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Let's Look At The Language

December 17, 2011

Here comes Santa Claus ... where'd he get that snazzy red suit?

Years ago, I had a book of letters written to Santa Claus, and I remember that, among all the messages of "bring me this," "bring me that," and "I'll leave you a plate of cookies," one little boy had written, "Dear Santa, Where did you get your snazzy red suit?" I wouldn't be surprised if the author of that question grew up to be either a reporter or a fashion consultant, but in any event, I hope he got an answer to his question.

It's not a bad question, and to find the answer we have to look at the language and literature of the American (largely New York) history of Santa Claus. For starters, his name comes from the Dutch dialect for St. Nicholas: Sante Klaas. (St. Nicholas, the inspiration for the person we know as Santa Claus, was a 4th-century saint who lived in what is now Turkey.)

Dutch legend says that Sante Klaas brought gifts at Christmas, one version of the legend being that the gifts were coins, which he tossed through open windows as he walked through the villages. When the windows were closed, he would throw the coins into the chimney, hence the "bringing presents down the chimney" that characterizes our modern interpretation.

Almost certainly the term "Santa Claus" made its American debut in the Dutch-influenced colony of New York.

In a 1773 issue of the New York Gazette, we find this citation: "Last Monday the Anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called St. A Claus, was celebrated at Protestant-Hall." In 1809, upstater Washington Irving published his satirical "History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty," in which he invents an image of Santa Claus as a fat, pipe-smoking Dutch sailor in a green coat.

In 1821, the anonymous poem "Old Santeclaus" appeared in another New York publication: "A New-year's present, to the little ones from five to twelve." The poem delighted young readers with its title character -- an old man who brings presents to children from his sleigh pulled by a reindeer.

But it was a poem published two years later that would become an even greater defining link in the chain of Santa's development as a cultural icon: "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (aka "The Night Before Christmas"), first published anonymously in the Sentinel of Troy, New York, but later credited to Clement Clarke Moore. Often said to be the most popular work of American verse, it gave us an enduring "word painting" of the white-bearded, portly, flying-reindeer-driven, chimney-visiting, stocking-stuffing St. Nicholas character who is synonymous with Santa Claus. (And yet no mention of his being dressed in red.)

The Santa timeline continues with New York political cartoonist Thomas Nast's illustrations in Harper's Weekly 1863—1886. During the Civil War, Nast's Santa supported the Union, and in looks he was close to the "Visit from St. Nicholas" concept.

For many years, Nast dressed Santa in tan and later in green, but it was he who eventually gave Santa his suit of red and somewhere along the line "graduated" him from diminutive elf with a tiny sleigh (as in Moore's poem) to a hefty full-sized man (who could still pass through chimneys!).

For the rest of the 19th century, Nast's depictions dictated the public's idea of Santa Claus, and the commercial images of Santa ever since have followed suit (or should I say red suit?), as exemplified especially by "the Coca-Cola Santa" created by Haddon Sundblom in 1931.

I happily concede that not all of us need to know the answers to such questions as where Santa got his snazzy red suit.

If you really want to know about Santa, just ask any young child to describe him.

A second-grade teacher in South Dakota did just that and learned all that any of us need to know: "Santa brings us presents when we are sleeping." "He is magical because he has lived forever." "He is very very very very very nice."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? Email Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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