Sunday 3 December 2017

The Four Santas of Advent : 1) The Ultimate Santa

Christmas is approaching rapidly and today is the first of the Advent Sundays. This year I feature the most popular (of the many) Christmas gift-bringers – Father Christmas, or Santa Claus. I use these names to identify the same character though, technically, that have different origins: Santa Claus – a Christian saint; Father Christmas – a pagan winter god. Father Christmas is a much older character than Santa Claus, who developed in Dutch colonial America. The characters have now become synonymous.
Which of the four characters pictured above is Santa Claus? Actually they all are, but who are you most likely to meet (in the English-speaking world at least) in the Christmas grotto of your local shopping centre/mall? Its number 4 of course. The others are: 1) a traditional early Victorian Father Christmas, 2) a Scandinavian Father Christmas gnome from the same period, and 3) Sire Christmas, the earliest depiction of Father Christmas from England in the 1600s.

Did you know that those first three Father Christmas’s are not recognisable to children as Santa today because of the art produced by a gay man a hundred years ago? It was the illustrations in The Saturday Evening Post by J. C. Leyendecker (1874-1951) that finally established forever the look of our present-day Santa Claus.
A typical Leyendecker Santa
The way that Father Christmas, Santa Claus and his many other incarnations (which include St Nicholas of Myra and Sinterklaas) have been portrayed over the centuries is worthy of a massive encyclopaedia (I think one must have been published). Until Leyendecker artists had portrayed Father Christmas and Santa Claus in a variety of colours and styles. He could be tall or elf-like, fat or thin, with a beard or without. There was no definitive image, not even on Victorian Christmas cards. Leyendecker didn’t invent the red-coated, white bearded version we instantly recognise as Santa Claus today but his portraits were so powerful that Leyendecker is the reason we don’t see Santa dressed in green, blue, yellow or in any other of his earlier manifestations.

J. C. Leyendecker was from a German immigrant family and studied art and engraving in Chicago and Paris. In 1899 he was approached by the Saturday Evening Post to produce a cover, the first of over 300 he produced for the magazine over a period of 44 years.

Most of Leyendecker’s covers were not Christmas orientated but many were seasonal – Thanksgiving, Easter, Mother’s Day and New Year. Most of the work for the Post and others often featured the same male model. He was Leyendecker’s lover Charles Beach. In fact Leyendecker’s artwork turned Beach into a something of a minor celebrity. People would stop Beach in the street because they recognised him from Leyendecker’s work, mainly from advertising material for shirts and socks. Charles Beach became Leyendecker’s manager and agent and pushed the artist’s work to a stage where Leyendecker was earning the equivalent of a million dollars and more a year. The couple built a huge mansion for themselves and held lavish parties to rival those of Elsa Maxwell.

It is Leyendecker’s Santa Claus illustrations which fixed our image of the loveable Christmas gift-bringer forever. So much so that the work of his contemporary and fellow Saturday Evening Post artist Norman Rockwell, and the famous 1930s Coca Cola advertising campaign featuring a Leyendecker Santa, mean that thousands of men every year dress in identical costume to recreate the Santa popularised by Leyendecker.

The first of Leyendecker’s Santas for the Saturday Evening Post, however, was a little different. It featured on the cover of the Christmas 1912 edition and showed an old, thin man dressed as Santa in a long, grubby red coat. This was an example of topical references he often incorporated into his illustrations. This 1912 Santa actually depicts one of the many Salvation Army volunteers who used to stand on streets and ring a bell and collect donations from passers-by. In August that year the founder of the Salvation Army, Gen. William Booth, died and Leyendecker’s illustration was a tribute to him. (I’m actually writing this in the cafĂ© bar of the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham, my daily writing location. The building was originally the Methodist chapel that Nottingham-boy William Booth worshipped in before founding the Salvation Army. A plaque in entrance foyer commemorates this fact.)

In the USA the Saturday Evening Post cover illustrations have achieved iconic status and have come to symbolise an ideal Americanised way of life. Its influence is seen in many other American publications, not to mention Coca Cola adverts, and in something which I find particularly appropriate and can’t live without at Christmas. I’ve always been a fan of the Carpenters, Richard and Karen (I’m related to them through their English father), and I have all of their studio albums on vinyl. In 1978 they released their first Christmas album. Little did I know at the time that the album cover was a direct tribute to the Santa covers of the Saturday Evening Post (compared side by side below). Their Santa owes more to the work of Norman Rockwell in depicting him without his famous red coat and in a more informal setting, but Rockwell greatly admired Leyendecker and continued his Santa tradition. Today, no-one thinks of Santa in any other way.

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