MSB brainstorming

18 May 2017

Dr Great Art Podcast Episode 5: Santa Claus's Look!

Dec 12, 2016
Christmas time! A podcast about how Santa Claus LOOKS --- the history of his visual appearance. St. Nicholas, Thomas Nast, Fred Mizen, myths like Coca-Cola, Luther, the Orthodox Santa, "Twas the night before Christmas," and more including the Swiss Samichlaus and Schmutzli!

Here is the script (NOT a transcript as I change elements while recording)-

Dr Great Art Podcast Five
"Santa Claus's Look"

Hi this is Mark Staff Brandl, with the fifth "Dr (Great) Art" brief podcast. I hope you enjoy it and come back for each and every one.
Today, because it is Christmas time, I want to do a short podcast about how Santa Claus LOOKS --- the history of his visual appearance.

First, for my European listeners --- a BIG surprise: No matter what is repeated, even by so-called experts on TV, it has almost NOTHING to do with Coca-Cola! Yes, they use him, and do some of the most visually beautiful TV ads at Christmas, and have done ads since the 1920s. The first Santa ads were directly based on the drawings of political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who we will get to soon. In 1930, artist Fred Mizen painted a department-store Santa in a crowd drinking a bottle of Coke, and that lead to all the future ads. This was the more modern version, but that image of Santa had long appeared overall and elsewhere in the US --- Mizen was a great illustrator though.

Furthermore, even though it's often said that Santa wears a red coat because red is the color of Coca-Cola, Santa appears in a red coat because he is a version of St. Nicholas, who was a bishop, originally painted in a variety of clothing colors, but finally in those of a cardinal, oddly enough. Thus scarlet, or red.
Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, the Weihnachtsmann, or simply Santa, is of course the legendary figure of Western culture who is said to bring gifts to the homes of well-behaved children on Christmas Eve (24 December) and the early morning hours of Christmas Day (25 December), in MOST cultures, but not ALL (you'll hear more about that in the following).

The modern Santa Claus grew out of traditions surrounding the historical Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop and gift-giver of Myra, as I said.

Plus in the mix is the British Father Christmas, the Dutch Sinterklaas, and the holidays of Twelfth Night and Epiphany, the Three Kings (the gift-giving Magi of the Bible) and Befana, --- who in Italy is the legendary old woman who delivers gifts to children on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5). Santa Claus also absorbed elements of the Swedish Santa Claus (so close to Nast's drawings.)
The German figure of the Christkind, a sort of fairytale version of the Christ Child --- was created by Luther to be an attempt to eliminate the reverence for Santa Claus --- uptight guy! Especially since he is responsible for bringing the heathen Christmas Tree back into the holidays! I was raised a Lutheran and am a Christian and love the idea of Santa in any form. It could be worse: Puritans banned the holiday entirely in 1647, as Hitler and the Nazis sought to do repeatedly after 1933, settling for progressively taking all Jesus and God references out of it slowly but surely, turning them into racist, Hitler and pagan-esoteric references.

Back to positive! Santa Claus is usually drawn as a chubby, cheerful, white-bearded man, with spectacles — wearing a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, white fur-cuffed red trousers, who carries a bag full of gifts for children. This image became popular in the United States and Canada in the 19th century due to the significant influence of the 1823 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" by Clement Clarke Moore  --- ( You know "Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house..." etc.) and most of all the influence of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast.
Thomas Nast (1840 –1902) was a German-born American caricaturist and editorial cartoonist the "Father of the American Cartoon." He created the political symbol of the elephant (Royal animal) for the Republican Party and popularized the donkey (working animal) for the Democrats. He also solidified and popularized the image of Uncle Sam, the female version of him named Columbia, and more. 

For Nast, and the poem mentioned, Santa was a small elf-like person. This changed as living humans began to disguise themselves as Santa for various functions --- his "Official Helpers" as my mom Ruth told me when I asked, a little too perceptive, why there were so many Santa Clauses running around.

For my American and other non-Swiss listeners, the Swiss version, Samichlaus, is rather different. He is not exactly a jolly good fellow. He is not mean spirited either, but a kind of disciplinary figure originally!
Every year on December 6, NOT 25th, kids get visited by him and his assistant "Schmutzli". They emerge from their hidden cottage in the woods, not on a sleigh of flying reindeer, but rather shuffling through the snow with a donkey!
These days, whether they have been naughty or nice, children are left with a bag full of walnuts, peanuts, chocolates, tangerines and ginger breads, etc.
BUT in the past, the companion known as Schmutzli (dirty or raggedy perhaps) in the German part of the country and Père Fouettard (from "whip") in French, who carries a broom of twigs, would theoretically give out punishment to children whose behaviour throughout the year had been bad!
Over the years though, and despite retaining his foreboding appearance, Schmutzli has evolved into a more benign figure.

The Orthodox Santa also bears mentioning. Christmas is celebrated for three consecutive days, starting with Christmas Day, which is usually later than ours, January 7th, as their day is based on the Julian calendar that pre-dates the Gregorian calendar, (and is usually more closely tied to the Jewish dates). For many Orthodox Christian kids such as Russians January 7th or the New Year celebrations, are the big deal!

This is when 'Grandfather Frost' (known in Russian as 'Ded Moroz' or Дед Мороз) brings presents to children. He is always accompanied by his Grandaughter (Snegurochka).
Whoever brings you gifts, which symbolizes the great, generally undeserved gifts we get from the Higher Being in life, I hope he or she or it blesses you! Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Io Saturnalia, Happy Festivus, Happy Yule/Winter Solstice, and the Buddhist greeting: May all sentient beings know the peace and compassion taught by both the Buddha and Jesus.
Thanks for listening.

That was "Dr (Great) Art" podcast number 5. If you wish to hear more cool, exciting and hopefully inspiring stuff about art history and art, come back for more. Also I, Dr Mark Staff Brandl, artist and art historian, am available for live custom Performance-Lectures. In English und auf Deutsch.
I take viewers inside visual art and art history. Entertainingly, yet educationally and aesthetically, I analyze, underline, and discuss the reasons why a work of art is remarkable, or I go through entire eras, or indeed through the entirety of art history. The lectures often take place with painted background screens and even in my painting-installations.
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