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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Santa Claus

Scenes from the Legend of St. Nicholas,
1332, Ambrogio Lorenzetti
Though we seldom think about it, it's altogether gratifying to realize that every single Christmas icon, with the possible exception of the star of Bethlehem, originated first in the mind of an artist. Even our visualization of the nativity, though from the Bible, is largely based upon the work of early painters. Our Christmas card scenes today are merely derivative of their work. Near the bottom of this iconographic hierarchy we find the lumpy little snowmen, elves, cute little polar bear cubs, candy canes, silver bells, poinsettia, pine wreaths, ornaments, even the angels atop our Christmas trees. All of these were either first created by artists, or illustrated by them as a result of having been adopted and adapted to the season by man in his eternal search for symbolic references to the unfathomable grace of God's gift of his son to the human race.

Santa Claus ala Thomas Nast, 1881
Somewhere in the middle of this iconographic melange is the image perhaps most universally associated with Christmas. Though this image keeps getting updated almost yearly as the season rolls around, its roots in painting go back to around 1300 when Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted his Scenes from the Legend of St. Nicholas. Even then the figure was bearded and wore red. The Dutch embellished the image and persona of the man, as did nearly every other country in Europe at one time or another. But it was left to the American cartoonist, Thomas Nast (right), to bring the character to life in something approaching the image we have of him today. If you say Saint Nicholas fast enough it very easily becomes Santa Claus. In the modern era, from the late forties through the nineteen-sixties this image was polished and modernized even more by an unlikely group of artist and illustrators working for the Coca Cola Company (below, right).

Santa Claus ala Coca Cola and the 1930s.
He gave up smoking for Coke.
He is idolized by children, propitiated by adults, commercialized by retailers, and in the last few decades, even come under a certain amount of scorn by organized religion, which, while acknowledging his religious roots, has become somewhat apprehensive about the power this symbol of giving has assumed (his persona in the song, Here Comes Santa Claus comes very close to that of God). Some years ago I received an e-mail from my minister, no less, a clever, humorous dissertation on the scientific impossibility of Santa Claus which concluded that the man, if indeed he ever existed, was in fact, dead.  As an artist, I like to think that this pronouncement is to be taken with the same grain of salt as a similar allegation many years ago on the part of Friedrich Nietche regarding God.
Not only Coca Cola, but hundreds of other advertisers, and the movies,
not to mention New York's Macy's Department Stores, have all had a hand in
shaping our modern image of St. Nicholas.

Merry Christmas Everyone!

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