Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Who Owns the Rights to Santa Claus?

I was recently asked this question and fell in to the common quasi-misperception that the common Americanized image of of the "jolly old elf" was a creation of the Coca Cola company cut from whole cloth. Well, I was partly correct, but, as it turns out, the history of the image of Santa Claus is a little richer than I had originally appreciated.

Fortunately, you don't have to look far to get some pretty good triangulation of the "modern" history of the Americanized image of Santa Claus. Here is what I found.

While the historical roots of the origin of Santa Clause have been traced to the 4th Century Greek Saint Nicholas of Myra (apparently a resident of what is now Turkey (yes, the food irony is not lost on me)) that was not what I was looking for. I was more interested in the origins of the American iconic image.

The commonly found explanation seems to trace the origins of the American image to Washington Irving who (influenced by Dutch and, quite likely, early British images) first described an image of Saint Nicholas in his History of New York (1809) as "equipped with a low, broad brimmed hat, a huge pair of Flemish trunk hose, and a [long] pipe." This image was greatly enhanced in Clement C. Moore's 1823 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (aka Twas the Night Before Christmas).

However, the first Americanized visual image of our familiar Saint Nick (which appears to incorporate the narrative attributes provided by both Irving and Moore) is attributed to illustrator Thomas Nast who drew an image of Santa for Harpers Weekly magazine in 1863.

This image is in the public domain and is available from Wikipedia and the Library of Congress. Another Santa image (which starts to look more like our familiar Santa Claus) attributed to Nast can be seen below (also from the Library of Congress) titled "Merry old Santa Claus" from 1889.

So far so good. As long as I am using Washington Irving, Clement C. Moore or Nast as my basis for creating my own image of Santa, I'm pretty safe, right? Not so fast.

The modern version (which would appear to draw significantly from the attributes of those images that came before, especially Nast) that most of us (well ... at least me anyway) think of when we think of Santa Claus is largely attributable to the handy work of one Haddon Sundblom who painted Santa images for the Coca Cola company in the 1930s. The Coca Cola company actual has their own accounting of the history of the Santa image on the Coke website. They state that Sundblom's inspiration came largely from the the Clement C. Moore poem. That said, there are clearly similarities between the 1889 Nast image and the Sundblom images.

So, who owns the rights to Santa Claus? Well, while the Sundblom images are owned by the Coca Cola company (I suspect), the Nast images appear to be in the public domain. Does that help? .... I didn't think so.

The better question is who owns the spirit of Saint Nicholas. Hopefully, the answer to that question is all of us.