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Origins …
By Mark Bly


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A Visit from Saint Nicholas
A Visit from Saint Nicholas,1862. Created by F.O.C. Darley. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

January 3, 1863 cover of Harper's Weekly

January 3, 1863, cover of Harper's Weekly, one of the first depictions of Santa Claus. Created by Thomas Nast. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Christmas 1862, New York City: Memories from earlier that year of Civil War battles – Fredericksburg, Shiloh and Antietam – were in the air. The New York Times commented that Christmas 1862 was “…the dampest, warmest, muggiest and most burdened with mingled feelings of joy and grief.” But according to American journalist James S. Robbins, “The 1862 season saw an important cultural milestone, the emergence of the modern image of Santa Claus. Famed illustrator FOC Darley published an edition of Clement Clark Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’) featuring drawings of Santa as a plump man with a pipe, furry coat and pointed hat. Thomas Nast, who in the late 19th Century produced what came to be regarded as the definitive representations of St. Nick, published his first Santa drawing in Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863. “Santa Claus In Camp” showed a star-spangled Santa and his reindeer handing out presents to jubilant soldiers.”

In New York, R.H. Macy Company played a key part in the introduction of Santa Claus as a cultural icon by becoming the first department store to feature an in-store Santa Claus during the Christmas holidays. By 1870 Macy’s attracted shoppers with illuminated window displays establishing a tradition that quickly spread across the country. Nearly 125 years later in New York, David Sedaris applied to work as an elf in Macy’s Herald Square Santaland Village. Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries has become a cult classic as it chronicles his comic misadventures as Crumpet the Elf at the height of the holiday crunch. 

I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.” – Shirley Temple
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