As soon as Thanksgiving is over, Santa’s villages begin popping up in malls and outdoor shopping centers across the country. There is so much excitement surrounding this once-a-year notion of getting all dressed up and stand in line for an unreasonable amount of time in order to get that shot. That shot being your toddler to around 8-year-old self is sitting on Santa’s lap and pleading one’s case for the toy of the moment. Wasn’t this information that he already knew given the whole warning about his double-checking, list making ways?
Not to mention, he has to deliver gifts around the world in a single night. Nevermind the cookies and milk; leave out a couple Red Bulls and a B-12 shot.
Now an adult, and now having an understanding of what goes into this yearly holiday production, I have come to respect the work that goes into pulling off the Santa Claus photo op. These companies aren’t just picking any old Santa Claus that wanders off the street (more on that later). Taking pictures with Santa, and we all have at least one, continues to be a wildly popular photography opportunity for families during the holiday season. However, the question remains as to how (and why) this photo op has become an American holiday tradition.
Let’s have a look.
Long, long ago in modern day Turkey…
The legend of St. Nicholas begins in…280 A.D. in modern-day Turkey. According to History.com, St. Nick was a monk whose unmatched piety and kindness made him a legend. The figure of St. Nick then evolved into the protector of children and, by the Renaissance period (around 1300-1600), was recorded as being the most popular Saint in Europe.
He even has his own holiday, St. Nicholas Day, meant both to celebrate his life and mark the day of his death: December 6, 343 AD.
New York, New York
So, how did we get from Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus? History.com uncovered that his modern identity actually comes from the Dutch translation of St. Nicholas, or Sinter Klaas. The first mention of this name can be found in a New York newspaper reporting on Dutch families conducting December 6 celebrations. Business would begin to submit Christmas or holiday shopping advertisements to newspapers (featuring images of Santa Claus) around 1840.
The Salvation Army in New York, just before the turn of the 20th century, got the idea to send Santa Claus (or several) to get donations.
As for Santa making personal appearances, Wikipedia credits entrepreneur James Edgar, who first dressed up as Santa Claus in 1890 to attract people to come into his store. One word got out that Santa was hanging out in Brockton, Massachusetts, parents as far as Boston would get the kids and take a train to see Santa.
The set up that is now familiar to today’s public used to take pictures (including Santa himself and a couple seasonal supporting cast members) was first used in 1918.
The North Pole, Rudolph & Santa Tracking
From a child’s point of view, there’s no mystery as to why Santa is such a big deal. Aside from bringing little ones their most coveted gifts as they sleep, popular culture has made Santa, not to mention his supporting cast of characters that help get the Christmas Eve job done, a holiday superstar. Here a just a few reasons:
Letters to Santa
Back in the day, newspapers would collect letters written by children (and addressed to Santa in the North Pole) and print them. That way, for some reason, if a letter didn’t make it to its far away destination, surely Santa read The Star Tribune or The Desert Sun. Furthermore, 2016 marks the 104th year that the United States Postal Service has answered letters to Santa.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
In my humble opinion, no holiday is complete without watching the 1964 stop-motion animated classic. But, our favorite reindeer’s first appearance actually came decades before. In 1939, Rudolph made his debut in a booklet written by Robert L. May and published by department store, Montgomery Ward.
Santa’s sleigh has GPS, right?
Only the Best Make the Cut
What makes this whole idea of meeting Santa (and having the photograph to prove it) is Santa himself. This, simply put, is a process; Not just any old Santa will do.
A Family Tradition
While most of us may have a few photos with Santa from our early years, some see this holiday photo op as not only a holiday tradition, but a family tradition. For instance, two brothers have taken photos with Santa for 34 years. The photographs chronicle the brothers evolution from babies, to boys, to young men, to young fathers.
And, in Seattle, one family has taken photos with Santa for 60 consecutive years. With the first photo taken in 1955, this family has captured the arrival of new generations.
From holiday starstruck kids to adults honoring tradition, Santa, over the years, has become an extended part of the American family. So, embrace those photos from your youth, for it’s a moment in time that, especially when one reaches the frenzy that is adulthood, you can always look back on.