Santa Who? Representations of Santa in the Archives

Santa Who? Christmas Pop-Up Event

In the spirit of Christmas, we decided to host our latest Explore your Archives pop-up event around the theme of the man in the red suit. Items displayed in the Christmas Pop-Up Event included material from animations such as The Christmas Dinner and The Mystery of the Missing Santa (both from the Henry’s Cat series) and Kevin’s Christmas Treat (from the Kevin Saves the World Series). The items demonstrate individual takes on the representation of Santa. The pop-up event explored questions such as “where does his reputation stem from?” and “how has his representation in popular culture developed over time?”

Christmas Pop-Up Display

Christmas Pop-Up Display

There are different suggestions for the origins of this holiday figure. Records date back to describe figures such as the Norse God Odin, Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas, with each displaying different characteristics now attributed to the modern day character – generosity, benevolence, kindness and good cheer.

As well as the name, the physical representations of Santa have developed over the years. In modern day the character is recognisable as a slightly plump older gentleman with a white beard, red suit and black boots. A common misconception is that this image derives from Coca-Cola. Instead, from the 1920s the company popularised a character design that was already imbedded in popular culture. The man in the red suit was a representation of Saint Nicholas by Thomas Nast, a respected painter who drew 33 Christmas drawings for Harper’s Weekly between 1863 and 1886.

Thomas Nast came to find inspiration from the poem by Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from Saint Nicholas, commonly known as The Night before Christmas, and depicted a jolly Santa in a red suit who gave gifts to children. In 1931 Coca-Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop a new Santa image for their advertisements. He produced new images every year through to 1964.

Sketch of Santa, Kevin’s Christmas Treat

The animation material held at UCA develops upon this traditional image, with artists demonstrating their individual takes on Santa. Although commonly depicted with the red suit and black boots, we see varying representations of Santa:

Henry’s Cat, The Christmas Dinner: Henry’s cat and his friends end up getting stuck together. Santa arrives in his sleigh, hears their dilemma and rescues them by coming down the chimney. Here we have a kind Santa who is willing to help those in need. He maintains traditional representations by arriving on a sleigh and travelling down the chimney.

Henry’s Cat, The Mystery of the Missing Santa: It is up to Henry’s cat and his friends to rescue the kidnapped Santa. This time Santa is vulnerable and needs help. The kidnapper threatens to cut the bobble off of Santa’s hat, a key icon of modern day Santa’s image.

Kevin’s Christmas Treat: Initial sketches demonstrate Santa as an unattractive character – he is shown shouting into a megaphone with large pointy teeth. In the storyboards we are presented with a mechanical Santa, the episode demonstrating the modern day commercialised side of Christmas.

Sketch of Santa, Kevin's Christmas Treat

Sketch of Santa, Kevin’s Christmas Treat

As well as archival material, we also made use of material found on the library shelves. An old-fashioned Christmas in illustration and decoration, C. Hornung, (New York: Dover Publications; London: Constable, 1970) contains black and white images portraying Christmas scenes.  Christmas: Vintage Holiday Graphics, ed. Jim Heinmann (Koln;London: Taschen, c.2005) pays homage to St Nick via vintage graphic and print media. The pages are full of colourful Christmas images, with one showing a Hawaiian scene with Santa and his reindeer sipping on cocktails! These sources complemented our theme on the representation of Santa.

Volunteer Altaira with the Christmas Pop-Up Display

Volunteer Altaira with the Christmas Pop-Up Display

Look out for the Kevin saves the World series, soon to be included in the UCA Archives and Special Collections online catalogue. An entry for Henry’s Cat can be found here: Henry’s Cat

Kevin’s Christmas Treat Images copyright Bob Godfrey and Daniel Postgate. All images are for educational purposes only.

Hannah Ratford, Archive Cataloguer

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