Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Sister Susy and Santa Claus - How We Learned that Santa Claus Lives at the North Pole

In a recent post I traced the origin of the expression “flyover country” to the dismissive attitude of television executives and writers who referred to a large portion of their audience as the “people they fly over” while shutting back and forth between New York and Hollywood.

In this post, I look at a more positive form of “flyover” – Santa Claus’ annual trek around the world dispensing gifts and joy to girls and boys (and hopefully someday to a blog writer who’s been very good this year).

While the origins of the Santa Claus myth (if we can call something that is absolutely true a myth he adds, hedging his bets) are generally well known, there are a few elements of secular Christmas folklore whose origins are less well known.  The leg-lamp made famous in the classic film A Christmas Story, for example, dates to at least 1921;  Charlie Brown’s sad Christmas tree predates the TV-special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, by nearly a century; Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s dentist friend, Hermie the Elf (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), appeared in an advertisement for Gimbel’s Department Store in 1914; and the popular notion that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole is several years older than generally believed – at least as early as 1863 as opposed to 1866.

Leg Lamps

A series of drawings illustrating life on the streets of Washington DC during the holiday season of 1921 included this image of an early leg-lamp.

The Washington Times, December 4, 1921, 36.

I was also naively unaware of and never fully appreciated the "deep" thematic relationship between leg-lamp stockings and Christmas stockings until I saw this shapely poem published in 1884:

What’s in your stocking?

Sad Christmas Trees

The cover art for the book, Kriss Kringle’s Christmas Tree (Philadelphia, E. Ferrett & Co., 1845) shows a very short Santa Claus hanging toys in a Spartan, if not quite Charlie Brown-like, tree.

A spittin’ image of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree appeared on the cover of a German humor magazine in 1867:

And a photograph of a more authentic American version appeared in the New York Tribune in 1903 (left):

Hermie the Elf

Rudolph the Reindeer’s dentist friend, Hermie the Elf, appeared (it seems) without his cap in a Christmas ad for Gimbel’s department store in 1914 (lower left):

The Evening World (New York), November 23, 1914, page 9.

1914 - 1964

Santa Claus at the North Pole

In this age of satellite imagery and regularly scheduled transcontinental flights along the polar route, it is a well established fact that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole.  But when transportation and technology was more primitive and more limited, it was more difficult to pin him down to a precise location. 

In 1844 the signature line of a letter to the editor by Santa Claus himself suggested that he may have lived at Mont Blanc, Quebec.  But the letter was dated January 1, 1844, so perhaps he was just relaxing there after a busy Christmas before returning home to the Pole.  Surprisingly, the letter also reveals that he used to deliver gifts on Christmas and New Year’s Eve:

A Letter From Santa Claus.

My dear Young Friends;

Doubtless you will be surprised, as you glance over this paper, to discover a piece addressed to yourselves; and still greater will be your surprise when you see by whom it is written. . . .

On account of the extent over which I am obliged to travel, I have appointed two nights in which to perform this office,  - the eves of Christmas and New Year.  At these times the stockings are duly  hung up, ready to receive, with open mouths, anything which I may be pleased to deposite in them. . . .

And now, as I bid you adieu, I wish you a happy New Year, and that you may spend, not only this, but many more years, in peace and prosperity.

Ever Yours, Santa Claus.
Mt. Blanc, January 1st, 1844. [i]

In 1848, one writer placed Santa Claus and his toy-making elves in “dream-land”:

We do know my dear child that it will be Christmas, and Santa Claus will bring you the most beautiful horse and sleigh, and caps and feathers, that can be made by the elves and fairies, who are always working for good children in dream-land![ii]

A Christmas story published in 1853 suggested that Santa Claus’ home base was still not widely known:

Wherever Santa Claus lives, and in what ever spot of the Universe he harnesses his reindeer and loads up his sleigh, one thing is for certain – he never yet put anything in that sleigh for little Carl Krinken.[iii]

Even the crack investigative staff of the New York Times was stymied, referring merely to Santa's "mysterious home" (December 28, 1857).  And in 1860, the humorist Philander Doesticks wrote that he had heard, "Santy kept a toy-shop in the moon . . . ." Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 27, 1860, page 2.

A story about Santa's pre-Christmas dress-rehearsal and ball in the January 3, 1863 issue of Harper's Weekly does not reveal Santa's primary residence, but suggests that he may have more than one, including a palace on a volcano in Iceland.

The gala was held in Santa Claus's favorite winter palace, an immense snow-cave in the side of Mount Hecla [(Hekla)].

Harpers Weekly, January 3, 1863, page 13.

The cover art for that issue was Thomas Nast's first known drawing of Santa Claus for Harper's Weekly, "Santa Claus in Camp."
Harper's Weekly, January 3, 1863, cover art.
Thomas Nast's frequent illustrations of Santa Claus in Harper's over the next decades are considered a primary influence in crystalizing the popular image of Santa Claus.  But while that may be true, Nast did not work from a clean slate.  His representations built off a long line of similar, earlier representations of Santa.

Many sources also credit Nast's 1866 illustration, “Santa Claus and His Works,”[iv] as the earliest indication that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole.
Harper’s Weekly (New York), Volume 10, Number 522, December 29, 1866, page 825.

A detail from just to the right of top-center reads:


The initials N. P. presumably refer to the North Pole.  An illustrated book published three years later, and likewise entitled Santa Claus and His Works, expressly referred to his home as the “North Pole”.

But Thomas Nast and the editors of Harper’s Weekly were not the first people to know the location of Santa’s base of operations.  Young readers of Sophia May’s (real name Rebecca Sophia Clarke) popular Little Prudie Series of books knew where Santa lived as early as 1863:

Yes, my dears . . . , here I am, as jolly as ever!  But bless your sweet little hearts, I’ve had a terrible time getting here! . . . I’ve been ducked up to the chin in some awful deep snowdrifts, up there by the North Pole!  This is the very first time the storms have come so heavy as to cover over the end of the North Pole!  But this year they had to dig three days before they could find it. O, ho![v]

Sister Susy (1863)

Sister Susy (1863)

 It is not clear whether Sophie May invented the story from whole cloth or merely put into print something that had already been widely known or suspected.  But she was from Maine, so perhaps her proximity to the North Pole gave her access to some inside information.

The Real Santa Claus

Just in case there are still any doubters out there, here is an image of the real Santa Claus:

Minneapolis Journal, December 25, 1906, page 4.

So have a merry Christmas, Festivus or other appropriate holiday as desired, but please – be careful.  If you can’t wait for the real Santa Claus, and choose to dress up as Santa Claus yourself, dress appropriately – or use electric lights instead of traditional candles because you might get burned, stockings and all:

Puck, Volume 80, December 2, 1916, page 30.
'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring not even a mouse --
* * * * * * *
And I heard him exclaim as he drover out sight,
"That is no place for me on my one busy night!"

The Nebraska Advertiser (Nemaha City, Nebraska), December 22, 1905, page 6.

Portage Sentinel (Ravenna, Ohio), January 12, 1853, page 2.

Merry Christmas!!!

[i] Vermont Watchman and State Journal (Montpelier, Vermont), January 5, 1844.
[ii] Brooklyn Evening Star, December 22, 1848,page 2.
[iii] Susan Warner, Carl Krinken: His Christmas Stocking, New York, G. P. Putnam, 1854, page 11. 
[iv] Harper’s Weekly (New York), Volume 10, Number 522, December 29, 1866, page 825.
[v] Sophie May, Sister Susy (part of the Little Prudy Series), Boston, Lee, Shepard & Dillingham, 1863, page 28.

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