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Ho, ho, history

Santa Claus through the ages exhibit opens at Lincoln Presidential Museum

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[October 31, 2012]  SPRINGFIELD -- Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And you can learn how he has been portrayed through the ages in a new exhibit that opens Friday at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield. Paid admission is required to see the exhibit in the museum's "Ghosts of the Library" queue area, and it will run through Jan. 2.

The exhibit will consist of 13 Santa Claus figures of various sizes from around the world, depicting him from the 18th century to the American Depression era, including the famous Soda Pop Santa Claus upon which most modern depictions of St. Nick are based. The Santa figures of various sizes are being loaned from the collection of John D. and Joyce Bender Shmale.

Meanwhile, an essay contest with the theme "If I Were Santa Claus" concludes this week for students in fifth grade through high school. Cash prizes will be awarded to the winners.

Figures representing St. Nicholas and Black Peter will be part of the exhibit. In 245 A.D. a man named Nicholas was born to wealthy parents in what is now Turkey. He distributed his wealth to the needy, and because of his good deeds Nicholas was given sainthood. In his honor, 12th-century French nuns began making annual nighttime visits to poor families, leaving gifts of fruit and nuts on Dec. 5 -- St. Nicholas Eve. In some lore, St. Nicholas was accompanied by a devilish servant named Black Peter, who punished naughty children but was forced to reward the good.

Though the story of St. Nicholas was well known during the 12th century, his image varied a great deal among European and Asian cultures, and these will be represented in the exhibit. Typically he was shown as traveling on foot from house to house with gifts on his back, sometimes in the company of gnomes. During the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas was depicted with a dark beard. After the 1300s, the Medieval Santa began to be portrayed with a white beard. The Mongolian Santa may have grown out of a combination of the Mongolian celebration of Herdsman's Day, which held some similarities to modern Christmas, and the Christian ideals introduced to Asia by Marco Polo during his travels.

The Christkindt, or Christ Child, was influenced by the Reformation of the 1500s. In an effort to break with the Catholic tradition of St. Nicholas, Martin Luther urged that the Christ Child should instead be the bearer of gifts. Christkindt later became Kris Kringle of the Pennsylvania Dutch custom. Assuming the appearance of St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle is still popular today, and a Kringle figure will be part of the exhibit.

Additional European depictions of Santa will be represented. Der Belsnickel, of German lore, was often represented as wearing a mask and bearing both gifts for the good children and a bundle of switches to scare the bad. The Star Man, or Swiety Nikotaj, of Polish tradition is a more spiritual version of Santa Claus. He travels to the homes of children and quizzes them on their religious knowledge before handing out gifts. Father Ice, or Dedt Moroz, of ancient Russian origin, rewards kind children with gifts and punishes the misbehaved by turning them to ice. His long white beard and sleigh led to his association with Christmas.

In 1822 Clement Moore, a theology professor and an expert in European folklore, wrote a poem for his children with a description of St. Nicholas as a fur-dressed elf riding across rooftops in a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer. "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" was published in 1823 and became a worldwide success, known today as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."

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Influenced by Moore's poem, 1860s cartoonist Thomas Nast drew several versions of Santa featured in the national newspaper Harper's Weekly. Nast strongly supported Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and looked for an image that embodied goodness, righteousness and the spirit of giving, especially to the Union troops far from home on Christmas. These drawings have inspired the universal image Santa Claus enjoys today. A "Nast Santa" figure may be seen in the exhibit, and a live actor portraying the Thomas Nast Santa will appear periodically in the museum for photographs with visitors.

In the 1930s, the Coca Cola Co. hired illustrator Haddon Sunblum to create a Christmas advertisement for the company. Sunblum designed the Santa Claus that we recognize today -- bushy white beard, rosy cheeks, red and white suit, fat and jolly, with a spirit of warmth, joy and giving. A representation of Sunblum's creation, the Soda Pop Santa, will be easily recognizable in the exhibit.

The essay contest with the "If I Were Santa Claus" theme continues through Friday, the same day the Santa exhibit opens. The contest is for fifth through eighth grade students in one category and high school students in another category and will include cash prizes of $500, $250, $100, $50 and $25. The 200-250-word entries must be postmarked before Nov. 2. The entries may be handwritten or typed, and parents are encouraged to become involved in this learning experience with their children. Entries must be submitted by U.S. mail to: Santa Claus Essay Contest, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, 112 N. Sixth St., Springfield, IL 62701. Entrants should include their grade level and contact information.

The essay contest winners will be announced the week of Thanksgiving, and the winning entries will be displayed in the Lincoln Presidential Library, across the street from the historic Santa Claus exhibit in the museum.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, the state's chief historical and genealogical research institution, is open free of charge on weekdays for research and seven days a week to view the popular Civil War exhibit "Boys in Blue." The presidential museum requires paid admission and features exhibits and shows that immerse visitors in Lincoln's life and times. The museum is open seven days a week except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. For more information, visit

[Text from Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum file received from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency]

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