The internet has been lit up with talk of the nature of Santa Claus, especially after Megyn Kelly of Fox News declared him to be white because he "just is." But who is Santa Claus, really? I explained to my kids that Santa Claus is the spirit of anonymous giving without an expectation of gratitude or obligation. But the traditional elf who drives a sleigh pulled by reindeer -well that's a long and complicated story. The history of our Santa starts with a melding of Norse mythology and a Christian bishop from Turkey. As his legend traveled, he changed over the years. The story was solidified with the writings of Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore. But he still changed over time. Santa inevitably became an advertising icon.
Even in these early days, Santa had his vices. Always a fan of tobacco, Santa Claus was depicted endorsing dozens of cigarette brands, such as Murad, Chesterfields, Pall Malls, and Camels, in countless magazine advertisements. Because Sundblom’s artist circle included pin-up artists, it wasn’t long before Santa’s trademark fur-trimmed red coat and hat were painted on scantily clad bombshells by the likes of Gil Elvgren and Alberto Vargas. The idea that Santa just might have a sexual appetite came up in songs like 1952’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and 1953’s “Santa Baby,” the former sung by a naive child and the latter sung by a sultry Eartha Kitt. Racy ads for Mojud Hosiery in 1951 even showed Santa catching a glimpse up a woman’s skirt.
Despite what Fox News’ Megyn Kelly says, no one actually knows what skin color Nicholas of Myra had, or if he even existed in the first place. Except for the white beard, Old Saint Nick’s appearance has changed drastically throughout time. He generally took on the appearance of people in the communities who celebrated him—so because the Santa mythology had roots in Dutch, German, and British traditions, he was traditionally portrayed as an old white man.
Collectors Weekly looks at the history of Santa Claus, from Odin and St. Nicholas to this week's internet debate about his race, along with a gallery of dozens of strange images of Santa through the years.