December 20, 2012
Some people are up in arms over a recent update to Santa Claus that excised his smoking habit. However you feel about Santa losing his pipe, let me assure you that this won’t be the last time that Santa gets a makeover. It’s easy for some people to forget that every generation has “updated” Santa to fit with the times — or in some cases to fit with the future.
As the 1800s gave way to the 1900s, many Americans felt like perhaps Santa Claus needed a new way of getting from house to house. Since the early 19th century, old Saint Nick had been using a sleigh and reindeer to deliver his presents. But by the 1890s some Americans thought an automobile would be a more modern form of transportation for the jolly old man. However, some illustrators didn’t think that the automobile was quite modern enough and wanted to blast Santa into the future with his very own flying machine.
The postcard above (sent in 1908) shows Santa smoking his pipe in his flying machine and dropping a doll down some lucky kid’s chimney.
The December 1922 issue of Science and Invention magazine included a list of the best radio parts to buy your little “radio bug.” The list included an illustration of a young boy dreaming about Santa Claus soaring through the sky in his flying machine. That large aerial sitting behind Santa lets us know that he’s definitely hip to the latest technology of the Roaring Twenties.
The December 22, 1900 issue of the Duluth Evening Herald in Duluth, Minnesota ran a page claiming that Santa’s reindeer would be put out of work soon as he skims over the tops of houses in his flying machine.
The December 21, 1900, edition of the Carbondale Press in Carbondale, Illinois included the illustration above — “The Twentieth Century Santa Claus.” Just as there were debates at the turn of the 21st century over whether to celebrate the year 2000 or 2001 as the beginning of the century, so too were they fighting over the start of the 20th. Unlike the 21st century however — where 2000 pretty much won out for those impatient yet Y2K-compliant souls — it was generally accepted that the year 1901 would be the proper time to celebrate the beginning of the 20th century.
This illustration of Santa “up to date” comes from the December 24, 1901 Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette in Cedar Rapids Iowa. This may be the most modern of them all because if you look carefully you’ll see that Santa Claus patented his flying invention. I guess he didn’t want the Easter Bunny biting his style.
The December 19, 1897, issue of the Galveston Daily News in Galveston, Texas ran a poem by Earle Hooker Eaton titled “The Song of Santa Claus.” The poem speaks of Kris Kringle’s new flying machine and how neglected the poor reindeer are. Here’s hoping their “pitiful fate” was simply being put out to pasture rather than meeting some grisly demise at the hands (or hooves) of modernity.
With a whirr of my wings I’m away on the wind,
Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! Like a bird in the sky,
And my home at the Pole soon is left far behind,
Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! But it’s cold up so high!
I’ve a packet of trinkets and candy and toys,
To slip in the stockings of misses and boys,
Till heart after heart is a storehouse of joys,
Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! How delightful to fly!
Every whir of my wings speeds me swift on my way
Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! What a wonderful gait!
For the horse and the reindeer have both had their day,
Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! What a pitiful fate!
Poor Dasher and Dancer no longer are seen,
And Donder and Blitzen with envy are green,
Kris Kringle now travels by flying machine,
Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! But I’m right up to date!
Do you have a favorite vision of futuristic Santa Claus? How do you suppose Santa will get around in the year 2100?
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.