Antiques // Public Domain
Antiques // Public Domain

10 Surprising Early Versions of Santa Claus

Antiques // Public Domain
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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.   


Thomas Nast's Christmas Drawings For The Human Race via // 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.


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. 


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. 


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.


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.


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.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Want to Recycle Your Christmas Tree? Feed It to an Elephant
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

When the holiday season finally comes to a close, people get creative with the surplus of dead Christmas trees. One San Francisco-based artist transformed brittle shrubs into hanging installation pieces. Others use pine needles for mulch, or repurpose trees into bird sanctuaries. For the average person, sticking it into a wood chipper or "treecycling" it as part of a community program are all eco-friendly ways to say goodbye to this year's Douglas fir. None of these solutions, however, are as cute as the waste-cutting strategy employed by some zoos around the world: giving them to elephants.

Each year, zookeepers at Tierpark Berlin—a facility that bills itself as “Europe’s largest adventure animal park”—feed the elephants unsold pine trees. The plants are reportedly pesticide-free, and they serve as a good (albeit prickly) supplement to the pachyderms' usual winter diets.

A bit closer to home, the residents of The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee rely on local residents to take part in their annual Christmas Tree Drive. In addition to being nutrient-rich, the tree's needles are said to help aid in an elephant's digestion. But beyond all that, it's pretty adorable to watch.

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5 Eco-Friendly Ways to Dispose of Your Christmas Tree

What’s the environmentally safest way to dispose of your Christmas tree? It’s hard to say. Grown, managed, transported, and recycled efficiently, a real Christmas tree’s environmental impact should be near neutral. Unfortunately, not all Christmas tree plantations are equal in their environmental impact.

The most eco-friendly way is to leave the tree in the ground, where it belongs, so you never have to dispose of it. But then you don't have a Christmas tree in your house to bring festive cheer. One thing you can do is be environmentally smart when it comes to the tree's disposal. After this festive season, why not try one of these eco-friendly methods.


If you’re lucky enough to have access to a big wood-chipper, you may be able to chip the entire tree. Wood-chip is great as a decorative landscaping material. But if you really want to do great things for the environment (and if you have access to a lot of Christmas trees), you could make a bioreactor to denitrify water. Nitrates are put on farms across the world to help increase crop output, but a considerable amount is washed away into lakes and rivers where it’s disastrous for fish and potentially toxic for people. A wood chip bioreactor encourages the growth of bacteria that break down the nitrates in the drainage water, reducing the amount that gets into the water supply. It's not a simple project, however. To make one, you have to dig a big trench, get the water to flow through said trench, and fill it with wood chips. More info can be found here [PDF].



If your tree hasn’t yet let go of its needles—and you haven’t yet let go of Christmas, get crafty with it. Cut off small branches and bind them around a circle of wire to make an attractive wreath. This looks even better if some of the cones are still attached. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could set up an essential oil extractor to get a supercharged Christmas scent. If you are already distilling alcohol, you have everything you need (here's how to do it). With a little less effort and equipment, you can make a weaker liquid called hydrosol, which is a fragrant condensate water containing water-soluble parts of the needles.


Many legumes, such as garden peas, are thigmotropic, meaning that they respond to objects they touch, growing in coils along or up them. Needle-free Christmas tree branches have lots of twigs, texture, and knobby protrusions for peas and beans to get a grip on. This allows them to grow upwards strongly toward light. Simply stick a small tree branch in the soil next to each new shoot for a free, effective legume-climbing frame. Another advantage of this technique is that it makes grazing animals less likely to munch those tender green shoots, as they tend to avoid getting Christmas tree twigs spiked up their noses.


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Come January, it’s cold, the festivities are over, work looms, and you’ve got too much on your mind to be thinking about dead Christmas tree horticulture or crafts. Fortunately, a simple solution is at hand: Most counties and municipalities now provide Christmas tree recycling points where you can take your tree for chipping. Some “TreeCycle” points will even exchange your tree for a bag of wood-chip or chip mulch. OK, this probably means that you’ll have to jam that Christmas tree into your car once more, but as long as you don’t have to drive too many miles out of your way, Christmas tree recycling is a quick and easy environmentally-friendly option.


After you’ve had your Christmas cheer, why shouldn’t fish have some fun? Several communities have programs in place where they’ll take your old Christmas tree, drill a hole in the base, tie a brick to it, and throw it in a lake. When humans create artificial lakes, they tend to be relatively featureless on the bottom for easy dredging. That’s great for us, but it means baby fish have nowhere to escape predators. Christmas trees provide a nice, temporary place for the fish to hide out and explore.

If, on the other hand, you’d like to see your Christmas tree mauled by a pride of lions, that’s OK too! Some zoos around the world take Christmas tree donations (but please remove all the tinsel first) and allow the animals to play with them.


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