• The Prickly History of Beards: Santa's Beard

by Mr. Spruce

A bit of a departure from our regular Prickly History of Beards series. As Christmas is nearly upon us once again, we here at Worthy & Spruce thought it would only be appropriate if we shone a light on our all-time favourite bearded gent; Santa Claus.

Although we all know that nowadays Santa spends most of the year tinkering away in his vast toy warehouse in the North Pole, the origin story of his mythical background stretches back for centuries.

We know more about Santa today, despite his decidedly secretive nature, than ever before. The advent of the internet broke down many of the barriers that the bearded philanthropist had developed over the years to obscure his true story and identity.

"One thing we do know for sure is that he still sports his now trademark, full faced, bushy white beard."

Despite the recent, increased freedom and availability of information pertaining to his whereabouts and activities many things are still unknown about Santa Claus.

This is in part due to the intricate web of misinformation that Santa has worked so hard to create and maintain over the years, his relative isolation in the frozen North and also, arguably, his being the only celebrity that the general public have been content to let revel in it’s own unique mystery and notoriety.

One thing we do know for sure is that he still sports his now trademark, full faced, bushy white beard.

No records exist of how long Santa has been at his work; whether he is, as some have hypothesised, immortal or relies on a series of heirs (possibly familial) or carry on his work.

"Stories were passed down over the years through word of mouth though very little was written."

Written records do, however, make mention of a character named “Saint Nicholas”. Saint Nicholas first pops up around 280 A.D. in what is now Turkey. Eyewitness accounts from the time mention an unusually kind monk that gave away all of his wealth to travel the world helping those in need. Stories were passed down over the years through word of mouth though very little was written. This means that most of the tales are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to accurately verify.

Saint Nicholas

A 13th-century depiction of St. Nicholas from Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

Whether this Saint Nicholas was indeed the man we now know as Santa is a matter of conjecture. Eye witness accounts tail off sometime shortly after this period, presumably due in part to various raids in the region from warring Arab and Byzantine armies. What happened to Saint Nicholas after is a mystery.

The stories held strong for generations thereafter and eventually he was immortalised with his very own feast day on 6th December. During the Renaissance the church kept the stories alive promoting him as a venerable saint. After the Protestant Reformation, whenever ‘saints’ were less widely deified, 16th century Holland still held the now controversial character in high esteem. The feast day was moved to the 25th December to bring it into alignment with the increasingly popular ‘Christmas Day’.

At this time instances of great kindness and generosity were still acknowledged to be occurring, particularly around Saint Nicholas’ feast day, however these were not attributed to any one individual. If the individual we know as Santa was active at this time he may already have moved his base of operations to the North Pole in order to maintain his anonymity after his early flirtations with fame. 

As Dutch immigrants spilled into a newly expanding New York their stories, feast days and traditions followed them. It was near the end of the 18th century that the name ‘Santa Claus’ was first recorded. It was an evolution from the Anglicised version of ‘Sinter Klaas’ which was an affectionate nickname the Dutch had for ‘Sint Nikolaas’ or Saint Nicholas. 

In 1809 Santa can be read about in Washington Irving’s, “The History of New York” where he is referred to as the patron saint of New York. It appears that Santa’s legend had finally made it to the New World. Again, acts of generosity and kindness from this period are difficult to directly attribute to one individual but things would slowly start to change a century later. 

"It can only be speculated as to the true nature of Moore’s relationship with Santa"

Gift-giving during the festive period became more of a focus as retail grew and disposable income became more achievable in the early 19th century. This was spearheaded in the States where advertisements at the time regularly featured images of the now, widely-popular Santa Claus. Whether or not these graphic records were based on eye-witness testimony is unknown. 

Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem in 1822 for his children entitled, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” It can only be speculated as to the true nature of Moore’s relationship with Santa and how he seemingly knew so much about him but what is clear is that Santa decided that the best way to deal with once again being in the spotlight was to carefully control his own image.

The poem described to us how Santa was a “jolly old elf”. It is unclear whether this is to be taken literally or not but it informed our early assumptions about the man in red. The poem also explained Santa’s seemingly supernatural abilities to scale household chimneys and travel huge distances in a very short space of time on a flying sleigh lead by a team of reindeer. Of course, giving gifts was still a key component of Santa’s work. 

"Santa’s ingenious manipulation and piggy backing off the newly emerging, modern advertising machine continued unabated through to the following century."

Similarities can be drawn from these descriptions and those of the Nordic god Odin. As well as being a generous fellow and associated with Yuletide, Odin was said to fly through the sky on an eight legged horse. Again, the lack of quantifiable evidence leaves us to speculate as to whether this was indeed Santa in an earlier iteration. 

Thomas Nast depicition of Santa Claus 1881

1881 Illustration by Thomas Nast

In 1881 Thomas Nast published a cartoon in ‘Harper’s Weekly’ which drew Santa as a large, happy man with a fulsome beard and an enormous sack full of presents. Unfortunately, we have no hard evidence that suggests Nast ever came into contact with Santa in person but it is widely held that this was the most accurate representation we had of Santa until recently. 

Santa’s ingenious manipulation and piggy backing off the newly emerging, modern advertising machine continued unabated through to the following century. Advertisers loved to feature him as he helped boost sales. Quid pro quo, Santa’s blanket coverage was easily employed to remind the world of the generous nature he so relentlessly promoted. 

Coca-Cola threw their substantial advertising clout behind Santa in the 1930s. So significant was their campaign that many still wrongfully believe that Coca-Cola somehow invented him out of thin air at the time. If anything it was probably Santa’s vivid red and white outfit that inspired Coca-Cola’s choice of colours for their brand image.

"Rumours circulated some 5 years ago that Santa was active on Twitter"

White Rock beverages had previously featured Santa in a 1915 campaign to promote their mineral water but their marketing budget was a fraction of Coca-Cola’s and few remembered the collaboration after the fact. Santa was clearly quite wily when it came to cultivating his brand but he didn’t align himself with the best companies every time. He dabbled in print media earlier still, appearing on the front cover of ‘Puck’ magazine in 1905, this was a format he would forgo in later years. 

Santa Claus Puck Magazine 

Santa Claus as illustrated in Puck Magazine, December 6 1905

Nowadays, with social media and marketing being as ubiquitous as it is, it is difficult to ascertain anymore what outlets, if any, Santa still exploits. It is quite possible that now he is relying on the strength of his own myth and image to self-propagate. Rumours circulated some 5 years ago that Santa was active on Twitter, regularly tweeting on topics as diverse as climate change and the effects on his adopted home in the North Pole and expressing opinions on what people ‘wanted’ for Christmas as opposed to the philosophical act of giving. In an age of internet obscurity and catfishing we will probably never know whether this was the legitimate Santa or not. The account went silent in 2013 and was deleted shortly thereafter. 

Despite most people now agreeing that Santa works out of an enormous manufacturing plant hidden somewhere within the Arctic Circle helped by an army of workers, human or otherwise, extensive searches of the area on foot and via satellite have found nothing. There are still detractors, as there undoubtedly have been over the centuries, claiming that Santa is all a fabrication, a myth, lie or hoax. However, the lack of hard evidence supporting the many, many theories about the man does little to dissuade the population at large from believing in, and supporting Santa’s good work. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss. 

Here, we have offered up our opinion on who Santa really might be, shone a light on his background and his work alongside us over the years. As for an explanation on why he chooses to sport such an enviable beard- none needed.

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Mr. Jack Baxter.

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Mr. Spruce
Mr. Spruce


Mr. Spruce aka Andy. One half of Worthy & Spruce. Blogging about all things gentlemanly, and many things not. Tired but tireless dad, business dude, consumer of coffee, and deliverer of timely quips.

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