The Evolution of Christmas: Santa Claus in the Late 1840s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Following a pair of excellent posts on Christmas traditions by my colleague Isis Quan, here we look at two early representations of Santa Claus in the United States, both dating from the late 1840s.

The first is said to have been the earliest published image of old St. Nick, appearing in an 1847 edition of an 1845 children’s story by Benjamin M. Dusenbury (who went uncredited) called Kriss Kringle’s Christmas Tree: A Holiday Present for Boys and Girls, issued originally by E. Perrett and Company, with the second edition by the firm of Grigg & Elliot, both of Philadelphia.

Note the use of the name “Kriss Kringle,” which has hardly been used in recent years, except for those of us “of a certain age” who recall the Mickey Rooney-voiced Kris Kringle in the 1970 Rankin and Bass stop-motion animated television special, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.

Reputed to be the first published image in America of Santa Claus, here is “Kriss Kringle” in an 1847 edition of an 1845 story for children called Kriss Kringle’s Christmas Tree, an original copy of which is in the museum’s collection.

As a sidenote, this 1847 edition has a few words to say about changing Christmas traditions, specifically the replacement of hanging stockings on the fireplace mantel in favor of a table-top tree “to await the annual visit of the worthy Santa Klaus.”  In fact, the book went on, Santa “has, with his usual good nature, accommodated himself to this change in the popular taste” by having the book written.  Therefore, the quote concluded, all adults who were “desirous to conform to the most approved fashion” were recommended “to hang one, two or a dozen copies of the book on their Christmas Tree for 1847.”

As to the appearance of “Kriss Kringle”, a.k.a. “Santa Klaus,” note that he was a short stout figure, with what appeared to be a woven basket on his back held by straps wrapping around the front.  While he looked ready to tumble backwards off the table with one foot in the air, he somehow remained balanced enough to have presents in both hands ready to hang on the rather sparse-looking tree (though still lush compared to poor Charlie Brown’s tree some 120 years later!)  The cat on the tall-back sidechair could hardly be more impressed or concerned with the proceedings, though.

Compare this rendition of Santa with one two years later in a drawing by “H Briche[s]” in an advertisement for a merchant in the Newburyport (Massachusetts) Herald of 3 January 1849.  The ad did first appear a few days before Christmas, however.  The merchant, J.F. Hodgkins of the nicely named Pleasant Street, didn’t have much to say (or enough money to say more, probably) in his ad, noting that he offered “Christmas & New Year’s Presents, in Endless Variety, For Sale.”

This rather frightening looking St. Nick appeared in an ad in the 3 January 1849 issue of the Newburyport (Massachusetts) Herald, an original issue of which is in the Homestead’s collection.

It is worth pointing out, in fact, that New Year’s Day, along with Independence Day, were, by far, the most popular holidays of the year in 1840s America and presents were still frequently given out on the 1st of January, even if some did not do so for Christmas.

In any case, while the Kriss Kringle of 1847 looked quite jolly, if a bit unsteady, this Santa Claus of Newburyport looks maniacal with a wolf-like face, wild eyes, and what could be mistaken for a hatchet wielded in his left hand!  Like Kriss, though, this Santa has a similar type of basket strapped on his back, though there wasn’t room for the toy soldier on horseback, or the cannon.

You may have noticed that Santa had not yet adopted a standard uniform either.  There was no fur-lined suit and cap and he was wearing what appeared to be standard men’s clothing for the day.

The Herald ran a whole column of advertisements related to gold seeking in California, just a few months after news of the astonishing discovery reached the east coast.

Another tidbit of interest to those of us across the continent is that there was a whole raft of advertisements just a couple of columns to the left on the front page of the Herald under the general heading of “California.”  The reason was that news of the discovery of gold in the new American possession (well, since early 1847) had reached the east coast a few months prior to the holidays and mining fever was raging.

Advertisements included “the safest and best arrangement to go to California,” comprised of a sea voyage by a company “in a good staunch, fast sailing ship” with the excursion to last six months before the return to Boston.  Berth and board for a round trip was set at $300, while “persons at a distance can secure a berth by remitting $100.”  There was even a payment plan of paying half up front “and the remainder in gold dust after their arrival,” though the latter proved to be anything but a sure thing for many miners.

Then, there was “T.O.N.,” a local who sought the help of anyone who could “furnish the requisite means of his getting there” and offered to give “one half of the proceeds of one year’s labor in the mines.” As a guarantee, the advertiser noted that “his life will be insured.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll follow Santa’s evolution through the decades, so check back to see how he developed in future posts!

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