and Netherlands Antilles; he is celebrated annually on Saint Nicholas’ eve (December 5) or, in Belgium, on the morning of December 6. The feast celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of Amsterdam, children and sailors. He is the basis of the mythical holiday figure of Santa Claus in the United States. Sinterklaas is his usual name. The more formal name is Sint Nicolaas or Sint Nikolaas. He is also known as Goedheiligman (good/holy man) or simply Sint.”

LWS explains that Saint Nicholas was originally portrayed wearing clothing similar to a bishop’s--decked out in a red miter (a liturgical headdress worn by bishops and abbots) with a golden cross and topped off with a bishop’s staff. Today, however, he is generally depicted as Moore portrayed in him “The Night Before Christmas.” According to LWS, images of him rarely have a beard with no mustache.

Caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast helped popularize this image in the United States and Canada in the nineteenth century (see illustration), as did Moore’s epic poem. Songs, radio, television, and films have helped propagate and perpetuate this image over the years. In the United Kingdom and Europe, Santa is often depicted in a manner identical to the American Santa Claus, but he is commonly called Father Christmas.

Like the Christmas tree’s, Santa’s origins are pagan in nature.

John A. Barry is a writer and avocational artist. To share anything art-related, such as your favorite art on display at a local restaurant, call him at 314-9528 or email


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