The History of Santa Claus, Pipe Smoker


"Pipe Smoking Santa Claus" by Artur Lopes

Many of us enjoy Christmastime, not only because we may find some new tobacco under the tree, but because the rituals of the season stimulate memories of past yuletides. Childhood Christmas magic insinuates itself into the present, enveloping us again in the certainty that miracles do happen. That childhood certainty may fade with the accumulation of years, but the memory of it enriches us always.

A powerful symbol of that magic is Santa Claus, a luminous hero in many childhoods, including my own. I remember being terrified of the Santa I met in the department store, yet somehow didn't equate that terror with the Santa who made sure I'd been good all year. I knew the difference. I was a fan of the real Santa. I even talked my parents into taking me to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, eager to see how he saved the world from that interplanetary menace. My film experience was minimal, but I recognized that this was a wretched counterfeit. I'd know the real Santa when I met him.


"Santa Reading Mail" by Norman Rockwell

I don't remember having any opinion about Santa's pipe. It was an accepted fixture. There were no moral interpretations of pipes back then; they were pipes. I certainly didn't aspire to emulate Santa by smoking a pipe. It was iconic, but no more so than his belly or his beard, which I also didn't aspire to ... wait a minute ... pipe, belly, and beard ... oh my. Maybe that accounts for those fleeting peripheral reflections of Santa I've been seeing in windows. I wonder if I've underestimated the old elf's influence...

My transformation into a seasonal character aside, Santa's pipe was an integral part of his identity until Canadian author Pamela McColl republished Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (1823) and removed its mention of Santa's pipe. She spent $200,000 to print 55,000 copies and declared to the New York Post, "Santa has stopped smoking, and 2012 is the year he quit, and there's nothing anyone can do about it."

There seems to be some hostility in that statement, perhaps because McColl knew there would be criticism. Her version removed the lines, "The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, / And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath." She also removed the pipe and its smoke from illustrations. She did it for the children, but I'm not convinced that they care. I've not noticed thousands of school children smoking pipes or hoarding tobacco because Santa smokes a pipe in a poem.

Nobody objects to this nighttime intruder looting baked goods from the millions of homes he breaks into, or his maneuvering livestock in and out of commercial flight paths, but stick a pipe in his mouth and righteous indignation escalates. Why people prioritize censorship over honest communication is a mystery. Besides, kids know there's no way to de-pipe Santa Claus.

"Santa has stopped smoking, and 2012 is the year he quit..."

McColl trashed two hundred years of tradition. Before Washington Irving's A History of New York (1809), Santa had been a "lanky bishop" dressed in a variety of costumes, and he bore little resemblance to the Santa we know today.

Santa's Early Years

The original, historical St. Nicholas was a Christian monk and later the Bishop of Myra, born, by some estimates, in 280 A.D. in what is now known as Turkey. He wasn't a monk at birth but became one, probably because of his natural generosity and concern for others. He performed various acts of kindness that became mythic, such as the time he intervened to stop three sisters from being sold into prostitution. Their father could not afford dowries for them to wed and could no longer provide for them.

Nicholas entered their home in the night, some say by climbing down the chimney, and anonymously left gold on the mantle for the young women's dowries on three different occasions. After receiving the first and second bags of gold, the father stayed awake and discovered Nicholas on his third visit. Nicholas swore the man to secrecy. Still, his generosity became legendary, so it may be inferred that his secret was not well kept.

...he was referred to as Sinterklaas, a linguistic contraction of "Sint Nikolaas"

Among the other legends that followed him, Nicholas is said to have resurrected three young boys murdered and dismembered by a local butcher, and to have interrupted a storm that was threatening the lives of a ship full of crewmen. These stories are the reason that today St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, sailors, and prostitutes.

By the middle ages, St. Nicholas was popular across northern Europe, especially in the Netherlands, where he was referred to as Sinterklaas, a linguistic contraction of "Sint Nikolaas," and described as white-bearded, tall, and dressed in red clerical robes. His annual arrival was on December 6, the anniversary of St. Nicholas' death, and he visited the homes of the children, leaving either gifts or lumps of coal, depending on their behavior.

St. Nicholas in America

Dutch settlers brought their St. Nicholas legends to North America. In 1804, a member of the New York Historical Society named John Pintard made and distributed woodcuts depicting Sinterklass with a fireplace behind him and stockings filled with toys hanging from the mantle. The name evolved quickly to Santa Claus, and he was described in a variety of clothing, including some combination of a bright red waistcoat, yellow stockings, and a large three-cornered hat.

Washington Irving reimagined some of the Dutch stories in his satirical work, A History of New York, in which he describes Sinterklass as a rotund Dutchman in a flying wagon, smoking a long pipe, landing on rooftops, sliding down chimneys, and leaving gifts to celebrate St. Nicholas Day.

Sinterklass ... a rotund Dutchman in a flying wagon

It was in 1823 with the publication of Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" that Santa became the figure we recognize today. Irving's flying wagon of Sinterklass was replaced with Santa Claus' sleigh drawn by eight reindeer, and the long pipe that he describes is replaced by the "stump of a pipe," which was more appropriate for the working class. Long clay pipes were for the rich; people of modest means continued smoking their pipes far beyond their reduction to stumps.

We may never have seen that poem had Moore's purpose for it been realized. He wrote it as a gift for his children, and only his children, but it was mysteriously printed in the local newspaper. Moore denied writing it, perhaps because it didn't fit his image as a professor of divinity, but he finally admitted authorship in the 1840s. It's a poem we all know, but there were additional personal Santa details yet to learn.

For example, Mrs. Claus was added to the legend. She was first mentioned in 1849 in the short story, "A Christmas Legend" by James Rees. The character in the story isn't the real Mrs. Claus, however, but a person disguised as her. Various stories and poems referred to her, and she became part of the evolving narrative.

The 1840s is the decade when Santa started to become an advertising opportunity for the growing industry that was manufacturing Christmas gifts. Department stores used his image, and the concept of Christmas gift giving was more popularized.


"Merry Old Santa Claus" by Thomas Nast

While the Civil War was dividing the country, illustrator Thomas Nast began a series of Santa drawings that would provide a lasting visual image. He decided that rather than draw the horrific nature of the war, he would compose images of patriotism and inspiration. December of 1862 saw the publication of Nast's first Santa illustration in Harper's Weekly, titled "Santa Claus in Camp," in which the legendary character is wearing patriotic stars and stripes and distributing gifts to Union soldiers.

Nast composed new Santa images every Christmas while the war continued, and returned to the theme sporadically afterward. Santa was now a man rather than an elf and was shown smoking a long clay pipe and wearing the red suit with white trim that we most associate with him today. Nast also proposed that Santa lived not in Holland, or indeed anywhere in Europe, but at the North Pole.

Christmas as a time of celebration was now part of American culture as surely as it was part of the Dutch culture that had brought it to North America. A more modern and human Santa evolved further with depictions by Norman Rockwell, starting in 1922 for The Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell painted dozens of different Santa scenes, some amusing, some with pipe smoking, some poignant, and all contributing to a cultural appreciation that has made Santa instantly recognized anywhere on Earth.

Today, St. Nicholas is a cosmic force in terms of marketing and merchandising, and a cherished image for children everywhere. He's been with us for 1700 years, and his stories have become symbols of the magic of Christmas.

He has appeared in untold numbers of films and television shows, including that most awful of all possible movies, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (may it wither in digital abandonment). That film did not cause consternation or doubt in me when I was young, despite its amateurish production. Films of its ilk continue failing to impress children today because a child's perception of Santa can't be diminished by fiction. The reality of St. Nicholas is fiercely validated in the adoration of children; he delivers presents, he laughs with his entire being, he smokes a pipe, and he continues gifting us the compassion and good cheer, mirth, and wonder that we gratefully associate with the Christmas season.


This article is a revision and repost of an article originally published on the Daily Reader in December, 2020.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Christmas Famous Pipe Smokers History


    • Jack Koonce on December 18, 2020
    • A great yuletide story. Many thanks and MERRY CHRISTMAS!

    • G. Hall on December 19, 2020
    • “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”― C. S. Lewis, Pipe Smoker

    • D. on December 19, 2020
    • Ahhh...the rise of righteous indignation escalation, the world is drowning in it. Thank goodness for Norman Rockwell! I love Rockwell and in my subjective opinion consider him to be on par with Rembrandt. I have a book dedicated to his Christmas paintings and can always find solace in gazing at them in wonder; his paintings bring comfort and a desire to enjoy a pipe. Merry Christmas to all!!!

    • T.D. on December 19, 2020
    • I must correct the author here, sorry. Nicholas was of Greek descent from the maritime city of Myra in Asia Minor, however, he was actually the Bishop of Bari, Italy.

    • D. on December 19, 2020
    • Oh, the Norman Rockwell "Santa Reading Mail" photo above makes a great mobile wallpaper. Just look at the detail...Thank you, Chuck.

    • Old Timer... on December 19, 2020
    • Santa smokes a Markus Fohr Twine-Banded Churchwarden...obviously he hoards them...out of stock again...

    • Jon Gonzales on December 19, 2020
    • @T.D. The article is correct. He's usually referred to as Saint Nicholas of Myra and is also called Nicholas of Bari. After his return from a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine, Nicholas became Bishop of Myra. The Basilica di San Nicola in Bari was inaugurated for St. Nicholas and his relics were moved from Myra to the church there. It's a major pilgrimage destination for Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. However, no major sources refer to him as the Bishop of Bari.

    • G. Hall on December 19, 2020
    • @D: The rise of righteous indignation escalation, indeed! The soft tyranny of the white lab coat and those with more letters after their names than brains between their ears or virtue in their hearts.

    • D. on December 20, 2020
    • “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs). The most improper job of any man is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.” – J. R. R. Tolkien- A pipe smoker

    • William Huff on December 20, 2020
    • The one thing that has bugged me about Santa is the fact that "Santa" is the feminine form of Saint as in Santa Clara, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, etc. The masculine form is San such as San Jose, San Bernardino, San Francisco. If the LBGTQ crowd ever figures this out we are in trouble.

    • K. Denham on December 20, 2020
    • Great article and written to encourage. I know there were a lot of "factoids" in the piece, but it didn't feel like we were being enlightened, so all of you that feel the need to correct the author should lighten up and not feel so inclined to be recognized. It's just a happy article of the facts of fantasy that makes one feel hopeful and happy. Or is that not allowed any longer?

    • Stephen on December 20, 2020
    • Thanks, Chuck, for a timely and interesting article about everybody's favorite saint! I hope Santa brings you a new pipe and some tobacco.Merry Christmas!

    • Jerry Hilborn on December 20, 2020
    • I too remember Santa Vs Martians. Would like to revisit that film.

    • Phil Wiggins on December 20, 2020
    • Happy Happy Merry Christmas Happy. Pipes Santa Claus A!!!

    • Jack+ on December 20, 2020
    • Thank you, Chuck! A wonderful article that's truly needed during this time of despair. My favorite images of St Nicholas are always with his pipe (probably from the Rockwell images that mostly pop up in the dusty corners of my mind's library). I appreciate the sweeping, whimsical way this story is written like a snowflake flittering about on a gentle Winter's breeze. Thanks again, and Happy Holy-days to all!

    • Tim on December 20, 2020
    • Well, not only did they stop Santa from enjoying his pipe they darn well took the corncob away from Frosty...guess they thought he might melt, but you know...he'll be back again next year! What's next....I think they took it away from 007 too.

    • JOEL S. ARKER on December 20, 2020
    • I just want to thank you for the historical story. I learned a lot.

    • Scott A on December 20, 2020
    • Mystery Science Theater 3000 classically mocked "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians." One of their greatest shows. If you feel the need to rewatch the film, I recommend you watch with Crow, Tom Servo, and Joel on the Satellite of Love.

    • Dan on December 20, 2020
    • @Scott A: I was just looking through my MST 3000 collection and happen to be missing season 4, love MST 3000 and can listen to the end credits theme song over and over. I will get my hands on that box set.

    • Scott A on December 20, 2020
    • @DanMy sources tell me it's season 3, episode 21. YouTube!

    • Dan on December 20, 2020
    • @Scottt A: Thank you, that's correct... Experiment 321 ;) It's also on their MST3K essentials DVD.

    • Mark Taylor on December 20, 2020
    • I remember seeing the preview at the theater for Santa Claus vs The Martians. I looked over at my dad while sitting in the theater and asked if we could go see that. Without looking at me he said “nope”.

    • nosferatu on December 20, 2020
    • Once again a wonderful read, though it might amuse you to know that Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is not just a classic MST3K episode, but has also been thoroughly riffed by Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax.

    • Fred Brown on December 20, 2020
    • Great piece, Chuck. Thanks, and Merry Christmas!

    • Byron N Kimball on December 20, 2020
    • Might remember also that those wonderfully painted metal Coca-Cola Christmas trays had colorful Santa's on them, usually with his pipe!!

    • RC on December 20, 2020
    • Thank you, well-thought out article! And to the comment on the LGBTQ crowd noticing the feminine "Santa", we have noticed. And don't care. One of those things that we call "pointlessly gendered". Santa is an image of good cheer and although Christmas is a time when us LGBT folk are usually shunned by our families, there are enough kind-hearted people who remember the spirit of giving and in turn Santa has remained a wonderful figure in memory and not a symbol of hate.

    • Bill graves on December 20, 2020
    • Great artical. Thanks. Have a good Christmas

    • J. Christ on December 20, 2020
    • This is a great article that brings back memories that I forgot about, e.g. the prominence of the pipe and Santa smoking it. I wish you would create a printer friendly version of your article.

    • Dan on December 20, 2020
    • @Nosferatu: Thank you for the reference, I just ordered the complete Cinematic Titanic Collection from Amazon. I wasn't aware that the creators of MST3K went on to do other things after they left. I did start watching MST3K's version of "Santa Claus Conquers The Martians" on YouTube today and Santa was puffing on a pipe right away, and the show had me laughing right away!

    • Mark on December 21, 2020
    • Not only on trays, but for many, many years Coca-Cola featured tremendous illustrations of Santa in their magazine advertising every Christmastime. Often smoking a pipe. They were iconic, the equal of Rockwell’s. Or maybe they were by him. I can’t remember. Now there is something to poke around the internet to figure out! Thank you, Chuck, for the article. I feel the same as you; as a kid, Santa’s pipe was just part of who he was, nothing more. Now I feel it is something that needs to be fiercely defended.

    • John Tufano on December 21, 2020
    • This was just a lovely article on this history of Santa Claus and as others have commented, we need something uplifting to read once in a while. Santa is such an important part of our lives, whether as a kid or an adult taking children to see Santa, getting presents, etc. Good job Chuck.

    • Tom Connelly on December 21, 2020
    • Oft forgotten is the influence of Germanic myth on the creation of Santa Claus. Odin used to fly around giving gifts during Winter Solstice time. Odin looks a LOT like Santa, too.

    • Dan on December 22, 2020
    • I can't believe how fast Amazon delivered my package that I ordered Sunday, "Cinematic Titanic-complete collection DVDs" with "Santa Claus Conquers The Martians" included, and received yesterday on Monday (regular shipping). I would have to say that anybody who watched this original movie (Santa Claus Conquers The Martians), in it's raw form, more than likely suffered some psychological harm...maybe subtle, maybe extreme. I believe that the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version or the Cinematic Titanic version of this film could undo the subliminal damage that was burned on the unsuspecting victim's retinas. Did you know that Elf tastes like chicken? Happy Holidays

    • CTNBEH on December 23, 2020
    • I can't help but wonder if the move to "de-pipe Santa Claus" wasn't part of some organized movement on behalf of parents with young children, to ease the conscience of those of them who proudly profess to be listing a particular item for sale as coming from a "smoke-free" home.

    • Joseph Kirkland on December 25, 2020
    • Chuck, you have done it again. Excellent article. Merry Christmas!

    • Roknruss84 on December 25, 2020
    • I can’t help but wonder that the very parents who denounce Santa Claus smoking a pipe, are the ones hiding outside smoking a joint after the kids have gone to bed. Maybe if Santa came down the chimney with a bong full of weed they would stop complaining.

    • Mu on April 2, 2021
    • I'm gonna crawl all the way back in time to Christmas 2020. Currently, I've just watched Mel Gibson's Fatman, which has become an instant Christmas movie favorite. Mel's Santa reminds me Burned out, boozed up, fed up, and just feelin' hopeless. Why does greed, anger, and ignorance have the most influence over the world? Why can't we learn from the past to create a better future? Why are the wrong people granted so much control and influence? Why is the world in such a big hurry, we're not going anywhere. And we're all at the mercy of our genetics, along with nature (genetics) vs nurture. I'll turn 50 next year and it seems to me like a blink. With Samuel Gawith's Pure Virginia in my pipe, Jack Daniel's on the rocks, wine, and Budweiser at my side, I'm dumb enough to travel back in time to vent (and to do it on a work night with a 4:30am wake up alarm). Just venting....

    • D. on April 9, 2021
    • I feel a great disturbance in the force...

    • Jon Seward on December 25, 2022
    • Thank you for sharing this delightful lesson. My we all take time to reflect on the heart of the man that has so richly blessed the world for such a very long time. Merry Christmas!!!

    • R. Maculley on December 25, 2022
    • I have many fine memories of Christmases over my Dads house. My parents divorced when I was two. My father got me every Christmas for the whole week and a half. He made Santa Clause a hero in our holidays. The traditions of putting the last few decorations on the tree Christmas Eve to eating cheese, pepperoni with chips and dip all while watching the classic stop motion Bass and Rankin Santa Clause comes to town and Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer shows getting excited for that special morning! When I became a father to my two sons I passed the very traditions down to them. They are adults now and every Christmas Morning I still make the Pillsbury Cinnamon Buns while everyone opens their presents. They still thank me every Christmas for giving them special memories and wonderful Christmas mornings.

    • Robert Trezise on December 27, 2022
    • You know, In Arlo Guthrie's 60's Christmas classic "The Pause of Mr. Claus" he great curiosity..."What's in that pipe that he's smoking?". I like to think that it's Prince Albert (in a can) my grandfather and dad!

    • Anthony Bianchi on December 28, 2022
    • Great story, very well covered. My Santa now and has always had a pipe. I do not need my Santa politicly corrected. Santa has and always will love everyone! In todays world we had to change him because parents today need someone else to raise their children, i.e. government, teacher, or society, to name a few, because they want to be friends and not stifle them. so then we, have to put up, with the little terror. My son never asked about Santa's pipe nor tried to emulate it, and had, He like many other things in life, we would have taught him that some things are really only for adults and you will have to wait to experience them. Which from what I see, now days no one knows how to say to a child, NO I'm sorry, you will have to wait for that!

    • Pamela McColl on April 7, 2024
    • The edition I printed that was “smoke-free” was an edit not censorship. If you want a smoking version you are free to buy one and no one is stopping you. One thousand children were interviewed and they prefer a smoke free Santa so we delivered. The US government outlawed Joe Camel and the use of cartoon characters in advertising of smoked products because research showed it sympathized them to future use of these products. If you condemn a smoke free Santa then it follows you would like to see the return of Joe Camel. I found your article harsh, unfair criticism and you have some of your facts plain wrong. Moore claims the poem in 1837 not in the 1840s. My book won eight book awards.

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