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About this collection

There is no other icon today who represents Christmas as much as Santa Claus: the jolly, rosy, apple-cheeked, white-bearded, robust man dressed in a red suit and black boots, who glides through northern skies on a sleigh pulled by reindeer and shimmies down chimneys bearing gifts for good children on Christmas Eve.  But the Santa Claus we know today evolved from several historical and folkloric origins from many different cultures. The character of Santa Claus is a hybrid, descended from a religious figure and whose appearance has been shaped over the course of time.

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Father Christmas dates back to the 17th century in Britain, a cheerful and rotund bearded man, dressed in a long green fur-lined robe. He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas. The historical Saint Nicholas, a third century Christian bishop and secret gift giver, was revered among Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox Christians who brought the tradition to the new world.   Dutch settlers also brought the character of Sinterklaas, based on St. Nicholas, to America. The names of Father Christmas and St. Nicholas remain but the popular name of Santa Claus -- a direct derivation from the Dutch Sinterklaas—is most familiar today.

These diverse folkloric images have merged and today’s Santa remains a prominent symbol of Christmas.  He is an embodiment of the American holiday and religious culture. He is an ever-present source of good will and charity, awe and wonder bundled into a colorful human likeness.

Santa in America

In 1804 the New York Historical Society presented woodcuts as gifts etched with an illustration of St. Nicholas, stockings filled with toys, and fruit hung over a fireplace.  The 19th century evolution of the American Santa Claus was also influenced by the poem, The Night Before Christmas. In this well-known poem, first published in 1823 and attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, the roly-poly, sleigh-riding, gift-bearing image of Santa is depicted:

“Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:

He was dress'd all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnish'd with ashes and soot;

A bundle of toys was flung on his back,

And he look'd like a peddler just opening his pack:

His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

Forty years later, American illustrator, political cartoonist and Morristown resident Thomas Nast (1840-1902) began drawing Christmas portraits of the apple-cheeked character for Harper's Weekly.  Nast depicted Santa as a rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard, carrying a sack filled with toys for well-behaved children. It is Nast who gave Santa his bright red suit trimmed with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves, and his wife, Mrs. Claus.  In the 1930s, commercial artist Haddon Sundblom portrayed Santa Claus as a portly, happy and wholesome man dressed in red for advertisements with the Coca-Cola company….which forever changed our image of Santa.

This collection of postcards from early 20th century reveals a Santa Claus who at once is instantly identifiable and also unfamiliar to our modern eyes.  His jacket is not limited to the cherry-red suit with a black belt and brass buckle, but appears in an assortment of rich, gemstone hues, sapphire blues and regal purples, cinched at the waist with a gold brocade rope. His robe was fur-trimmed and long and his hat resembles a papal red velvet cap edged with fur and embellished with holly leaves and berries  He also is shown as a humble worker, building toys in his workshop, or an elf like character, delivering gifts.

What is most compelling of this collection of postcards that were lovingly mailed between the late 19th and early 20th centuries is their picturesque vision of America’s rich cultural legacy. There are children tucked into cozy beds dreaming of Santa and others playing old fashioned games with Santa, and some quietly reading books with Santa.  Babies dressed in bonnets sit on Santa’s knee; and polar bears from the North Pole pull Santa’s sleigh--reindeers hadn’t quite made it into the Christmas iconography. Uncle Sam shaking hands with Santa represents American pride.  Santa also rides a blimp, decorated with an American Flag. The excitement of technology can be seen in postcards where Santa is using the still new innovation, the telephone, chatting with a small child. There is an innocence and wintry sense of nostalgia in this collection of Americana available online for you to enjoy “with all good wishes.”

The North Jersey History Center at the Morristown and Morris Township Free Public Library.

(In memory of Kemper Chambers, 1927-2010)

These postcards are part of a larger collection that was donated to The North Jersey History and Genealogy Center by Mr. Chambers.

Born in Morris Township, Kemper Chambers was a lifelong resident of Morristown. For years, he was known to residents as “Mr. Santa”—he was well known for appearing as Santa at many Morristown events.  He was a graduate of Morristown High School, and was involved in many local history projects. He was instrumental in indexing the church records of St. Peter's and the Redeemer Church and was a member of Morris Area Genealogy Society and the Morris County Historical Society. He also volunteered at Morristown-Morris Township Joint Public Library beginning in 1970, and was the historian for Evergreen cemetery.

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