Throwback Thursday: Origins of your favourite Christmas icons

Products of mass marketing


By Buro247

Throwback Thursday: Origins of your favourite Christmas icons

So here’s one very harsh truth: Christmas is arguably the most commercial holiday the world annually celebrates today. Having long deviated from its humble, religious origins, the celebration has turned into a beacon for generating immense sales, advertising and marketing campaigns. And while the notion of Christmas being the “season for giving” is one that supports goodwill and charity, it’s not just this selfless motivation that drives the celebration forward; it’s also because of the fact that the world’s favourite year-end mascots come out to play too (and sell stuff, while they’re at it).

But why do these mascots appeal to us so much? And more importantly, how did they become a staple to the celebration of Christmas? We take a look at five of our favourite Christmas characters and their fascinating origins:      

Santa Claus

Oh, Jolly St. Nick. Where would Christmas be without him? Santa Claus finds his origins all the way back in the 3rd century in the place that is now known as modern-day Turkey. He was a monk named St. Nicholas, known for his kind and selfless virtues, who is said to have given all his inherited wealth away and travelled the countryside to help the poor and sick. He became known as a protector of children and sailors, which gives us doubt that he was chubby and jolly, and went around wearing red velvet garments.

So how did St. Nicholas turn into “Santa Claus?” The Americans, of course. The name evolved from his Dutch nickname Sinter Klass which was a short-form of Sint Nikolaas.

Santa Claus then blossomed into a commercial goldmine in the early 1800s, when stores began targeting their Christmas gift-giving season towards children. The general description and notion of Santa Claus – where he flies from house to house and goes down chimneys to leave gifts for kids who have been good that year – originated from none other than a creative Christmas poem by Clement Clarke Moore in 1823 titled A Visit from St. Nicholas – now known as Twas the Night Before Christmas. The rest was history.


Santa Claus’ sidekick who not only saved the day, but also experienced his own retribution, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer comes hand-in-hand with Santa’s story. But it turns out that Rudolph only entered the picture about a hundred years following the original depiction of Santa and his eight (normal) flying reindeers that led his sleigh.

In 1939, Rudolph was birthed from a Christmas-themed story-poem by Robert L. May, a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store. We all know the story by heart via the popular Christmas song, but Rudolph’s glorious story of bullying, retribution and heroism began as a story that Montgomery Ward sold almost two and a half million copies in 1939, and another three and a half million copies during its reissue in 1946.

The song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer only arrived in 1949, written by Johnny Marks who was a friend of May’s, and recorded by country singer Gene Autry.

Christmas Elves

Christmas elves used to be your sickeningly adorable, hardworking little helpers of Santa Claus – that is, until Will Ferrell portrayed a giant elf in 2003’s Elf. Nevertheless, most of us probably think of them as miniature, wearing cute little hats in green and red, slaving away in the North Pole for Christmas (or on the flipside for regular elves: beautiful, tall, slender, blonde beings in Lord of the Rings… or are those the Lannisters on Game of Thrones? We get confused sometimes.)

You get the idea. Nevertheless, elves find their origins all the way back to ancient Norse mythology. Known as the alfar or huldufolk (“hidden folk), they were originally imagined as otherworldly beings that lived among us and perhaps even looked like us. They weren’t very whimsicle either (no playing with fairies and whatnots) although Livescience says that some ancient poems related them to Norse gods. Despite that, it seems that there was no single, unified theory on the elvish identity, so it’s only understandable that American commercialism put an end to that.

While the belief in elves spread to the rest of ancient Europe, people throughout different eras and societies could not seem to settle on whether they thought elves were good or evil. It was only in 1823 in Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicolas that elves became linked with Santa Claus. The image of commercial miniature elves we’re familiar with today – the overall jolly, hardworking ones – were introduced as early as the 1850s, and people finally decided that they would stick with this positive rendition of Christmas elves.

The Grinch

The Grinch never really had any historical beginnings – he just happened to be a really popular character from the late 1950s. Created by Dr. Seuss in his 1957 storybook How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch fast became a reference for anyone who despised the jolly holiday of Christmas. The term “Grinch” was apparently derived from the French word grincheux which means “grumpy.”

The inspiration for the fluffy, green feind however, isn’t all too compelling. It is said that Whoville -the place in which the story of the Grinch is set – was based on Dr. Seuss’ (whose real name is Theodor Geisel) hometown of Easthampton, Massachusetts. The nearby Mount Tom inspired the Grinch’s mountain.

The Grinch – although he would probably have initially hated it all – remained popular through several adaptations that would not fade with each new generation. A couple of notable pop culture adaptations would be 1982’s The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat, a television film that received an Emmy Award; and the 2000 live action comedy The Grinch that starred Jim Carrey as the Grinch.

Mr Scrooge

Other than the Grinch, you’d probably also associate anyone who wasn’t willing to give out presents for Christmas with a Scrooge. Known as a stingy old miser who hates Christmas, Ebenezer Scrooge was the main character of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. He “Bah, humbugged” the joy out of Christmas, although he would eventually reform and change his selfish ways following an encounter with three haunting Christmas spirits.

The story of Mr Scrooge has no clear origins, although it is said that Dickens was inspired to create this powerful and enduring tale based on several of his life experiences: the profound humiliation he went through as a child; his conflicting feelings about his father; the struggle of the needy and their children in the 1830s and 1840s; and other literary material on old English Christmas traditions and religious tracts.

In pop culture, Scrooge has been exhaustively adapted for the big screen, the stage, opera and other media. Some memorable ones that popularised his story include Mickey’s Christmas Carol in which Scrooge McDuck became a staple Disney character; as well as 2009’s animated film adaptation of A Christmas Carol in which Jim Carrey voices Ebenezer Scrooge and all the three ghosts that visit him. 

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