Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Disney)


The art iconography of Christmas: How Santa Claus got his image


Christmas is not your ordinary celebration, there are so many things synonymous with it that they sometimes leave you wondering how they came to be? While stars and candles might make sense of the origin story, from candy canes to reindeers, there is a slew of other elements of Christmas iconography that seem a little further removed. Only the most severe of humbugs would forgo something resembling a tree, but why exactly is that the case? And what of the rotund fellow in red who slides down our chimneys?

Well, while a lot of Christmas traditions might be bathed in the history of pagan ritual – for instance, we pop a tree in the lounge to celebrate the spring to come with an evergreen reminder – when it comes to Father Christmas and the rest of his cronies, we largely have art history to thank. 

Surprisingly, we might think that we live in the age of the culture wars now, but Father Christmas almost comfortingly reveals that we have always been bipartisan folk. In England, The Puritans were trying to wrestle the Christian traditions of Christmas away from the influence of Catholics, thus, to defend the name of the festivities, writers personified the festival as a Father and threw him into court to defend his name in plays not all that dissimilar from Scrooge in reverse.

This mirthful notion then spread throughout Europe and mingled with existing folk traditions to make the whole thing a near-satirical affair. Saint Nicholas was now moving away from the old church view, but he wouldn’t take his jingly form just yet. However, with discussion and debate in the air regarding the true form of Christmas, the importance of the festival grew as a result. With this added fanfare came further artistic developments regarding how we should best depict this special date in the calendar.

Thus, when the eminent writer Charles Dickens penned a Christmas Carol in 1843, he handed over a seismic task to the illustrator John Leech to bring the biggest Christmas story of modern times to visual life. Contained within the novel is a depiction of the Ghost of Christmas Present, wearing a green, fur-lined robe. Now, the colours green and red were already synonymous with Christmas owing to biblical traditions: green represents the evergreen presence of the Holy Spirit, while red is indicative of the blood of Christ. Therefore, it wasn’t much of a stretch for future artists to trade John Leech’s prototype for a version of their own.

Jackets, however, come and go, they needed somebody to wear them. Enter the famously festive city of New York. In the early 1800s, this town was dubbed New Amsterdam and a swirl of European influences mingled in the street, albeit the most predominant were Dutch (as you may have guessed from the name).

In Dutch society, the idea of a mirthful personified Father Christmas was already fairly well established, and it was a writer named Washington Irving who took this a step further in his satirical history of New York, developing the literary tropes of some daft guffawing fellow who artists would later bring to life. 

Literature further guided the pastels of artists when a sleigh ride home on Christmas Eve inspired the poem T’was the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke and the idea of flying through the sky suddenly came to the fore. Bit by bit the elements of a singular Father Christ were being constructed and when the growth of industry meant that this notion could be commercialised en masse, soon things had to stick and take on their final form. After all, you could sell a constantly changing character, why do you think cartoons only wear one outfit?

It is for this reason that Coca Cola often get dubbed as the inventor of Santa Claus, but in truth, he had been depicted as we know him today many times already before they joined in a few years later. Fortunately for the drinks brand, he already matched their aesthetic and owing to the ubiquity of the beverage he would be remembered as such forevermore. Thus, the long twisted tale of Father Christmas was crystalised in his chimney gracing splendour and we’ve never looked back. 

(Credit: WikiMedia / John Leech) The Ghost of Christmas Present