Hello, welcome to The Fat Lip, the podcast for fat people, about fat people. I am your fat host Ash, and first I want to say thank you for all of the incredible compliments I got for the last episode–the Mama Cass one. She had such a sad story but one that was so important. Doing all of that research and kind of diving deep into some very heavy anti-fatness stuff was a lot, so I decided to follow that episode with something MUCH lighter, and since it’s the holidays, I have come up with the best possible direction for this next episode while still working on this historical fat people series. Santa Claus.
Yep, today’s episode is about Santa Claus, the original jolly fat guy, a dude who brings joy to the masses one night a year. I started to really wonder how we ended up with the traditional fat guy in a red suit version of Santa and how that fat Santa has survived through some of the most anti-fat decades ever. So here’s what I found.
As you probably already know, the American version of Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas, a bishop who lived in the village of Myra in what is now Turkey in the 3rd century. Early accounts suggest that Saint Nicholas inherited wealth and with it gave generously to the poor–especially poor children. In stories he is depicted as slim, wearing red bishop’s robes, and sometimes assisted by a small orphan boy. Nicholas was canonized after his death and was celebrated throughout the Middle Ages with great feasts and small gifts given to children every year on the anniversary of his death– December 6.
During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century the tradition of the feast of Saint Nicholas faded away basically everywhere except in The Netherlands where the legend was kept alive with Sinterklaas, a friendly old man who traveled from house to house on the night of December 5 leaving gifts in children’s shoes in exchange for a snack for his horses. According to Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas was slim, wore red bishop’s robes, had elves for assistants, and rode his horses over the rooftops from house to house, slipping down the chimney to deliver his gifts.
Sinterklaas came to America with the Dutch in the 17th century and sort of merged with the English figure Father Christmas who was also a slim man with white hair. Because English tradition had moved away from revering a Catholic saint, Father Christmas came not on December 6 but on Christmas and spread joy, cheer, and good food and wine. A man after my own heart.
Santa Claus as we know him, though, probably began with Washington Irving’s History of New York, a parody of Dutch culture that was published in 1809. In it Santa Claus was depicted as round-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe and a green coat. So it seems like the reason Santa became fat was because being fat was a funny joke even in 1809.
Fat Santa became canon, though, with the publication of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” or, as it’s more popularly known, “The Night Before Christmas” in the Troy, New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823. Here’s how Santa was described:
“He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;”
So in A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (the author is disputed as it was submitted anonymously–it may have been either Clement Clarke Moore or Henry Livingston, Jr.) but either way the author sort of solidified the image of fat Santa Claus into the American tradition.
I have always loved this description, by the way, and I’ve always found it to be one of the most wholesome and adorable depictions of fatness that I’ve ever seen in popular culture. It’s so lovely–“he had a broad face and a little round belly, that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.” So joyfully written, and a positive depiction of fatness that we rarely see in history.
But this was a poem. The first known illustration of a fat Santa Claus was by Thomas Nast and was published in an issue of Harper’s Weekly. Nash was, however, a political cartoonist, and in the illustration Santa was a fat man dressed in the American flag and holding a puppet with the name “Jeff” on it, referring to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States during the Civil War. As we know, fatness is a common trope in political cartoons, so that probably influenced Thomas Nast more than the tradition of Santa Claus itself did.
Nast is also credited with the origination of the idea that Santa Claus lived at the North Pole as he referenced Santa Clausville, N.P. in an 1866 cartoon.
The modern Santa icon, though, the fat guy with white hair and beard wearing a red suit with white fur trim, a big black belt with a gold buckle and black boots, that seems to have come from Coca Cola advertisements drawn by Haddon Sundblom in the 1930s. The Coca Cola Santa is so iconic that there are urban legends that Coke actually invented Santa Claus and that his suit is red and white because those are the colors of the iconic Coca Cola logo. This is of course, not true, as we know that Santa had been wearing red since he was Saint Nicholas back in the 3rd and 4th century.
But the Coca Cola Santa is probably the image you think of when you think of Santa Claus– if you’re American at least. The fat man in the red suit shows up everywhere during the holidays, beginning when he makes an appearance at the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving every year. Thousands upon thousands of fat guys dress in the red suit to play Santa in malls and Christmas markets all over the country, and most people who celebrated Christmas as a child have photos of themselves sitting on a random white-bearded stranger’s lap.
I wondered, though, how Santa Claus, an iconic fat man, has made it through some very anti-fat decades unscathed. Well, he didn’t. The whole “obesity epidemic” scare touched Santa, too, with lots of public health handwringing. A 2009 paper in the British Medical Journal was entitled “Santa Claus: A public health pariah?” and attempted to correlate a country’s obesity rate with its recognition of the Santa tradition. Ah yes, the epidemic of children wanting to be Santa Claus when they grow up. Sounds totally real.
Thankfully, though, fat Santa has survived diet culture, and every Christmas kids write letters and leave cookies out for a kind old fat guy in a red suit who brings them presents and joy. He remains a jolly fat guy, and I’m kinda thrilled that kids have this fat icon that brings them so much happiness.
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Thank you to Starcrusher for the music you heard on today’s episode. Go to cstarcrusher.bandcamp.com to hear more.
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Okay, that’s all I have for you today. I want to wish you all a very happy holidays and a happy new year. I hope you’ll come back and listen again in 2020. See you next time! Bye!
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas: Full Text of the Classic Poem. (2017, December 4). Retrieved from https://www.teachervision.com/twas-night-christmas-full-text.
Gayomali, C. (2012, December 24). When did Santa Claus get so fat? Retrieved from https://theweek.com/articles/469161/when-did-santa-claus-fat.
Goldschein, E. (2011, December 25). The Story Of How Santa Became Fat, Red And Bearded. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/santa-fat-red-bearded-2011-12#today-santa-claus-has-been-updated-for-modern-times-but-retains-his-classic-look-8.
Grills, N. J., & Halyday, B. (2009, December 17). Santa Claus: a public health pariah? Retrieved from https://www.bmj.com/content/339/bmj.b5261.
Santa Claus. (2019, December 26). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Claus.
Santa Used to Be Skinny: How Did He Get So Fat? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/32903-santa-used-to-be-skinny-why-he-gained-weight.html.
Whipps, H. (2009, December 22). Santa Claus: The real man behind the myth. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/34525202.
Why Is Santa So Fat? (2011, December 23). Retrieved from https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/29571/why-santa-so-fat.
Wilson, J. (2014, December 25). Should Santa Claus still be fat? Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2012/12/22/health/santa-claus-weight/index.html.