A History of Santa Claus

This piece is basically a transcription of a lecture I’ve frequently delivered to my social studies classes on the day before winter break since about 2002.

I got hooked on Santa lore when I saw an A&E Biography on St. Nicholas in 1994. I wrote a paper on him in college a few years later, and saved all my notes. As a teacher, I spun it into a class presentation to have something fun to do on the last day before winter break when no one wants to do any real work. (I can justify it in the educational world of academic standards by calling it a lesson on “cultural diffusion.”)

Nowadays, there’s not much here that can’t be found on the Santa Claus or St. Nicholas Wikipedia pages, but in the absence of anything else to post this time of year with a suitable holiday feel, I thought I would send this artifact from my bottom drawer into the ether of internet posterity.

How did this…

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Become this?

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Here’s what I would say to the students:

“It’s not too much of a stretch to figure out that the term ‘holiday’ comes from ‘holy day.’ Days set aside for the veneration of religious figures have been a facet of human existence as far back as the historical record can peer (and presumably into the mists of prehistory). When the human species gradually abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle around ten thousand years ago, an existence based on animal husbandry and cultivation of planted crops allowed for some downtime in the cold season between harvest and planting. The crops had been gathered and stored in granaries, and the animals earmarked for slaughter were salted away or consumed before they spoiled, frequently in observance of one of these holy days. Be it celebrating primitive pagan nature gods or the Christian saints of a later era, any excuse to retire the yoke and hoe for a day (or twelve) of feasting was enthusiastically seized.

Winter and summer solstices were considered very important, the winter solstice particularly so. When you lived and died based on what you could wrest from the soil, noting that the days were gradually getting longer and warmer again was cause for rejoicing.

The Romans had a calendar with months we would (mostly) recognize since the earliest days of the old Roman Republic (500s BCE). Their winter solstice (‘bruma’) date was December 25.

Saturnalia was a pre-solstice, multi-day Roman festival that traditionally ran from December 17 to December 23. It was definitely a carnival atmosphere, similar to Mardis Gras in modern-day New Orleans, but the characteristic that’s noteworthy for our purposes was the tradition of gift-giving.

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Saturnalia

Many Romans of the later period of the Empire (300s CE) worshipped a sun god called Sol Invictus (‘Invincible Sun’). A Roman codex made by an engraver named Filocalus in 354, and copied and re-copied many times over the next few centuries (the original was lost), is the source of a lot of our knowledge about Roman institutions of the third and fourth centuries. Essentially a kind of almanac/encyclopedia, it included a calendar of important dates. The day celebrating this particular sun-god, ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invictus,’ is listed as December 25.

Also on December 25, Filocalus noted the ‘birth of Christ in Bethlehem, Judea,’ the first surviving reference to this event happening on that date. Certainly no such date ever appeared in the New Testament, but there are many biblical passages linking Jesus to the sun (‘the light of the world’ according to John, etc.), and there was also symbolic importance attached to his conception being connected to the vernal equinox (beginning of spring.) So the date caught on relatively quickly, being mentioned in a sermon by St. Augustine as soon as the early 400s. It was regularly celebrated on that date as the feast of ‘Christ’s Mass’ by the 800s. Modern and ancient theologians both agree that December 25 is almost certainly not the birthdate of the historical Jesus, but acknowledged that metaphoric symbolism superseded a completely blank historical record. The gospels were not intended to be historical documents, but historians have gleaned what they could from context, passing references, and geographical details buried in what were explicitly created as religious dogma.

As Christianity gained more of a foothold in western Europe, missionaries and other early supporters of the new religion eased various local population’s transition away from paganism by gradually replacing pagan festival days with days venerating Christian figures. They kept the same dates, and a lot of the same traditions. As long as the celebration was held in the name of the newly-ascendant monotheistic religion, everyone seemed happy. The feast of Christ’s Mass incorporated many elements of the dissolute Roman Saturnalia, and grew increasingly raucous until its reputation had become disreputable among the devout by the early modern era.

Other western cultures had their solstice festivals as well. The pre-Christian Germanic lands of northern Europe had ‘Yule,’ and its associated massive log, which was expected to burn in the village square for all twelve days of the festival, and still have enough consumable fuel to provide the starting kindling for next year’s Yule log. The Celts liked to decorate for their solstice festival with pine, holly, and mistletoe.

As Christianity spread out of the Mediterranean area in the first part of the Middle Ages, the Christ’s Mass festivities began incorporating local traditions, such as Yule. A medieval Christmas was twelve days of revelry (partridge in a pear tree optional), beginning on December 25 and ending on ‘Twelfth Night,’ January 5.

The day after Twelfth Night was another important date on the old Christian calendar, celebrating the Epiphany — the arrival of the magi (‘three wise men’) in Bethlehem and the revelation that God was made incarnate in the newborn Jesus. Other sources indicate the Epiphany is in observance of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist many years later. Either way, a heads-up to all of you lazy slackers who leave their Christmas lights up until March — it is considered bad luck to leave Christmas decorations up past Twelfth Night.

The rise of Christianity coincided with the decline of the western Roman Empire. While the religion crawled its way north and west in dribs and drabs, Emperor Constantine shifted the base of operations for the newly-Christian Imperial government eastward, to Byzantium (soon to be renamed Constantinople) on the edge of Asia Minor. So Asia Minor (now Turkey) was really the home base of Christianity for a couple of centuries, where it eventually evolved into its own unique flavor — Eastern Orthodox. The eastern portion of the old Roman Empire became known to historians as the Byzantine Empire, and took on many Hellenistic (Greek) cultural traits.

St. Nicholas originates here.

Lycia, in ancient times an independent kingdom, and in the 300s a largely self-governing province in the eastern Roman empire, was tucked away along the southwest coast of Asia Minor. The terrain was rugged and its inhabitants were mostly Greek-speaking. Its principal port town was Myra, although the once-bustling harbor has long since silted up, and Myra itself is now nothing more than archaeological ruins.

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old asia minor

Detail of rectangle in the above map

Keep in mind that there is no historical evidence that the person that became known as St. Nicholas ever existed. The Catholic Church demoted him on their ‘calendar of saints’ in 1969 due to this lack of historical verification. (Along with 93 others, whose origins were ‘more mystery than manuscripts,’ according to a Church spokesperson, although they retained full sainthood.) All information about — and images of — St. Nicholas came from sources working centuries after his supposed death. So he could be as imaginary as his later incarnation, Santa Claus.

With that in mind, let’s tell his story.

Nicholas was born in Patara, another Lycian city a few miles west of Myra, in March of 270, and would have answered to the Greek form of his name, Nikolaos. His parents were wealthy Greek Christians who died when Nicholas was still in his teens. He gave away his inherited fortune to the needy, and soon became an ordained priest in Myra, where his reputation for generosity began to grow. (Some sources say he was never ordained, but was a ‘lay brother,’ or monk, in his early years.) According the legend, one of his first acts as a man of the cloth was to surreptitiously, in the darkness of three successive nights, slip bags of gold through the window of a family who could not provide proper dowries for their three daughters and were about to sell them into prostitution. He was caught by the father on the third night, and Nicholas swore him to secrecy, wanting the good deed to remain totally anonymous.

The father evidently did not keep his promise, as soon Nicholas became a kind of Byzantine Superman. Stories shared among the Lycians had him rescuing drowning sailors, reanimating dead children who had been pickled in brine, freeing unjustly accused prisoners, calming hurricanes, teleporting himself, flying, and so on.

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Young Nicholas, depicted as he may have looked when he became a bishop, c. 300

Around 300, Nicholas was elevated to the post of Bishop of Myra. Later visual depictions of him often had him clad in red and white bishop’s robes, a color scheme that would remain associated with him. It was around this time that Diocletian (r. 284-305), the last Roman Emperor who made a policy of persecuting Christians, had Nicholas imprisoned and tortured, some said for as long as a decade. Diocletian’s successor, Constantine, not only ended the persecutions (and freed Nicholas), he converted the Empire to Christianity.

By 325, early Christianity was already splintering into factions. Constantine called together the First Council of Nicaea to iron out the differences and get everyone on the same page. Over 1,800 bishops attended, Nicholas supposedly among them. Things got heated. Nicholas was the center of attention at one point when he belted the leader of the Arianism sect right in the chops. (The Arianists believed Christ himself was not a part of God as stated by the Trinitarians, but a separate and distinct “Son of God.” Nicholas was a staunch Trinitarian, evidently.)

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Nicholas died on December 6, 343, and was likely entombed in a fourth century church on the nearby island of Gemile, the ruins of which can still be seen. The church in Myra that was the seat of his bishopric was torn down or crumbled away. Anything he wrote, if he wrote anything at all, was lost. The only things that remained, for 200 years, were the fantastical stories. Nicholas was a righter of wrongs, a defender of religious orthodoxy, and a special protector of children and sailors.

Some of these stories finally got jotted down in the late 500s, and provide the first written mention of Nicholas (apart from his name scrawled on the ruined wall of the church on the aforementioned island of Gemile). He remained an immensely popular figure, especially among sailors working the Mediterranean coast, who enjoyed spreading the Nicholas tales as far as Italy. His church in Myra was rebuilt. Locals gave gifts to each other in his name. Michael the Archimandrite finally produced the first full-length manuscript to survive into the modern era, The Life and Wondrous Works of our Father Nikolaos, Bishop of Myra, in Lycia in the late 800s. Then came Simeon Metaphrastes’ The Life of St. Nicholas about a hundred years later. Both were based on oral traditions and earlier written sources now lost, and are the basis for pretty much everything we know about the figure of St. Nicholas.

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St. Nicholas as imagined by the Renaissance. Detail from the 1490 Florentine painting The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot by Piero Di Cosimo

There is no fixed date for when he officially became a saint. The standardizing of the canonization procedure was not fixed until the 1100s, and Nicholas had been referred to as a saint for at least 300 years before that. His feast day was observed on the traditionally accepted date of his death, December 6.

As the Arabs made more and more incursions along the southern Turkish coast, Nicholas’s remains were moved to his re-built church in Myra, where they were treated as a shrine with healing properties for the next 400 years. By 1087, the Muslim Turks were overrunning Asia Minor, so concerned sailors (Nicholas’ biggest fanboys) spirited the bones of the saint across the sea to a safer place — Bari, on the heel of Italy’s boot. There they remain to this day, in the Basilica de San Nicola, built especially to accommodate Nicholas’s relics.

 

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Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Italy

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A 2014 facial reconstruction of the skull in the tomb in Bari, based on precise measurements and X-rays. Whoever is in the tomb, he died past the age of 70. Note the badly-broken nose.

As folklore tales tend to do when they move from place to place over centuries, the stories of St. Nicholas began to blend with local legends. In central and southern Italy, La Befana was a ‘good witch,’ who delivered gifts to children on Twelfth Night (her name is said to derive from epifania, Italian for ‘epiphany’). Although both St. Nicholas and La Befana retained separate and distinct identities in Italy, as immigrants, merchants, and sailors traveled to other parts of Europe, their characteristics grew intertwined, and still more elements were added to the folkloric stew the more places the stories traveled. Germans told stories of the Christkind or Christkindl, a sprite-like representation of the baby Jesus who delivered gifts on his own feast day — December 25. (And it’s where the alternate Santa name ‘Kris Kringle’ comes from.)

By 1500, there were more than 2000 churches named after St. Nicholas. He was the third most-popular figure in the Christian religion, after Jesus and Mary. He was the patron saint of children, sailors, and many, many more, including pawnbrokers. (The three golden balls traditionally displayed outside pawn shops represent the three bags of gold Nicholas gave the man to save his daughters. In artistic depictions, Nicholas is often shown holding three bags of gold or three golden balls.) And it’s around this time that the ‘real’ Eastern Orthodox bishop and the magical holiday gift-giver who shared his name began to separate into two distinct identities. The latter became known as Pere Noel in France, Father Christmas in England, and Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, the name a Dutch variation of ‘St. Herr Nicholas.’ The Netherlands, in particular, took both versions of Nicholas to their hearts, which will have important implications later.   

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The Reformation of the early 1500s caused a massive and permanent split in the Christian religion, although this was not the first time. The Great Schism of 1054 had split the church into two groups, the Catholics of the west, and Orthodoxy in the east. Now, a number of different factions who would be known by the collective term ‘Protestants’ tore themselves away from the Catholics, in protest of what they saw as irreparable corruption and over-emphasis on elaborate ceremony and pomp in the Catholic Church. The Protestants were to be austere, pious, and focused solely on God’s Word, which was to be read for themselves in their native language as much as possible, without relying on a priest to translate from Latin. The Protestants abandoned Catholic traditions, and that included the veneration of saints, and it definitely included Christmas. Christmas in the 1500s was still very Saturnalic — feasting, boozing, street parties. Everything an early Protestant would abhor.

Although Protestantism would eventually reach the Netherlands, as it did most places in northern Europe, the free-thinking Dutch refused to give up their love of St. Nicholas. In 1624, the Dutch threw their hat into the ring of American colonization, establishing a fort and later a trading settlement at the tip of what is now Manhattan Island. Its northern boundary was marked by a wall, which would later give its name to a famous street. They called their new establishment ‘New Amsterdam,’ and they brought St. Nicholas with them.

For forty years, the Dutch happily occupied New Amsterdam, until the English decided they wanted it in 1664, as it provided a major port and a vital connection between the ‘New England’ colonies to the north and their big agricultural colonies to the south. The English ‘bought’ New Amsterdam (at cannon point) from the Dutch, and renamed it ‘New York.’ Dutch settlers were allowed to stay, and many did, mixing uncomfortably but not violently with the English. Many more moved up the Hudson River valley (Sleepy Hollow, etc.)

 

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New Amsterdam, at the tip of Manhattan Island, c. 1650

The Dutch left a deep cultural imprint on New York City, not least of which on the names of its sports teams. Knickerbocker was a Dutch surname, not a particularly common one, but one the English found particularly hilarious. By the 1800s, it had come to mean any ‘old New York’ family of notable wealth, and by the 1900s, in its shortened form, an NBA team. A diminutive form of the Dutch first name Jan — Janke (as one would use “Johnny” for John) — was used as a pejorative term for the Dutch by the English. As ‘Yankee’ it came to mean anyone north of New York to a New Yorker, anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line to a southerner, any American to a Brit, and an MLB team that buys its championships. (A variation, which is less accepted but which I like better, states that the Dutch, after being teased for silly-sounding, tongue-twister names like ‘Knickerbocker,’ responded by saying the English had incredibly dull, short, pedestrian-sounding names like ‘John Cheese’ — Jan Kaas.)

Most of the new English settlers were devoutly Protestant, downplayed Christmas, and ignored St. Nicholas…

…until the American Revolution broke out in the 1770s. New York’s Dutch background was used as an anti-British symbol. Although New York City itself was a Loyalist stronghold and the British Army’s main base through most of the war, St. Nicholas became a kind of rebellious, underground icon in these years, and all things traditionally ‘Dutch’ became popular among the New York resistance.

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As early as 1773 (a couple of years before actual warfare broke out, but the year of the Boston Tea Party, so tensions were high), the New York Gazette reported a party in honor of ‘St. A Claus’ was held with ‘great joy and festivity’ by the ‘Sons of St. Nicholas.’ A similar gathering was reported the following year.

Although St. Nicholas may have begun a re-birth, in the Revolutionary era and for several years after, the celebration of Christmas was just not a going concern for Americans. It was still considered too Catholic, with a whiff of pine-scented pagan decadence bubbling under the surface. Washington’s army made its famous crossing-the-Delaware assault on Trenton on Christmas night, 1776. Washington knew his American troops had no special attachment to the day, and that the mostly-Catholic Hessian mercenaries they would be attacking would be sleeping off their revelries.

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Merry Christmas!

But you can’t keep a good holiday down. In households across America at the end of the 1700s and beginning of the 1800s, people began having low-key observations of Christmas. Beginning with the Episcopalians in the southern states, Protestant churches began offering Christmas Day services. A typical American Christmas circa 1800 would look more like Thanksgiving looks today — a nice dinner with extended family, maybe some gift-giving. (Thanksgiving, despite being based on a celebratory feast in 1621, did not become a holiday until the 1860s.) Even in Puritan Massachusetts, which literally outlawed Christmas in 1659, there were advertisements for gifts and decorations in a Boston newspaper by 1808.

The American Christmas revival reached its full flower with the writings of New York author Washington Irving. In 1820, he published The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., a collection of 34 essays detailing his pseudonymous narrator’s journey to England. Five of the essays are sometimes grouped under the title ‘The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall,’ featuring Crayon’s visit to an eccentric manor house in the English countryside that insisted on celebrating the holiday in authentic medieval fashion. Feasts, blazing fires, holly and mistletoe, roasted chestnuts, sleigh rides — it was all there, and for the first time, all in one place. Christmas was not only back in favor, it was becoming hyper-idealized. Irving’s collection of stories sold like hotcakes.

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England itself was undergoing a similar cultural softening on Christmas at this time, culminating in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843. Irving and Dickens together pretty much invented the concept of celebrating Christmas in the modern English-speaking world.

We’ve wandered away from our main topic of St. Nicholas/Santa Claus. Irving had his role to play here, too. In 1809, Irving published a work of satire — A History of New York From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, which parodied self-important history texts and lampooned early 19th-century New York politics. In one portion of the book, Irving told the tale of St. Nicholas, who entered New York City on ‘St. Nicholas’ Day Eve,’ December 5, in a horse-drawn wagon to deliver gifts to children. According to Irving, he entered homes by sliding down chimneys. Although allegedly based on early New York Dutch folklore, this version of St. Nicholas was mostly from Irving’s imagination. In an updated version published in 1812, St. Nicholas and his wagon had the gift of flight.

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Irving’s St. Nicholas as envisioned by illustrator T.C. Boyd

The New York Historical Society attempted to revive December 6 as ‘St. Nicholas’ Day,’ at least in New York City, in 1810. Despite several annual attempts, it did not catch on, but the engraved invitations to the banquets sent out by the Society contributed to the visual iconography of St. Nicholas/Santa Claus and became collectors’ items. One of particular note has him standing by the hearth, with with two stockings pinned to the mantelpiece. (Later versions of the old three-bags-of-gold story has Nicholas placing the gold in the girls’ stockings which were drying by the fireplace.)

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St. Nicholas according to the NYHS. The good girl has new toys. The bad boy has a switch.

In 1821, an anonymous poem titled ‘Old Santeclaus with Much Delight’ was included by New York publisher William B. Gilley in the anthology The Children’s Friend. The illustrated poem is the first to depict Santa Claus in a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer,  and delivering his gifts on Christmas Eve, rather than St. Nicholas’ Day.

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It is likely that no one contributed more to our modern conception of Santa Claus, and divorced him more thoroughly from the old form of St. Nicholas, than Clement Clarke Moore. A prim and generally humorless professor of foreign languages and divinity, Moore would seem like the last person to increase the sum total of festiveness anywhere at any time. But inspired by Washington Irving, and likely the “Old Santeclaus” poem, over the holidays of 1822 Moore drafted a poem intended solely for the amusement of his children. He read it aloud to a small gathering of family and friends at his cousin’s house, and someone in the group was so taken with it that they requested a copy. It ended up getting anonymously published the following Christmas in the Sentinel newspaper of Troy, New York, and was an immediate hit. Moore for many years disavowed authorship, fearing that association with such a frivolous trifle would damage his reputation as a serious scholar, but finally confessed that it came from his pen in 1844 (kind of an open secret by then, since it had been extensively reprinted under his name since 1837). Moore let it go for so long that now there’s some scholarly dispute over the poem’s true authorship.

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St. Nicholas, by Robert Walker Weir, c. 1837

Sure enough, no one reads Moore’s Hebrew and English Lexicon anymore, but everyone knows his Christmas poem, ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas,’ sometimes referred to by its first line, ‘’Twas the Night Before Christmas,’ ‘arguably the best-known verses written by an American,’ according to New York historian Edwin Burrows.

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Although referred to in the title and verses as ‘St. Nicholas,’ the figure described has emerged as our collective image of ‘Santa Claus.’ Moore is the first person to describe Santa’s facial features. Broad face, round cheeks, cherry nose, snow-white beard, pipe clenched in the teeth — all stereotypical of an elderly Dutchman, and Moore supposedly based the description on his Dutch gardener. St. Nicholas, often previously illustrated as downright gaunt, now has become thick in the middle — ‘round belly’ — and the heavy coat was now fur. And his demeanor has changed. He was no longer the grave moral arbiter, emphasizing punishing bad children with switches and coal as much (if not more so) as rewarding the good. He was now jolly, with twinkling eyes and deep dimples, and whose frequent laughter convulsed his whole body.

In 1822, there was still enough uncertainty about accepting Christmas Day as a legit holiday in some areas of America, especially New England, that Moore carefully staged his action on the night before Christmas.

Moore fixed the number of Santa’s reindeer at eight, and gave them all the names we know now. Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner (‘Thunder’), and Blitzen (‘Lightning’) — all sprung from Moore’s imagination.

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Except Rudolph, of course. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a product of 20th-century marketing. The original Rudolph story, written by Robert L. May, appeared as a giveaway storybook offered by the Montgomery Ward department store beginning in 1939. It was published as a mass-market book for sale in 1947, and an animated short hit theaters the following year. Songwriter Johnny Marks wrote a song based on the story, and it was first recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. The iconic TV special aired in 1964.

Noteworthy at this point are Santa’s proportions — both Irving and Moore imagined him as quite diminutive, a mini-Claus. He slipped easily down chimneys according to Irving, and Moore repeatedly emphasized his small size. The sleigh was ‘miniature,’ the reindeer pulling it ‘tiny.’ Santa was a ‘jolly old elf.’ This small-scale visualization was continued by illustrator Thomas Nast.

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Santa Claus by Thomas Nast

Nast was the German-born resident illustrator and political cartoonist of the immensely popular New York City magazine Harper’s Weekly. Harper’s could be said to have invented the concept of a ‘magazine,’ long before the term in that context existed. (Harper’s called itself a ‘journal of civilization.’) When not skewering political corruption, boosting the Union cause during the Civil War, or reinforcing negative stereotypes of the Irish, Nast entertained Harper’s subscribers at the end of the year with a series of Christmas illustrations, often featuring Santa Claus.

From Nast’s drawing board in the latter half of the 1800s, the Santa story received the following details:

  • Santa living and working at the North Pole
  • Santa assisted by a workforce of smaller elves
  • The existence of a Mrs. Claus
  • The ‘naughty and nice’ list
  • Receiving letters from children

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Not a bad chunk of the legacy. Nast based the Santa figure in his illustrations on Moore’s poem, so he was still a somewhat petite, elf-life figure. (Note his size relative to the dogs & cats in the picture above.) Where did our strapping, six-foot, 300-pound Santa of modern imagination come from?

Look no further than a lengthy series of advertising illustrations for Coca-Cola crafted by commercial artist Haddon Sundblom. Sundblom produced dozens of pictures of Santa enjoying a cold Coke, from 1931 to 1964, helping to boost the soft drink’s sales during the cooler winter months. Sundblom also created the most popular version of the Quaker Oats Man. (And some pretty hot pin-up girls.*) While Sundblom did not ‘create’ the modern Santa as he is sometimes credited with doing, he certainly helped in re-sizing him to his modern Falstaffian proportions, and giving the expressive face described by Moore its most resonant incarnation. When you shut your eyes and picture ‘Santa Claus,’ odds are, you’re picturing Sundblom’s Santa Claus (at least I am).

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In conclusion, our current conception of Santa Claus is a very American figure. Despite a lengthy history going back to third-century Asia Minor, Santa as he appears in our mind’s eye, in our children’s books, in our advertisements, and on our TV screens is not only American, he’s a New York creation. Without Irving, Gilley, Moore, and Nast, the Saint Nicholas in any form may not have ever been popular enough to hoist a Coke in Sundblom’s ads.”

*this was not included in the lecture.

 

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