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10 Surprising Early Versions of Santa Claus

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Antiques // Public Domain

Big belly, red fur coat, beard; the image of Santa Claus has been pretty firmly set for much of the 20th century. But Santa used to look quite different from the familiar fellow we know today. He used to be skinny, then he was tiny, and in some cases he rode in a flying blimp or wore a three-cornered hat. So the next time you hear the tune “Here Comes Santa Claus,” try imagining if one of these alternative early Santas showed up instead.

1. THE ORIGINAL ST. NICK

St. Nicholas Center // Public Domain

Gaunt, bald, barefoot, and decked out in ecclesiastical robes (complete with halo above his head), this version of St. Nicholas looks nothing like the jolly fat man we know as “Santa Claus.” But in fact, this was the first image of the character in the United States. Commissioned by New-York Historical Society co-founder John Pintard for that organization’s annual St. Nicholas feast day dinner (held December 6, 1810—December 25 wouldn’t become Santa’s day until years later), the image was meant to help the attendees venerate this virtuous patron saint of sailors and travelers. Pintard hoped New Yorkers would embrace St. Nick’s moral example as a tribute to the city’s old Dutch heritage, perhaps even elevating the figure to patron saint of Gotham. Pintard would fail in this mission, but the character he introduced to the U.S. would have arguably greater impact on New York, and the country as a whole.

2. BIRCH STICK SANTA

St. Nicholas Center // Public Domain

This “Santeclaus” appears in the first known picture book featuring the character—1821’s The Children’s Friend, published by William Gilley. This Santa is a bit more fun than Pintard’s: He rides a sleigh driven by a single reindeer (inspired by Washington Irving’s satirical description in his 1809 A History of New-York, in which St. Nick gets around on a flying wagon); rather than a halo, he wears a furry hat—and a smile. But lest one think this guy is all fun and gifts, note that stick held in his right hand. Santa was still chiefly a disciplinarian, who leaves a “long, black birchen rod” in children’s stockings, urging parents to use it “When virtue’s path his sons refuse.”

3. SNEAKY ST. NICK

St. Nicholas Center // Public Domain

This mischievous fellow, completed by artist Robert Walter Weir around 1838, is a far cry from the upright bishop of the early 1800s. He more closely resembles the goofy version of St. Nicholas that Irving described in A History of New-York, who smoked a clay pipe, and while “laying a finger beside his nose” rode over treetops in a flying wagon, bringing gifts to the children of New York.

It was Irving’s figure that inspired Clement Clarke Moore’s version of a “right jolly old elf” in his poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” with twinkling eyes, and the appearance of “a pedler just opening his pack,” and which also clearly inspired Weir here. The kind, jolly version of Santa would win out in the next decades, but these more puckish takes on the character were once the norm.

4. P.T. BARNUM’S SANTA

Antiques // Public Domain

This is a particularly weird example of the playful versions of Santa that would be replaced soon enough. When Swedish singer Jenny Lind toured the U.S. in 1850, her promoter, P.T. Barnum, created this pamphlet (along with a variety of other Lind-related merchandise) to help generate interest in her shows. While the pamphlet describes Santa as a fellow with pockets full of presents who flies down the chimney, little else resembles the modern version of Santa. He wears a three-cornered hat and looks like an 18th-century patriot. He rides with Lind on a broomstick and goes up to a mountaintop, declaring, “I am dancing a jig, I am having a freak.” Barnum’s Santa reflects how undefined the character remained through the mid-1800s.   

5. THOMAS NAST’S TINY SANTA

Thomas Nast's Christmas Drawings For The Human Race via Archive.org // Public Domain

Thomas Nast, bane of New York’s Tammany machine and creator of the elephant as a symbol for the Republican Party, is among the greatest political cartoonists in American history. But perhaps his most influential works are his illustrations of St. Nicholas. Beginning in 1863 and continuing for about a quarter-century, Nast drew annual Christmas illustrations for Harper’s Weekly, featuring the jolly Santa engaged in all sorts of activities: taking phone calls, bringing gifts to Union soldiers, or racing Mother Goose.

The popularity and wide circulation of these illustrations has led to Nast being credited as the one person who firmed up the modern image of Santa. But not all of his works look like the figure we recognize today. In a number of illustrations, Santa is very short—taking the “elf” description in Moore’s poem to the extreme, Santa is depicted as a head or two shorter than the children to whom he was bringing gifts. In this image, Nast takes him even smaller, making Santa and an assortment of other nursery-rhyme characters miniature.

6. L. FRANK BAUM’S YOUNG SANTA

Bauman Rare Books // Public Domain

By the 20th century, Santa’s personality and characteristics were largely defined. But little had been said about his past. Sure, there was the historic Saint Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra with a rich mythology of his own. But by the 1900s, Santa Claus was so far removed from this religious progenitor that he merited an origin story of his own. L. Frank Baum, the mind behind the Wizard of Oz series, took a crack at it with his 1902 book The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, offering up an imaginative biography of the North Pole dweller. He describes how baby Claus was found abandoned in the forest of Burzee, was adopted by Ak the Master Woodsman, kidnapped by the evil army of the Awgwas, and befriended the reindeer Flossie and Glossie. It’s a wild tale, and includes some odd illustrations of Santa as an infant and young man, dressed more like Fred Flintstone than St. Nick. 

7. SANTA AND HIS FLYING MACHINE 

Via Smithsonian Magazine // Public Domain

A sleigh is so passé. That was the conclusion of some illustrators during the late 19th century and early 20th century, when they began drawing Santa on postcards, magazines, and advertisements in futuristic (for the era) flying machines. An illustration in the December 1922 issue of Science and Invention depicted a radio-obsessed boy dreaming of Santa arriving with gifts of radio parts in an elaborate contraption resembling a blimp. A postcard from 1908 shows Santa in his version of a hot-air balloon with “Merry Christmas” emblazoned on the side. This motif popped up throughout this era, but the sleigh proved far more enduring. 

8. SEXY SANTA CLAUS 

Wikimedia // Public Domain

Puck, a satirical magazine that published out of New York City during the 19th and early 20th centuries, featured Santa on their cover a number of times. He looks much like the Santa who became widely adopted as the definitive character, but the unusual part is less about how Santa looks than what he is doing. In the image above, illustrated by Australian artist Frank A. Nankivell, he is enjoying the affections of two beautiful women who look nothing like Mrs. Claus. In another, from Christmas 1905, Santa is getting up close and personal with a comely blonde.

9. STICKUP SANTA

Print Collection // Public Domain

On its 1912 cover, illustrated by Will Crawford, Puck featured Santa pointing a handgun at the viewer, with the caption “Hands Up! As Santa Claus Looks to Some of Us.” The illustration satirizes the concerns expressed by many at this time about how Christmas giving had gotten out of control. This was the same year that saw the launch of SPUG—the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, with members including Teddy Roosevelt, who protested the expectation that individuals were supposed to buy gifts for an ever-expanding list of friends, family, and acquaintances.

10. SMOKING SANTA 

University of Kentucky // Public Domain

Coca-Cola is erroneously credited with “creating Santa,” and while that’s not the case, they did help spread his image far and wide through ubiquitous print advertisements and billboards. But while the soft drink company was and continues to be one of the most prominent users of Santa as a pitchman, he has also graced ads for more products than could fit in his sack—including some made by Big Tobacco. He has appeared on print ads for Marlboro, Pall Mall, Camel, and many others.

Oobject rounded up a handful of these mid-20th century images. While the kid-friendly promotion of smoking is in poor taste, it should be noted that Santa was a smoker in his earliest iterations, puffing on a clay pipe in Irving’s A History of New-York and “the stump of a pipe” in Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” But Santa has since kicked the habit, so the only smoky smell on his suit now is from chimney soot.

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Warner Home Video
25 Things to Look for While Watching the 24-Hour A Christmas Story Marathon
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Warner Home Video

You’ve probably seen A Christmas Story enough times that you never really need to watch it again. But watch it you will. And enjoy it, too. Even though you know every twist and turn it will take for our young hero Ralphie to finally get his hands on his much-desired Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle. (An item he repeats 28 times throughout the film’s 94-minute running time; you could make an eggnog drinking game out of that.) 

This Christmas, when you inevitably tune into catch at least one airing of Bob Clark’s holiday classic during TBS’ 24-hour marathon, we’ve got a way for you to watch A Christmas Story in a whole new light: by keeping your eyes—and ears—peeled for these 25 blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em gaffes, anachronisms, and other fun facts that make watching the classic film an entirely new experience. 

1. RALPHIE DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO SPELL “CHRISTMAS.”

At least it doesn’t appear that way when he gets his Christmas theme—or shall we call it a Chistmas theme—back from Mrs. Shields, who also didn’t notice that the “R” is missing from the word.

2. JEAN SHEPHERD MAKES AN ON-SCREEN APPEARANCE.

If the voice of the man who brusquely informs Ralphie and Randy that the line to sit on Santa’s lap begins about two miles further back than they had anticipated sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the voice of the narrator, a.k.a. Adult Ralphie, who also happens to be Jean Shepherd, the man upon whose short stories the film itself is based. The woman behind Shepherd is his wife, Leigh Brown.

3. BOB CLARK JOINS IN THE CAMEO FUN.

Not to be outdone, director Bob Clark pops up in front of the camera, too, as Ralphie’s neighbor, Swede. He’s the guy who seems awfully curious about how Ralphie’s dad managed to snag himself a leg lamp. When The Old Man Parker informs him that it’s a Major Award, Swede responds: “Shucks, I wouldn’t know that. It looks like a lamp."

4. RALPHIE’S DAD IS NEVER GIVEN A NAME.

Over the years, a gaggle of sharp-eared A Christmas Story fans have pointed out that in Bob Clark’s scene, Ralphie’s dad is given a name: Hal. This is because they believed that in the brief exchange between the two neighbors, Swede asks of the leg lamp, “Damn Hal, you say you won it?” But a quick confer with the film’s original screenplay confirms that Swede’s actual query is, “Damn, hell, you say you won it?”

5. SPEAKING OF THE LEG LAMP…

The continuity folks must have been taking a coffee break during the unveiling of the leg lamp. Watch closely as the amount of packing debris covering The Old Man’s back and head changes from shot to shot. In one shot, his back is covered in the stuff; cut back and there’s nothing there.

6. IS THE LEG LAMP REALLY A LAMP?

In addition to being stumped by the word “fragile,” The Old Man—and the rest of the family—is initially confused as to what the leg’s purpose is. Is it a statue? (“Yeah, statue!”) One can’t blame them, as there’s no electrical cord to be seen. It’s just a leg. Yet, once the lampshade is discovered, the Parker clan is magically able to plug that titillating little fixture right in. 

7. ONE FINAL THING ABOUT THE LEG LAMP…

After witnessing the moment that Ralphie explains would become “a family controversy for years”—the breaking of the leg lamp—Mrs. Parker balks at her husband’s accusation that she would be jealous of a plastic lamp. But just moments before the “accident” in question, we hear the sound of breaking glass. And lots of it. Plastic doesn’t sound (or break) like that.

8. IS IT TORONTO OR IS IT INDIANA?

Though the film is set in Hohman, Indiana—a fictionalized town based on Shepherd’s hometown of Hammond, Indiana—parts of the film were shot in Toronto. This becomes apparent in some of the outdoor scenes, such as when the family is shopping for a Christmas tree, as one of the Toronto Transit Commission’s signature red trolley cars zooms by.

9. BOLTS VERSUS NUTS.

We all remember Ralphie’s reaction when his attempt to help his father fix a flat tire goes terribly awry. But here’s a fun fact that only true motorheads would pick up on: In the scene, Ralphie’s dad implores him to hold the hubcap horizontally so that he can put the “nuts” in it. But the 1938 Oldsmobile that he’s driving actually uses removable bolts. A fact that Shepherd confirms in his narration of the scene when he recalls that, “For one brief moment I saw all the bolts silhouetted against the lights of the traffic—and then they were gone.” Oh, fudge!

10. SCOTT SCHWARTZ IS NOT SCHWARTZ. BUT HE IS.

Ralphie’s two best friends are Schwartz, played by R.D. Robb, and Flick, played by Scott Schwartz. As if this tale of two Schwartzes weren’t confusing enough, when Ralphie tells his mom that it’s Schwartz who taught him how to drop the F-bomb, Mrs. Parker immediately calls the boy’s mother. But the voice we hear of fictional Schwartz taking a whooping is actually the voice of Scott Schwartz. Got it?

11. SCHWARTZ’S WHEREABOUTS.

Immediately following his unceremonious (and totally false) ratting out of his buddy, Ralphie remembers how “three blocks away, Schwartz was getting his.” In the original story, that may have very well been the case. But the film’s production called for Schwartz’s home to be just a few doors down from Ralphie’s, as we see as the kids walk to school together. Not three blocks away.

12. RALPHIE’S NOT A VERY GOOD LISTENER.

Ralphie felt understandably ripped off when, after weeks of waiting for his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, the first message he decoded was simply an advertisement for Ovaltine. But he’s lucky he could decipher the message at all, because a few of the numbers that he wrote down don’t match the numbers that announcer Pierre Andre broadcast, most notably the last one; Pierre said 25, Ralphie wrote 11.

13. UPPERCASE OR LOWERCASE?

Perhaps it’s that very error above that made it necessary for Ralphie to decode Annie’s message on at least two pieces of paper. How do we know that? Check out the difference in the “E” in the word “Be.” In the earlier shot, it’s an uppercase E; in the final message, the letter is lowercase. We’re on to you, Ralphie. 

14. FOR A SPORTS FAN, OLD MAN PARKER DOESN’T KNOW SPORTS.

Though the exact year of A Christmas Story’s setting is never stated, many of its context clues—including the makes and models of the cars we see and the popularity of The Wizard of Oz and Little Orphan Annie—put its year around 1939 or 1940. Yet in the beginning of the film, Mr. Parker becomes irate after reading in the paper that the White Sox “traded Bullfrog.” But the White Sox never traded Bill “Bullfrog” Dietrich, though they did release him on September 18, 1946, which would make this comment six years premature. He also refers to the Chicago Bears as the “Terror of the Midway,” when in fact their nickname is “Monsters of the Midway.”

15. THE CASE OF THE MYSTERIOUS LEVERS.

Old Man Parker seems to have a lot of non-human enemies—his car, the Bumpus hounds, and a seemingly possessed furnace among them. In one scene, The Old Man yells upstairs for someone to open the damper, which Mom does rather reluctantly. But watch closely when the camera cuts back to the levers, which are in the opposite position as Mom set them just seconds earlier.

16. DIVERSITY AS AN ANACHRONISM.

By the time A Christmas Story was released in 1983, racial segregation in Indiana public schools was a thing 34 years in the past. But if Ralphie’s story takes place any time before 1949, he would not have had any African American classmates, as he does in the film.

17. THE ROTATING BANANA.

Hoping to score some extra points with his teacher, Ralphie presents Mrs. Shields with the world’s largest fruit basket. It’s so large, in fact, that its individual pieces of fruit seem to have a mind of their own. Watch the way the banana shifts position each time the camera cuts back to Ralphie.

18. A DRAWER FULL OF UNIMAGINABLE MISCHIEF.

Ralphie and his classmates are a troublemaking lot. And when they decide to launch a classroom-wide prank in which they’re all wearing a set of false teeth, Mrs. Shields is well-prepared. She’s got a drawer full of pranks past, including a pair of chattering teeth … a gag gift that wasn’t actually invented until 1949.

19. SPEAKING OF TOOTHY ANACHRONISMS…

In his attempts to make Ralphie’s life a living hell, we get an up-close view of the braces worn by Scut the bully. They’re the kind that are directly bonded to the front of his teeth, a process that wasn’t invented until the 1970s. Until then, metal braces were wrapped around the teeth.

20. THREE-BARREL HINGED GLASSES WEREN’T A THING EITHER.

After nearly shooting his eye out on Christmas morning, Ralphie steps on his own glasses, revealing them to use a three-barrel hinge connector, which would not have been possible until the 1980s.

21. RALPHIE SHOOTS THREE TIMES, HITS FOUR.

When Ralphie is forced to defend his family against the rascally Black Bart (in his own imagination), he shoots three bad guys before his nemesis Bart escapes. But when the pile of bad guys is shown with their eyes X’ed out, there are four of them.

22. A VERY BING CHRISTMAS.

On Christmas morning, the Parkers kick back with that most classic of Christmas albums—Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas—in the background. As cherished a tradition as that may be, the album wasn’t released until 1945.

23. A BOWLING BALL FOR CHRISTMAS.

Old Man Parker is thrilled when his wife gifts him with a shiny new blue bowling ball for Christmas. There’s just one problem: colored bowling balls weren’t introduced until the 1960s. 

24. MELINDA DILLION GETS TOP BILLING.

Getting top billing must have been quite a thrill for actress Melinda Dillon… until the actual credits rolled and her name was spelled incorrectly!

25. FLASH GORDON GETS CREDIT, TOO.

Keep watching the end credits roll and you’ll see Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless among the names that scroll by. Though it never made the final cut, the credits for an additional fantasy sequence in which Ralphie and his trusty firearm help Flash Gordon face off against Ming remain.

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7 Christmas Foods of Yesteryear 
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iStock

Over the centuries, yuletide revelers have enjoyed far different culinary fare than we do today. Here are seven Christmas dishes of yesteryear that are sure to confuse—or tantalize—your taste buds.

1. PEACOCK

 
During the Medieval ages, some wealthy Europeans dined on peacock at Christmas dinner. The colorful, plumed bird was often baked into a pie, or roasted with its head and tail still intact. Adding to the flamboyant display, the peacock’s feathers were reattached (or the skinned bird was placed back inside its intact skin), and its tail feathers were fully fanned out.

Peacocks likely looked impressive on a banquet table, but the meat reportedly tasted terrible. “It was tough and coarse, and was criticized by physicians for being difficult to digest and for generating bad humors,” author Melitta Weiss Adamson writes in her book Food in Medieval Times. “To make the meat more easily digestible, it was recommended to hang the slaughtered bird overnight by its neck and weigh down the legs with stones.”

In addition to peacock, swans and geese were also on the Christmas menu. But by the 1520s, another roast delicacy—turkey—had been introduced to Great Britain. Explorer William Strickland is credited with bringing the turkey from the New World to England, and King Henry VIII was reportedly one of the first people to enjoy the new bird for Christmas dinner. Edward VII is said to have made the meal trendy.

2. BOAR'S HEAD

An illustration by St. J. Gilbert of a man holding a boar's head on a platter that was published in a Christmas supplement to the Illustrated London News in 1855. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 
In Medieval and Tudor England, wealthy parties celebrated Christmas by feasting on boar's head. The boar's head "formed the centrepiece of the Christmas Day meal," writes Alison Sim, author of Food and Feast in Tudor England (as quoted by the Food Timeline). "It was garnished with rosemary and bay and evidently was presented to the diners with some style, as told by the many boar's head carols which still exist."

One English Christmas carol, dating back to the 15th century, is actually called the "Boar's Head Carol." Its lyrics include lines like "The boar's head, as I understand/Is the rarest dish in all this land/Which thus bedecked with a gay garland/Let us servire cantico (serve with a song)." You can listen to a version here.

3. OYSTER STEW

iStock

 
Today, oysters are a delicacy, but for early Americans who settled along the East Coast, they were a plentiful and nutritious food source. People enjoyed them in stuffing, roasts, and chowder—and 19th-century Irish-American immigrants used them to make a traditional Christmas Eve stew.

Most of these Irish transplants were Catholic, and their religious traditions required them to skip the meat on Christmas Eve. Instead, they enjoyed a soup made from dried ling cod—a common fish back in the Old Country—milk, butter, and pepper. But since Irish Americans couldn’t find dried ling cod in America, they substituted it with fresh, canned, pickled, or dried oysters.

4. MINCEMEAT PIES

iStock

 
Historians trace mincemeat pie (also called mince pie) back to the 11th century, when Crusaders returned from faraway lands with spices. These spices worked as a preservative, so they were baked into pies containing finely chopped meat, dried fruits, and other ingredients.

Mincemeat pies eventually became associated with Christmas. Bakers added three spices to their pies—cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg—to represent the three gifts the Magi gave the baby Jesus. The pies were also baked into the shape of Jesus’s manger, and a model of the Christ Child was placed on top. People believed that eating a mincemeat pie on each of the 12 Days of Christmas (December 25 to January 6) would bring them good luck.

Over the centuries, the pies grew smaller and rounder, and their filling became less meat heavy, containing ingredients including suet, spices, and dried and brandied fruit. Today, some people still eat mincemeat pie in England—and on December 15 some British scientists fired a meat pie into space—but it’s not commonly seen on Christmas dinner tables in the U.S.

5. SUGARPLUMS

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 
As a child, you might have been inspired by one of ballet's most famous movements—The Nutcracker's “Dance Of The Sugarplum Fairy"—to wonder what a "sugarplum" actually is. The answer? A hard candy.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the term sugarplum was interchangeable with the words dragee or comfit. All referred to a hard, sugary layered candy. Often, the candy contained caraway, cardamom, fennel, ginger, cinnamon, walnut, aniseed, and almond cores. It took time, skill, and special equipment to make these sweets, so they were originally quite expensive and eaten only by wealthy people. Later, innovations in manufacturing made both sugarplums and other candies cheaper, and available for consumption by the masses.

In addition to getting a shout-out in The Nutcracker, sugarplums are also famously mentioned in Clement Clark Moore's anonymously published 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas" after its first line. But today, you're far less likely to see the candies mentioned in a ballet or poem; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, sugarplum is now obsolete.

6. POSSET

Long ago, the English enjoyed a predecessor to eggnog called posset, a kind of "wine custard" made from hot milk curdled with hot ale, wine, or sherry, and mixed with sugar and spices. The drink remained common from the Middle Ages until the early 19th century; over time, it disappeared from the culinary landscape.

Throughout the centuries, winter revelers enjoyed variations on the recipe, and eggs were eventually added to the mix. But since milk, eggs, and liquors like sherry and Madeira wine were either expensive or hard to come by, the drink’s popularity dwindled among the masses. Meanwhile, in America, early settlers created their own version of posset, which we today know as eggnog.

In the video above, you can watch Jonathan Townsend, host of YouTube living history channel Jas. Townsend and Son, cook his own version of posset, as adapted from an 18th-century cookbook. His posset has breadcrumbs.

7. ANIMAL CRACKERS

Ever wondered why boxes of Barnum's Animal Crackers have a string attached to them? In 1902, the National Biscuit Company (today known as Nabisco) introduced the circus-themed boxes filled with animal-shaped cookies as a seasonal promotion. Since people often adorned their Christmas trees with candy and/or treats, Barnum’s festive containers were hung on branches as decorations.

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