Top 10 People Who Helped Define Modern Christmas

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The modern celebration of Christmas is just kind of accepted as universal truth. However, everything that we consider to be a cliché is actually an evolution of images, which required hard work by actual people to help break into the mainstream. Some of those names are famous, and some are seeming footnotes in history. Through this list, we will try and recognize some of those who helped shape the modern mythology of Christmas.

10. Norman Rockwell

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Figures such as Santa Claus definitely have more than one interpretation. They also tend to evolve. Generally though, whenever Norman Rockwell put an illustration on the Saturday Evening Post, it quickly became definitive. Rockwell’s Santa would start appearing on covers of the Post in the 1920’s. This is important in that Rockwell’s paintings would go on to influence even more influential representations of Claus later in the century. Their widespread use would even go on to serve as an inspiration for Coca-Cola’s 1930’s Christmas campaign, which many (falsely) consider to be the birth of the modern Santa Claus.

9. Tadahito Mochinaga

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Tadahito Mochinaga was a pioneering stop motion animator, who worked in both China and Japan. However, it is his work with the company headed by Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass which earns him a spot on this list. The actual animation for the Rankin/Bass specials of the 1960’s was farmed out to Asian studios. This would mean that, when you watch the distinctive look and animation for Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, the look and animations were actually done by Mochinga. In that way, Mochinga influenced many of the other Rankin/Bass Christmas specials to come. His works also continue to influence how we see Christmas to this day.

8. Francis Pharcellus Church

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When 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the New York Sun in 1897, asking if there was a Santa Claus, Francis Church had an iconic response at the ready. His famous answer of, “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” originally published on September 21, has gone on to become the most re-printed editorial of all time. While he doesn’t come out and say whether Santa is a physical being or not, he still challenges the reader (and Virginia) to imagine a world without Santa, fairies, or basically goodness and imagination at all.

“Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” has also provided a way for parents to answer a child’s delicate question with hope. It has also become a catchphrase, especially during the holiday season. It is hard to believe, but rather appropriate, that initially Church never signed his name to it. It wasn’t about him, after all. It was about something much bigger.

7. Theodore Geisel

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Quick trivia question: what was the highest-grossing domestic movie of 2000?  That would be Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Though many likely look back with regret on their decision to give Jim Carrey their money for that thing, it’s proof positive that the Grinch name carries a megaton of weight.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas was originally released as a book by Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel in 1957. Subsequently, generations would grow up on the animated special directed by Chuck Jones narrated by Frankenstein’s Boris Karloff. Ostensibly, Grinch is a rallying cry against the crass commercialization of Christmas. However, Grinch goes a little deeper into the psyche of what has become a universal holiday. While Grinch is certainly against commercialization, Grinch also does not seem to endorse any specific religious interpretation of the holiday. Rather, Grinch argues that Christmas has managed to develop a spirit all its own, which crosses all barriers and beliefs. In that, Christmas is allowed to bring out the best of humanity, regardless of our origins or beliefs.

6. Robert L. May

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Robert L. May was working as a copywriter for the department store Montgomery Ward in the late 1930’s, when he received a curious assignment from his bosses. Montgomery Ward wanted to hand out a picture book at Christmas time in their stores, and it was May’s job to write one. May’s daughter, Barbara, was entranced by the deer at a Chicago Zoo, and her love of the creatures inspired Robert to write about a previously-unknown puller of Santa’s sleigh.

After several revisions, and drawing from the experiences of his own childhood, May produced the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1939. it was a massive success, in large part due to Mat’s decision to illustrate Rudolph in the book. Rudolph would also go on to be immortalized in song, television, and film.

5. Haddon Sundblom

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Haddon Sunblom was a noted illustrator throughout his life, who would even go on to do some risque material for Playboy. However, in the 1930’s, Sundblom was commissioned by the Coca-Cola company to draw Santa Claus for a campaign. The Coca-Cola Santa Claus would go on to become a definitive representation of Santa Claus for generations world-wide. The charm of Sundblom’s Santa is that he would use actual models to establish the grandfatherly appeal of the Coca-Cola Santa. Sundblom based his Santa initially on a friend of his named Lou Prentiss, a retired salesman. Sundblom would later base Santa on himself. While Sundblom was not the first illustrator to do the Coca Cola Santa, his is considered the most definitive.

4. Gene Autry

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Most artists would probably consider themselves lucky to have one song associated with them decades after it has been recorded. Gene Autry (the singing, acting, baseball team-owning cowboy) has two of the great seminal hits in the history of Christmas songs. Autry sang both Here Comes Santa Claus and Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. Autry is also the voice behind the classic recording of Frosty The Snowman. If you add in Peter Cottontail, then Autry is nothing less than the classic singing voice of every holiday occasion. The only way he could have been any more awesome, would have been to fight robots and aliens in his films, all while dressed as a singing cowboy of course.

3. Charles Dickens

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Everyone knows the classic Charles Dickens tale A Christmas Carol. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge has been told and retold through every major media form that we have several times over. The one thing we often don’t think about is how Christmas was celebrated before A Christmas Carol. Before Dickens’s work, Christmas was a community celebration. After Dickens, it was much more of a family and personal celebration.

Also, Dickens’s 1843 novel describes a white Christmas, which was supposed to demonstrate the bleakness of everybody’s lives thanks to Scrooge and his scrooginess. As a matter of fact, eastern England is very rarely subject to such conditions in December. Nevertheless, a more optimistic, idealized interpretation of snow on Christmas prevailed, and dreaming of a White Christmas is a thing to this very day. This is all thanks to Dickens, even though he didn’t mean it that way.

2. Thomas Nast

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Thomas Nast was a political and cultural cartoonist in the 19th century. In addition to satirizing New York City politicians, Nast also gave us our earliest depictions of what Santa Claus should look like. Nast depicted Santa bandying about on rooftops (an idea which was first shared with Americans by Washington Irving,) and gave us the classic idea of how Santa should be dressed. To this day, the very idea of Christmas seems to recall 19th century Americana, as well as Victorian England. This is largely due to the influence of Nast. Later illustrators simply put Nast’s cartoons in a modern setting.

1. Clement Clarke Moore

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Clement Clark Moore was a professor of Divinity and Literature at an New York Episcopal college when, in 1822, he sat down to write a Christmas poem for his family. Moore never intended for the poem (originally titled A Visit From St. Nicolas) to even be published. It was only at his family’s begging and insistence that Visit was published a year later. Under its revised title, The Night Before Christmas, the poem became an immediate smash success, one that’s still succeeding close to 200 years later.

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The story of a man catching Santa Claus late at night is so well-known, that many do not realize its groundbreaking nature. Moore, in one little poem, all but invented Christmas mythology. He named the reindeer, was the first to call St. Nicolas an “elf,” cemented the idea of Santa going from rooftop to rooftop, and codified most every concept about Santa entering your home to leave gifts. Outside of milk and cookies, there is virtually nothing about the legend of Santa that was not influenced by this poem. There’s a good chance at least some of these ideas were already popular circulation, but the fact that Moore took the time to write them down means he is the reason we’re all celebrating Christmas today.


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4 Comments

  1. Ahhh, Christmas!

    That time of year when I look in the mirror, I don’t see an aging man. I see a little boy with wide-eyed wonder, who is hoping upon hope that he will get the bicycle he wants so bad. More that that, he can’t wait to go downtown to see Santa. That magical old man that comes out of nowhere at this time of year to make me an innocent, really good boy, nearly over night.

    In the silent night many years ago, I promised him that I’d never stop believing and I haven’t.

    I’m so glad I hold on to that belief, for I need Santa Claus in my heart now more than ever.

  2. I love the history of Christmas! As I started reading this list, I predicted Dickens and Moore would be near the top. I also thought Washington Irving would be on the list for his 1820 fictional account of Christmas in “The Sketch Book”; he wasn’t but at least he got a mention. Moore got inspiration for his poem from his friend Irving.

    A fab bit of Clement Clarke Moore trivia: his family estate in New York would become the Chelsea district. 9th Avenue was cut thru his property during his lifetime.

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