Santa’s Family Tree in Pictures

Santa Claus has an old and lively family. Like all families, it is filled with stories, but here I want to focus on the images before the stories. Following multiple branches through time is not easy to represent, and I’ve opted to move first down a secondary branch from Odin to Santa Claus and then back up the heaviest branch of the family (with several strange forks) to Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (modern-day Demre, Turkey). These sixty-six images from Santa’s family tree represent all of the basic characters and secondary branches within the these two primary ancestral lines:

01_Y Odin-cabalgando-a-Sleipnir 02

Above: Tjängvide image stone (dated between A.D. 700 and 1000) which features Odin riding his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir.

01_Y Odin-cabalgando-a-Sleipnir

Above: Detail from the Tjängvide image stone focused on Odin and Sleipnir. Odin was often described riding through the sky with animal companions in the Wild Hunt. Some have suggested that Sleipnir’s eight legs inspired the original number for Santa’s eight reindeer (before Rudolph joined in the 1900s and made it nine).

Three figures 12th-century Skog tapestry have been interpreted as the Norse gods Odin Thor and Freyja

Above: These three figures from the Skog tapestry (dated to the 1100s) have been interpreted as the Norse gods Odin, Thor and Freyja.

02_Y odin_with_his_two_crows_hugin_and_munin_poster

Above: Illustration of Odin with his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, from a 1760 Icelandic manuscript.

03_Y NKS_1867_4to,_97v,_Odin_on_Sleipnir

Above: Illustration of Odin on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, from a 1760 Icelandic manuscript.

04_Y Odin_rides_to_Hel W G Collingwood 1908

Above: “Odin Rides to Hel” by W.G. Collingwood, 1908.

05_Y Odin's Hunt Malmström by august-malmstrom 1850s to 1901

Above: “The Wild Hunt” by August Malmström (lived 1829 to 1901), illustration of Odin riding with his wolves and ravens.

06_Y GeorgVonRosenOdin1886

Above: “Odin in the guise of a wanderer” by Georg von Rosen in 1886. (Appeared in the 1893 Swedish translation of the Poetic Edda.)

Frontispiece_to_The_Vindication_of_Christmas_by_John_Taylor_1652

Above: Frontispiece to John Taylor’s pamphlet “The Vindication of Christmas” from 1652 (printed date 1653).

Father Christmas in Josiah King two pamphlets of 1658 and 1678

Above: Father Christmas in an illustration used by two Josiah King pamphlets (1658 and 1678).

07_Y yule goat The Book of Christmas 1836

Above: from The Book of Christmas by Thomas Kibble Hervey with “Old Christmas” shown riding a yule goat, 1836.

08_Y father christmas with Yule Goat

Above: Father Christmas with the Yule Goat (date and source unknown).

Christmas_and_his_children_by_Robert_Seymour_1836

Above: “Christmas and his children” by Robert Seymour, 1836.

11_Y Dicken's christmas carole origional christmas present

Above: A colorized edit of an engraving by John Leech in 1843 for the “Ghost of Christmas Present” in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (illustration from first edition).

Merry_Christmas_Illustrated_London_News_25_December_1847

Father Christmas from the Illustrated London News 1847.

09_Y Old Father Christmas_with_the_Yule_Log,_Illustrated_London_News,_23_Dec_1848

Above: “Christmas with the Yule Log” by Alfred Crowquill (Alfred Henry Forrester), 1848 (Illustrated London News).

arthur-rackahm-father-christmas ca 1900

Above: “Father Christmas” by Arthur Rackahm (c. 1900).

arthur rackham old st nick 1907

Above: “Old St. Nick” by Aarthur Rackham from 1907. [Note: This image could fit below among the Saint Nicholas branch of the family, but I include it here because these two illustrations by Rackham show how Father Christmas and St. Nick are two distinct figures. This image of “Old St. Nick” also demonstrates a critical secondary-branch in the Saint Nicholas clan where the human saint is replaced by an elf or a gnome-like creature, often from the far north and living underground. This is the source of the “Jolly Old St. Nick” name that later becomes associated with Santa Claus along with ideas about where and how he lives.]

A-Merry-Christmas-made-in-Saxony-ca 1900

Above: Saxon postcard c. 1900 from the Kemper Chambers Collection.

victorian father christmas

Above: illustration of Father Christmas from the Victorian era (1837-1901, exact date and source unknown).

Victorian English Father Christmas in Green

Above: illustration of Father Christmas from the Victorian era (1837-1901, exact date and source unknown).

Father_Christmas_Tuck_Photo_Oilette_postcard 1919

Above: Father Christmas from a 1919 Tuck postcard (by the London company of Raphael Tuck & Sons), Photo Oilette series number C7513).

12_Y Father Christmas Tolkien

Above: The first Father Christmas letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to his children, 1920.

13_Y Father Christmas in Narnia

Above: Illustration of Father Christmas by Pauline Diana Baynes in the 1950 first edition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (colorization added).

father christmas blue

Above: Illustration of Father Christmas (date and source unknown).

father christmas

Above: Illustration of Father Christmas (date and source unknown).

santa claus photo

Above: Contemporary image of Santa Claus. [Note: Although Father Christmas and Santa Claus are separate figures, several indirect influences on Santa Claus can be noted from the above members of the family. Below, after two more contemporary Santa images, the images from here on will reverse direction in time as we move back up the main branch in Santa’s family tree toward Saint Nicholas.]

Orthodox cross adorned with Santa 2015 Child in York Pa

Above: 2015 photo that I took at my Orthodox (Antiochian) church showing a cross decorated by a child with a Santa Claus.

santa-claus photo

Above: One more contemporary image of Santa Claus.

Reconstruction of St Nicholas by Professor Caroline Wilkinson

Above: 2014 reconstruction of Saint Nicholas by Dr. Caroline Wilkinson with Face Lab (Liverpool John Moores University). Based on thousands of minutely-detailed measurements and x-ray photographs (roentgenography) from the skull and other bones of St. Nicholas’ (at the request of the Vatican) by anatomy professor Luigi Martino when the bones were removed temporarily from their crypt in the Basilica di San Nicola (Bari, Italy) during the 1950s.

Reconstruction Image Foundry Studios produced a 3D Visualisation of the Real Face of St Nicholas

Above: Initial reconstruction and computer generated image of Saint Nicholas by Dr. Caroline Wilkinson from 2004 (with Image Foundry Studios and Anand Kapoor).

Kris Kringle 02

Above: young Kris Kringle (later Santa Claus) from the 1970 film “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.”

Kris Kringle holiday-specials-watching-slide

Above: young Kris Kringle (later Santa Claus) from the 1970 film “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.”

Christkind 2019-20 Benigna Munsi

Above: German girl dressed as the Christkind in a traditional German protestant Christmas celebration. The name “Kris Kringle” comes from an Americanization of Christkind (German for “Christ Child”). This character developed after Martin Luther introduced it to refocus German Christmas traditions away from Saint Nicholas and back toward God’s incarnation as Jesus Christ. However, the Christkind developed into its own figure as an angelic child that sometimes appeared alongside both Jesus Christ and Saint Nicholas.

Coke Santa by Haddon Sundblom 1959 large 01

Above: Santa illustration by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola in 1959.

Coke Santa by Haddon Sundblom 1934 large 02

Above: Santa illustration by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola in 1934.

Coke Santa by Haddon Sundblom 1931 01

Above: another Santa illustration by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola in 1931.

Coke Santa 1931 02

Above: Santa illustrated by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola in 1931.

A-Joyful-Christmas-printed-in-Germany-ca 1908

Above: Card featuring Saint Nicholas printed in Germany c. 1908. Given as a comparison to the developments taking place in the United States.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus 1902 children book L Frank Baum illustrated Mary Cowles Clark

Above: cover of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, a 1902 children’s book written by L. Frank Baum (best know for authoring The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) and illustrated by Mary Cowles Clark.

Santa Claus Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collections c 1900

Christmas color postcard with illustration of Santa Claus inserting a frightened child into sack c. 1900 (Missouri History Museum, photographs and prints collections, ID: N39366).

N-Pole-Wireless-Co-Santa-Claus-Proprietor-ca 1900 Kemper Chambers Collection

Above: “N. Pole Wireless Co Santa Claus Proprietor” c. 1900 from the Kemper Chambers Collection.

10_Y Goody_Santa_Claus_1889

Above: 1889 cover of the songbook “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride” by Katharine Lee Bates (best known as the writer of “America the Beautiful”).

Nast Hello Little One 1884

Above: “Hello Little One” by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1884.

Nast Santa Claus or St Nick by Thomas Nast for Harper s Weekly in 1881

Above: illustration of “Santa Claus” or “St Nick” by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1881.

Nast And-to-All-a-Good-Night-1879

Above: “And to All a Good Night” by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1879.

Nast Collection The-coming-of-Santa-Claus-1872 Jolly Old Elf arrival to pets

Above: “The coming of Santa Claus” (the “Jolly Old Elf” arrives to the pets) by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1872.

Nast Visit of Saint Nicholas by Thomas Nast 1869

Above: “Visit of Saint Nicholas” by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1869.

Nast first drawing of Saint Nick, Santa Claus in CampWeekly Cover-January-3-1863 Thomas Nast

Above: “Santa Claus in Camp” was the first of the many Thomas Nast illustrations of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly. This was the cover on January 3, 1863. This Civil-War-era image was the most critical step in the development of a unified nation-wide identity for Santa Claus.

Santa Claus in Camp

Above: another image of Thomas Nast’s “Santa Claus in Camp” from 1863.

Swan-pulled-strawberry-sled-with-demons-reprinted-1870s-post card Kemper Chambers Collection

Above: Small demons on swans pull “Santa Claus” in a strawberry sled in this 1870s post card from the Kemper Chambers Collection.

Bram van der Vlugt nog één keer Sinterklaas

Above: a Dutch celebration of a traditional visit from “Sinter Klaas” accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Dutch meaning “Black Pete”). This traditional figure among largely Protestant Dutch colonists in New York city (originally called New Amsterdam) likely provided the primary basis for the name “Santa Claus” as well as for his basic features and costume. [Note: this tradition of Zwarte Piet has sad and hurtful aspects with regard to the portrayal of different people groups. See next image. Many other “companions of Saint Nicholas” showed up in other countries throughout Europe: Père Fouettard (French), Knecht Ruprecht (German meaning Farmhand/Servant Rupert/Robert), Belsnickel or Pelznikel (German meaning “Walloping-Nickel”), Kriskinkle (German for “Christmas woman”) and Krampus (a fearful figure in Austria, Bavaria, South Tyrol, Slovenia, and Croatia probably originating in the pre-Christian Alpine pagan folklore).]

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet or Black Pete

Above: a contemporary cartoon by Andy Warner (2013 for an article the-magazine.org) showing the concern of parents at the troubling associations with Sinter Klaas as he is typically surrounded by numerous figures in costume as Zwarte Piet. Although the idea was much older in other parts of Europe, the idea that Sinterklaas had a servant was first printed in Dutch within a book by Jan Schenkman called Sint Nicolaas en Zijn Knecht (English: Saint Nicholas and His Servant, 1850).

08_St._Nikolaas_bij_een_Snoeper

Above: Illustration from Jan Schenkman’s book Sint Nicolaas en Zijn Knecht (English: Saint Nicholas and His Servant, 1850).

Sinterklaas Dutch

Above: one more image of a traditional Dutch Sinterklaas costume. [Note: Another theory sometimes given for the name “Santa Claus” is that it was an American mispronunciation of the saint’s name as used by Italian immigrants: “Sant Nikolas.” However, given how early “Santa Claus” appears in print in New York city, it is most likely derived from the Dutch “Sinterklaas.”]

Old Santeclaus with Much Delight 1821 page 1

Above: illustration from page 1 of “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight,” an anonymous children’s poem published in New York in 1821. [Note: A few other publication dates to note are: 1809 with A History of New York by Washington Irving (a satirical book that described the Dutch settlers’ Christmas traditions including a jolly St. Nicholas who delivered presents and flew over houses in a cart pulled by horses), 1823 with “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known subsequently as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) by American Bible scholar Clement Clarke Moore (first published anonymously and then under Moore’s name in 1844 and with some arguing that the poem was actually by Henry Beekman Livingston, Jr. from a few years before) and 1836 with “The Knickerbocker’s Rescue Santa Claus” by James Kirke Paulding (1778–1860) from The Book of Saint Nicholas.]

Christkind_1893

Above: Looking again at contemporary developments outside of the United States, this is a German “Christkind” illustration from 1893 (Stadt Gottes, Illustrierte Zeitschrift für das katholische Volk, Sammelband). Children are throwing open a window to watch an infant Christ and angels descending to them with a Christmas tree.

Knecht_Ruprecht_und_das_Christkind 1800s

Above: “Knecht Ruprecht und das Christkind” from the 1800s in Germany, showing how the Protestant figure of the “Christ child” was mixed with older figures such as Knecht Ruprecht (one of the German companions of Saint Nicholas).

Krampus victorian xmas 02

Above: Krampus in a Victorian era Christmas card. Krampus was first connected to Saint Nicholas in the 1600s. After a period of repressing this figure in many areas, postcards featuring Krampus were extremely popular again in the 1800s and 1900s.

Krampus 02

Above: Krampus in a Christmas card from the 1870s.

Krampus 03

Above: Krampus in a Victorian era Christmas card.

Saint Nicholas and Krampus visit a Viennese home 1896 illustration

Above: Saint Nicholas and Krampus visit a Viennese home in a 1896 illustration.

1863 Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld Das_festliche_Jahr_img444_Weihnachtsmasken

Above: 1863 illustration of a visit from Saint Nicholas and Krampus by Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld in Das festliche Jahr in Sitten.

St Nicholas with Money bag icon Our Brother For the Birds

Above: traditional iconography showing the story of Saint Nicholas saving a man’s three daughters from slavery by secretly bringing them money during the night.

Saint-Nicholas-Icon-1500

Above: traditional icon of Saint Nicholas. Prior to the 1600s, images of Saint Nicholas were all religious icons used for prayer and veneration (primarily within the life and services of local churches). These icons contained only the saint (with no companions, although he was sometimes surrounded by smaller images of fellow saints as well as his Lord Jesus Christ).

Icon veliky-novgorod-russian-st-nicholas-painted-on-wooden

Above: traditional icon of Saint Nicholas.

Saint-Nicholas-Icon

Above: traditional icon of Saint Nicholas.

Icon St Nickolas from monastery of St Catherine in Sinai 10th cent

Above: traditional icon of Saint Nicholas dating from 900s. This icon is from the monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, and it is the oldest image of the saint that is still in existence.

To recap, the images above represent these two main branches of Santa’s ancestral tree:

1. Christian and Wider-European Folklore Branch: Saint Nicholas of Myra (the town of Demre in today’s Turkey) lived from A.D. 270 to 343. He grew to be deeply loved throughout the Christian world (including Africa and Asia). Many stories and figures were connected to him in later European folklore. Key names from this family clan:

  • Saint Nicholas
  • Companions of Saint Nicholas
    • Knecht Ruprecht: German meaning Farmhand (or Servant) Rupert (or Robert)
    • Belsnickel or Pelznikel: German meaning “Walloping” and “Nickel” (from “Nikolaus”)
    • Kriskinkle: German for “Christmas woman” a variation on Belsnickel
    • Zwarte Piet: Dutch meaning “Black Pete” a serving person who was a Spanish Moor [Note: this and the French equivalent below clearly have deeply sad and hurtful aspects with regard to the portrayal of different people groups.]
    • Père Fouettard: French equivalent to Zwarte Piet
    • Krampus: Austria, Bavaria, South Tyrol, Slovenia, and Croatia a fearful figure probably originating in the pre-Christian Alpine traditions and sometimes accompanying Saint Nicholas
  • German Protestant Folklore Branch: Martin Luther wanted to recenter Christmas on the incarnation of Jesus as an infant. In German protestant traditions, the Christkind became a sprite-like child, usually depicted with blond hair and angelic wings. Sometimes the Christkind is shown as a specific angel bringing the presents (as it appears in some processions together with an image of little Jesus Christ). Later, the Christkind was also said to make rounds delivering gifts with Saint Nicholas as one of his companions. In United States, the term developed into Kris Kringle which was then sometimes used in stories as a proper name for the person with the title of Santa Claus. Key names from this family clan:
    • Christkind
    • Kris Kringle (developed from “Christkind” later in the United States)

2. British Pagan and Folklore Branch: Stories of Odin likely developed among (or were introduced to) the Germanic Iron Age peoples. With over 170 names, Odin is the god with the most names among the pantheon of the Germanic peoples. Key names from this family clan:

  • Odin
  • Yule Father
  • Father Christmas

This family tree culminates in the images and stories of Santa Claus as they developed in the United States. Do in large part to product marketing and popular entertainment, these stories and images of Santa Claus have also spread to many other parts of the world (including back into many of the originating countries such as Holland, England and Germany):

  • Sinter Klaas (Dutch meaning “Saint Nicholas,” although another version of the story is that Santa Claus comes from Americans imitating the pronunciation of Saint Nickolas by Italian immigrants).
  • Santa Claus

P.S. Some of you might appreciate these excerpts from a delightful GKC essay on Santa Claus and the giftedness of life.

P.P.S. Here are some more illustrations by Mary Cowles Clark from The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by Frank L. Baum in 1902 (which I have read).

Baum The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus 1902 children book L Frank Baum illustrated Mary Cowles Clark 01

Above: a wood nymph finds the baby who grows up to be Santa Claus.

Baum The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus 1902 children book L Frank Baum illustrated Mary Cowles Clark 03

Above: bringing the baby to the king.

Baum The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus 1902 children book L Frank Baum illustrated Mary Cowles Clark 02

Above: the child who grows up to be Santa Claus.

Baum illustrated Mary Cowles Clark

Above: Santa Claus as a grown man.

One thought on “Santa’s Family Tree in Pictures

  1. RE: Belsnickel. The metal nickel was unknown until the modern age. It was found with copper and disliked. Called ‘koppernickel’, ie, devil or demon with copper. Thus, nickel in that name is probably not the metal, but the original meaning Beating -Devil.

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