Santa Claus’ origins date all the way back to the 4th century when the Christian bishop Saint Nicholas was alive. He was renowned within the Roman Empire for his covert gift giving. The story goes that he tossed gold down the chimney of three poor sisters – where it landed in a stocking drying by the fire.
So how did the jolly, white-bearded image of Santa that we know come to be? And how are people depicting him today?
The evolution of Saint Nick
Saint Nicholas’ feast day fell on December 6th and was popular throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Although his popularity waned with the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, he remained popular in Holland – where he was known as Sinterklaas.
300 years later, when huge numbers of Dutch migrated to the US, they brought this tradition with them. This eventually gave way to the modern idea of Santa Claus, which was greatly influenced by Clement Clarke Moore’s poem ‘The Night Before Christmas’ – which was originally entitled ‘A visit from St. Nicholas’.
During the American Civil War, cartoonist Thomas Nast created images to match the poem, drawing an elfish old man with rosy cheeks and a round belly. His Santa Claus also supported the Union – which wanted to end slavery.
Nast portrayed Santa for over 30 years, adding a red coat and hat along the way. His work inspired Coca Cola’s advertisements in the 1920s – the ones we’re still familiar with today.
Three modern portrayals of Santa that break the mould
New images of Santa Claus continue to emerge all the time. Ordinary people have pushed the boundaries to create a narrative that fits their reality, while advertisers have sought to create more inclusive and diverse representations too.
Here are three examples worth knowing about:
1. When Harry Met Santa
Last month, the Norwegian Postal Service – Posten Norge – released a four-minute film entitled ‘When Harry Met Santa’.
It portrays a gay Santa Claus who falls for Harry while delivering presents on his route. After Santa disappears up the chimney, Harry sends him a heartfelt letter. So Santa returns to spend Christmas with him the following year. (To take time off, he hands his route over to Posten Norge.)
The state-owned postal service created the video to mark the anniversary of Norway’s decriminalisation of same-sex relationships. It ends with the message: “In 2022, Norway marks 50 years of being able to love whoever we want.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a gay Santa Claus. Over the years, there have been a number of viral videos depicting lesbian and gay santas. But this is the first time he’s appeared so prominently in the mainstream media.
2. “Santa Claus has HIV – fa la la la la”
Mark Woodley loved playing the role of Santa at Macy’s 34th Street store in New York. “I’ve never been so loved,” he says in an interview with StoryCorps – a non-profit that collects oral histories.
However, when he returned to reprise the role in 1991, he disclosed that he was taking anti-HIV medication and antidepressants. Suddenly, he wasn’t rehired.
Woodley, who had been diagnosed with HIV two years earlier and had recently lost a friend to AIDs, decided to sue the store. And when AIDs activist group ACT UP heard about his case, they decided to take action.
30 years ago, on a busy Black Friday, 22 Santas stormed Macy’s to fight for AIDs awareness. They sat in a circle on the floor and chained themselves together. Excited shoppers gathered to see what was happening and the Santas began to sing: “Santa Claus has HIV. Fa la la la la, la la la la. Macy’s won’t rehire he. Fa la la la la, la la la la”.
On Black Friday 1991, AIDS activists dressed up as Santa Claus and flooded Macy’s to protest the store’s refusal to rehire a Santa who had HIV.
— NPR (@NPR) December 11, 2021
But their carols didn’t last long. Irishman Paul O’Dwyer, a member of ACT UP and founder of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, was with the group handing out leaflets. As he recalls it: “The security guards had these huge big giant shears that could cut chains… Then all these little kids started screaming, ‘No! They’re killing Santa!’”
19 Santas were arrested that day and O’Dwyer, who is now an immigration lawyer, represented them in court. In an interview for the ACT UP Oral History project, he remembers the judge’s disbelief when asking questions and says it was one of his favourite cases.
As for Mark Woodley, his case with Macy’s settled out of court and he donned the red suit again to visit children at paediatric AIDS clinics.
3. Mother Christmas
The first female Santas date back to the 1930s – when two different women hit the headlines in Australia for stepping into the traditionally male role.
But during World War II, they became increasingly common, according to Smithsonian Magazine. When women were filling roles previously reserved for men, department stores and charities in the US began hiring women to be Santa too. They popped up around the country, as well as in Australia and England.
The trend continued to generate headlines though. ‘Woman Santa Claus Makes Bostonians Stare’ wrote The New York Times. and ‘The manpower shortage has even hit old Saint Nick’ stated the Associated Press.
Once the war ended, the old status quo was quickly reinstated. Since then, there have been many cases of women Santas being hired and fired. In 1972, 1995 and 1999 female Santas in the US were dismissed because of complaints. Two tried to sue their employers for discrimination, but both lost their cases.
However, the tide is turning once again. In the US state of Arkansas, the Professional Traditional Bearded Santas recently welcomed their only female member – and first unbearded one. Two years ago, a shopping mall in Pennsylvania hired a transgender Santa. And Apple recently released a gender neutral Santa emoji as part of its digital diversity campaign.
A 2018 poll of 4,000 people in the US and the UK also found that many people are open to the idea too. If they could change Santa to suit modern society, 11% said they’d opt for a female one and 17% a gender neutral one. So we may soon see more female Santas.
Book your tickets to visit EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum.