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The Holly Jolly History of the Santa Suit

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When you think of Santa, exactly one outfit comes to mind: boots, a red suit with white trim, and a matching stocking cap. The icon didn’t always dress this way, though. Over time—hundreds of years, in fact—the expanding mythology of Old Saint Nick crystallized the sartorial staples of Christmas lore. In the very beginning, he was simply a robe-wearing holy man.

THE ORIGIN OF OLD SAINT NICK

Santa Claus’s pious ancestor was St. Nicholas—a 4th century Greek bishop-turned-saint from an area that is now Turkey, whose generous feats included leaving coins in the shoes and stockings of children (sounds familiar) and paying the dowries of three poor women, so that they might avoid a life of prostitution (less familiar). In fact, St. Nicholas is believed to be one of the people recognized as a saint before the official canonization process was established in the late 10th century. Fittingly, early portrayals show him clad in traditional bishops robes.

Long after his death on December 6, 343 CE—the anniversary of which became known as St. Nicholas Day—St. Nicholas remained a popular figure in Europe until the Protestant Reformation, where the observance of saints was condemned. Despite this, the tradition largely endured throughout Europe, with the exception of some staunchly Protestant areas, which began to replace St. Nicholas with their own yuletide patriarchs, like England’s Father Christmas (who was often portrayed as a kindly old man in fur robes), among others. The idea of Santa Claus, let alone his suit, wouldn’t be formed for a couple hundred more years.

BRINGING SANTA TO THE STATES

As detailed in Bruce David Forbes’s Christmas: A Candid History, it was a man named John Pintard who led the major push toward the recognition of St. Nicholas in American popular culture. Pintard was a merchant and philanthropist, whose civic cred includes being a key figure behind both New York’s first savings bank and the American Bible Society. He was elected the first secretary of the New York Historical Society in 1805, and keeping in mind the city’s Dutch heritage, he and the Society established an annual Saint Nicholas Day Dinner, the first of which took place on December 6, 1810. Pintard tasked artist Alexander Anderson with drawing a picture of the saint to be distributed at the event. In the resulting work, St. Nicholas is portrayed as traditionally saintly—barefoot and clad in long bishop’s robes. While the outfit would never make it to the secular mainstream, you can spot the familiar title “Sancte Claus” in the Dutch captions below the image, a clear predecessor to today’s “Santa Claus.”

Around the same time as Pintard’s initiative, a (perhaps unlikely) figure from American literary history would step in to popularize Saint Nick: Washington Irving. On Saint Nicholas Day in 1809, the author published A History of New York: a satirical account of the city’s founding that heightened and caricatured the city’s Dutch roots. Written under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker (which would later give birth to the New Yorker nickname “Knickerbocker,” as in the New York Knicks), A History detailed New Amsterdam’s founders arriving on a ship bearing a figurehead of Saint Nicholas on its bow, describing it “a goodly image of St. Nicholas, equipped with a low, broad-brimmed hat, a huge pair of Flemish trunk-hose, and a pipe that reached to the end of the bowsprit.” While this look was still a long way off from the modern Santa suit, A History of New York did contribute to modern Santa lore, with its St. Nicholas Day depiction of a gift-filled carriage helmed by a jolly, 'winking' St. Nick, a portrayal that would later find its way into a much more famous holiday tale.

The tale in question? “A Visit From St. Nicholas”—sometimes known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”—by Clement Clarke Moore (or Henry Livingston, Jr.). First published anonymously in 1823, the popular poem solidified a few major aspects of Santa lore (outfit included) at a time when the legend of St. Nick still varied widely. With lines that describe St. Nick as “dressed in all fur, from his head to his foot,” whose “cheeks were like roses” and with a “nose like a cherry,” not to mention his beard “as white as the snow,” the poem offered a clear visualization of Santa, right down to his physique: “He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.” Not everything stuck, though. Throughout the poem, St. Nick is characterized as a pint-sized elf with a “miniature sleigh” and “tiny reindeer,” an image that might have been pushed aside by the next great depiction of Santa, which would come a couple decades later in 1863, from “The Father of the American Cartoon,” Thomas Nast.

THE 'JOLLY OLD ELF' TAKES FORM

Thomas Nast may have been known for his political cartoons, like his depictions of Boss Tweed, but he’s also partially responsible for what we recognize today as the Santa suit. From 1863 to 1886, Nast regularly contributed drawings of Santa Claus to Harper’s Weekly, heavily influenced by “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” as well as his German heritage. The American image of Santa was now definitively fat and usually short, though not necessarily “miniature.” The tall, spindly “Father Christmas” figure popular in European depictions gave way to the jolly fellow described in Moore’s poem. Along with his signature belly, Nast’s Santa sported a bushy white beard, boots, and a belted fur ‘suit’ (which looks kind of like long underwear) and cap.

Nast’s contributions to Kris Kringle lore didn’t stop at his outfit, either—they also popularized the notion of Santa’s “naughty or nice” lists. The drawings show the influence of Nast’s Bavarian childhood in their similarities to Pelznickel, the “stern German gift-bringer” who, clad in all furs, carried gifts for good children and threatened naughty children with switches. The Pelznickel influence may be why some of Nast’s Santas wear a suit that looks more like deerskins than the luxurious red and white we now associate with St. Nick. (Interestingly, Pelznickel was first popularized in post-Protestant Reformation Germany as a secular alternative to St. Nicholas after the honoring of saints had been condemned.) In 1890, Nast published a collection of his Santa drawings entitled Thomas Nast's Christmas Drawings for the Human Race. Though his style of cartooning was starting to be considered outdated at the time, the anthology featured one of the most popular and enduring images of Santa: that of this jolly bearded gentleman, clad in red, holding a pipe and an armful of toys. To this day, Nast’s German hometown of Landau honors their native son’s contributions to Santa lore with their annual Christmas market, the Thomas-Nast-Nikolausmarkt.

Through the turn of the century, the Santa suit continued to evolve. L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus provided an elaborate backstory and daring adventures for its hero, but a red suit still wasn’t the norm, as shown on the book’s first edition cover, published in 1902. One of the first times Santa is featured wearing the iconic red coat is on the cover of Puck magazine, widely regarded as America’s first successful humor magazine. In the 1901 image, Santa offers toys to a little boy and girl, who reject the gifts in favor of the works of Montaigne and Tolstoy; in 1902, a rather saucy cartoon shows Santa climbing in through the bedroom window of two Victorian ladies, each planting a kiss on his cheek. Both covers prominently feature St. Nick in a white-trimmed red suit and hat, carbon copies of the iconic Santa suit we recognize today.

The Santa suit wasn’t done changing, though; it would be again modernized and re-popularized, as portrayals became less cartoonish and more human. Norman Rockwell’s portrayal of Santa first appeared on a 1913 cover of Boys’ Life magazine, and soon evolved into a much more naturalistic Santa, who could, for instance, doze off in a simple white shirt and apron. As these depictions made their way into culture consciousness, the red Santa Suit as we know it began to cement its status.

COLA-COLA CHRISTMAS (AND SANTA AS WE KNOW HIM)

Full ubiquity would come with now-iconic Coca-Cola advertisements. While many credit Coke with inventing the Santa we know today, you now know that they were only a piece in the larger puzzle. After a brief appearance in Coke ads in the 1920s, artist Fred Mizen drew Santa enjoying a Coke at a busy soda fountain for an ad that ran in 1930 when the company was looking to up its cold-weather sales. Following the ad’s success, Coca-Cola looked to stake a further claim as Santa’s beverage of choice. According to a history section on Coke’s website, “Archie Lee, the D'Arcy Advertising Agency executive working with The Coca-Cola Company, wanted the campaign to show a wholesome Santa who was both realistic and symbolic [. . .] showing Santa himself, not a man dressed as Santa.” The following Christmas, Coke debuted Haddon Sundblom’s Santa, which featured the same jolly, white-bearded man in the red suit. This time though, Santa looked even more human, with ruddy cheeks and wrinkles marking his animated face. Most importantly, due to Coca-Cola’s enormous advertising presence, Sundbloms image reached far and wide, thereby solidifying Santa’s specific look into the imaginations of millions.

Decades later, a world of Santa impersonators has a whole costume industry doesn’t just offer a unified vision of Kris Kringle, but a luxe one, too. Most professional Santas own multiple suits ranging in price from $500 to $5,000, and the commitment doesn’t stop there. Some companies, like The Noerr Programs Corporation, specialize in delivering the whole Santa experience: the company’s headquarters, christened The Noerr Pole, provides potential Santas with intricate, theatrical-quality costuming as well as specific training. (They require that Santas be “naturally bearded gentlemen” to ensure each one is prepared to Create Holiday Magic!® Yes, they trademarked that.) We’ve come a long way since the Salvation Army started sending out volunteers in Santa suits in the late 1800s.

For amateurs wishing to try the Santa suit on for size, there’s always SantaCon. In the official guidelines, it’s stated: “A Santa hat alone is not enough. You don't have to dress exactly like Santa but the theme is red.” Sorry, Pelznickel.

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25 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Recycle
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According to the EPA, Americans generate 254 million tons of waste each year. Here are a few things you may have been throwing out that, with a little effort, you can actually recycle.

1. DENTURES

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Grandpa's choppers may hold $25 worth of recyclable metals, including gold, silver, and palladium. The Japan Denture Recycling Association is known to collect false teeth, remove and recycle the metals, and discard the rest of the denture (which is illegal to reuse). The program has donated all of its earnings to UNICEF.

2. HOLIDAY LIGHTS

Bundle of holiday string lights

Got burnt out holiday lights? The folks at HolidayLEDs.com will gladly take your old lights, shred them, and sort the remaining PVC, glass, and copper. Those raw materials are taken to another recycling center to be resurrected. (In 2011, the State of Minnesota collected and recycled around 100 tons of dead lights.)

3. SEX TOYS

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The first step in recycling your toy is to send it to a specialty processing plant, where it's sterilized and sorted. There, all "mechanical devices" are salvaged, refurbished, and resold. Silicone and rubber toys, on the other hand, are "ground up, mixed with a binding agent, and remolded into new toys," according to the aptly titled website, Sex Toy Recycling. Metals, plastics, and other leftovers retire from the pleasure industry and are recycled into conventional products.

4. HOTEL SOAP

Hotel bathroom counter with cups, shampoo, and soap

Not all hotels throw out that half-used soap you left in the shower: Some send it to Clean the World. There, soap is soaked in a sanitizing solution, treated to a steam bath, and then tested for infections. Once deemed safe, the soap is distributed to less fortunate people across the globe. So stop stealing soap from hotels—you may be stealing from charity.

5. MATTRESSES

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You don't need to dump your old box spring at the landfill. Equipped with special saws, mattress recycling factories can separate the wood, metal, foam, and cloth. The metal springs are magnetically removed, the wood is chipped, and the cloth and foam are shredded and baled. In its future life, your saggy mattress can become a summer dress or even wallpaper.

6. COOKING OIL

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When you’re finished making French fries at home, it can be tempting to toss the spent frying oil down the drain. But you shouldn’t—approximately 47 percent of all sewer overflows are caused by fat and oil. There are a few curbside programs in the United States that accept used cooking oil, which may send the oil to a biodiesel plant that will transform it into fuel. To see if there’s a collection point near you, check this website.

7. DIRTY DIAPERS

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The average baby soils 6000 diapers before being potty trained—that's one ton of diapers rotting in a landfill per child. But not all poo-packages have to suffer this fate. The company Knowaste collects and recycles dirty diapers at hospitals, nursing facilities, and public restrooms. After sanitizing the diaper with a solution, they mechanically separate the "organic matter" from the diaper's plastic, which is compressed into pellets and recycled into roof shingles. Meanwhile, paper pulp in diapers grows up to become wallpaper and shoe soles.

8. CDS

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CDs are made of polycarbonate and won't decompose at a landfill. But if you send your discs to The CD Recycling Center, they'll shred them into a fine powder that will be later melted down into a plastic perfect for automotive and building materials—even pavement!

9. SHOES

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Send your beat-up sneaks to Nike Grind and you'll help build a running track. Nike's recycling facility rips apart worn shoes, separating the rubber, foam, and fabric. The rubber is melted down for running track surfaces, the foam is converted into tennis court cushioning, and the fabric is used to pad basketball court floorboards. So far, Nike has shredded more than 28 million pairs of shoes.

10. SHEEP POOP

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Why turn sheep poop into fertilizer or manure when you can make it into an air freshener? The folks at Creative Paper Wales do that, plus more—they can transform sheep poop into birthday cards, wedding invitations, bookmarks, and A4 paper! Sheep dung brims with processed cellulose fiber. The poo can be sterilized in a 420 degree pressure cooker, which separates the fiber from a smelly brew of liquid fertilizer, allowing the fiber pulp to be collected and blended with other recycled pulps, creating tree-free paper.

11. TROPHIES

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Is your room full of plastic bowling trophies from fifth grade? If the thrill of victory fades, you can recycle your old trophies at recycling centers like Lamb Awards. They'll break down your retired awards, melting them down or reusing them for new trophies.

12. HUMAN FAT (WARNING: ILLEGAL)

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If it weren't for legal complications, America's obsession with cosmetic surgery could solve its energy problem. In 2008, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon lost his job when police caught him fueling his car with a biofuel created from his patients' liposuctioned fat. (Convicting him wasn't hard, since he advertised the substance online as "lipodiesel.") That's not the first time fat has powered transportation: In 2007, conservationist Peter Bethune used 2.5 gallons of human fat to fuel his eco-boat, Earthrace.

13. ALUMINUM FOIL

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Foil is probably one of the most thrown away recyclable materials out there. (Americans throw away about 1.5 million tons of aluminum products every year, according to the EPA.) But foil is 100 percent aluminum, and as long as you thoroughly clean it of any food waste, you technically should be able to recycle it with your aluminum cans (but first check with your local recycling plant to ensure they’re equipped to process it; some aren’t).

14. CRAYONS

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Don't toss those stubby Crayolas! Instead, mail them to the National Crayon Recycle Program, which takes unloved, broken crayons to a better place: They're melted in a vat of wax, remade, and resold. So far, the program has saved more than 118,000 pounds of crayons.

15. DEAD PETS

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When Fluffy bites the dust in Germany, you can memorialize your beloved pet by recycling her. In Germany, it's illegal to bury pets in public places. This leaves some pet owners in a bind when their furry friends die. A rendering plant near the town of Neustadt an der Weinstraße accepts deceased pets; animal fat is recycled into glycerin, which is used in cosmetics such as lip balm.

16. SHINGLES

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The EPA estimates that 11 million tons of shingles are disposed each year [PDF]. Most of them are made out of asphalt, which is why more than two dozen states pulverize the old shingles and recycle them into pavement. For every ton of shingles recycled, we save one barrel of oil.

17. PRESCRIPTION DRUGS

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You can—and should—properly dispose of expired prescription drugs. But what about unneeded pills that are still good? Some states let you donate unused drugs back to pharmacies. Some charities also accept leftover HIV medicine from Americans who have switched prescriptions, stopped medicating, or passed away. These drugs are shipped overseas and distributed to HIV victims around the world.

18. FISHING LINE

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Fishing line is made from monofilament, a non-biodegradable plastic that you can't put in your everyday recycling bin. At Berkley Fishing, old fishing line is mixed with other recyclables (like milk cartons and plastic bottles) and transformed into fish-friendly habitats. So far, Berkley has saved and recycled more than 9 million miles of fishing line.

19. WINE CORKS

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Your recycling center probably doesn't accept wine corks, but companies like Terracycle and Yemm & Hart will. They turn cork into flat sheets of tile, which you can use for flooring, walls, and veneer. Another company, ReCORK, has extended the life of over 4 million unloved corks by giving them to SOLE, a Canadian sandal maker.

20. PANTYHOSE

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Most pantyhose are made of nylon, a recyclable thermoplastic that takes more than 40 years to decompose. Companies like No Nonsense save your old stockings by grinding them down and transforming them into park benches, playground equipment, carpets, and even toys.

21. TOOTHBRUSHES

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If you buy a plastic toothbrush from Preserve (which makes its toothbrushes from old Stonyfield Farms yogurt cups and other everyday items), it will take back your used toothbrush and give it a new life—this time as a piece of plastic lumber!

22. TENNIS BALLS

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The company reBounces doesn’t really recycle tennis balls, it resurrects them. If you’ve got at least 200 balls sitting around, the company will send you a prepaid shipping label to help get the box on the road and repressurize the balls.

23. YOGA MATS

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Most yoga mats are made from PVC, the same material in plumbing pipes, heavy-duty tarps, and rain boots. While many local yoga studios will accept well-loved mats and find them a new home, the company Sanuk has an appropriately squishy vision for each mat’s future: It will transform your old yoga mat into flip flops.

24. DEFUNCT CURRENCY

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All governments have a way of dealing with old, worn money. (In 2016, the Indian government shredded old bills and turned them into hardboard.) But what about currency that is no longer legal tender? Ends up you can donate your old French francs, Spanish pesetas, or Dutch guilders to Parkinsons UK, who will recycle the old coins and banknotes.

25. PET FUR

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All of the pet fur on your sweaters, your couches, and your carpet could help save the ocean from oil spills. Hair is excellent at sopping up oil from the environment (hairball booms were used to soak up oil from the 2010 BP Oil Spill), so non-profit organizations such as the San Francisco-based Matter of Trust will accept pet fur to make oil-absorbing mats of Fido's fuzz.

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Move Over, Golden Toilet: Now There’s a $100K Louis Vuitton Potty
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In 2016, the Guggenheim Museum installed a one-of-a-kind, fully functional toilet made of solid gold, created by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan just for the museum. Now, there’s another insanely luxurious art-toilet to look out for—and this one you can take home.

Made by artist Illma Gore for the luxury resale platform Tradesy, the Loo-Uis Vuitton Toilet is covered in $15,000 worth of monogram leather ripped from Louis Vuitton bags. Everything but the inside of the bowl—which is gold—is covered in that instantly recognizable brown designer leather. It's one way to show your brand loyalty, for sure.

The toilet is fully functional, meaning, yes, you can poop in it—although that would require you (at some point) to clean the leather undersides of the seat, which sounds … gross. But then again, the leather is brown, so do what you will.

A toilet art piece stands under a pink neon sign that reads ‘No Fake Shit.’
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Does sitting on it feel like using those squishy-soft toilet seats your grandma has? Please let us know, because we don’t have the $100,000 it would take to buy it for ourselves. Note that while the site sells used goods, the description makes sure to specify that this one is new.

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