A Visit from St. Nicholas
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
Everyone believes in Santa, but few count themselves lucky enough to have seen him. For those blessed few of you, did you notice something odd? His red cloth jacket and pants, and black leather boots, were nowhere to be seen. He was dressed, from head to toe, in nothing but fur!
Something most Santa fans don’t know is that his true appearance, and character, were not discovered until the early 19th century, with New York the centre of enlightenment.
Historically, Saint Nicholas was depicted as a stern holy man, and this tradition was exported to New York by Dutch colonialists. But a group of writers and scholars, led by Washington Irving in his 1809 book A History of New-York, began to question Santa’s dour image. What they discovered would rock the world, and especially the Dutch. Christmas would never be the same again!
Far from being a mirthless humbug who punished naughty children with the rod, Santa was a jolly fellow who delivered presents down chimneys from a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
In 1823, Clement Moore of New York’s Protestant Episcopal Church described Santa in more detail than ever before. In A Visit from St. Nicholas (aka Twas the Night Before Christmas), Moore said that Santa’s “cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry,” his beard was “white as snow”, and his belly “shook like a bowl full of jelly”. What’s more:
He was dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot
And why not? Given that Santa spends the whole night flying around in the dead of winter, fur is the logical choice.
Then along came Thomas Nast, “Father of the American Cartoon”, who churned out so many depictions of Santa, he ended up making a book of them. Through the pages of New York-based magazine Harper’s Weekly, he also had nationwide reach.
Nast’s problem was that he had never seen Santa, and considered A Visit from St. Nicholas a work of fiction.
Like a young girl dressing her Barbie doll, Nast decided Santa needed a complete wardrobe. He might go for sheared fur, or no fur at all, but it was his red cloth outfits with Arctic fox trim that captured the public imagination. Though Santa has never been seen in such an outfit, we’re now supposed to believe that’s all he ever wears!
Well, now you know better 🙂 Which leaves just one question: what type of fur does Santa wear?
Of course, no one knows what he prefers when at home, but as a reindeer-herder, reindeer fur seems an obvious choice. Nothing beats it for warmth.
But early illustrators of A Visit from St. Nicholas chose to depict Santa in fur resembling muskrat. There are two reasons to believe they got it right.
Firstly, reindeer fur is very bulky, and therefore ill-suited to sliding down chimneys.
Secondly, muskrat was the most popular fur in New York at the time. Perhaps Santa was just trying to blend in!
Merry Christmas to all from Truth About Fur, and, of course, from Santa!