I came across an 1838 painting called Saint Nicholas by Robert Walter Weir in this month’s Smithsonian magazine. Let’s just say it’s not the image of Santa Claus that most of us conjure today. The painting shows a trickster character, elfish with a mischievous (almost malicious) expression and clothes that honor the Old Dutch inhabitants of Weir’s native New York. Of course, Weir’s depiction is largely overshadowed by the earlier work of Clement C. Moore, whose “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (which most of us know by the first line, “Twas the night before Christmas”) gave us the more lasting vision of a chubby, jolly Santa Claus. American artists like Thomas Nast and Norman Rockwell played with this newer representation as well and helped develop our iconic Santa Claus. That picture cemented its place in American popular culture with the 1931 Coca Cola ads, where artist Haddon Sundblom permanently ensconced the fat, bearded man in a red suit as the singular Santa.
As much as I find Weir’s painting disquieting, I think I prefer his Knickerbocker troublemaker to the ubiquitous Santa we see in every mall today. I like the references to a part of American history rooted in cultural mingling as opposed to consumerism (selling more magazines, newspapers, and soda pop — all of which seem tame in comparison to the way we exploit Santa today). I like the impishness of Weir’s Saint Nicholas as set in opposition to the perfection of the Christ child, where today we have a saccharine-sweet, bland Santa whom adults use for bribery and children see as a blank check. Most of all, I like remembering the roots of Nicholas’ saint’s day — celebrated on December 6 — as a fun cultural artifact and an opportunity for gift-giving that is separate from Christmas Day. It seems in conflating Santa and Christmas, we’ve lost both the personality of Saint Nicholas and the meaning of Christmas Day.