Successors to St Nicholas
In the 16th century, following the Reformation, St Nicholas disappeared from most European countries. The leaders of the new Protestant church believed that the Catholic veneration of saints should come to an end. Patron saint days were abolished, and the celebration of St Nicholas was likewise forbidden in many areas. Many countries adapted their December gift-bringer to the new circumstances, and St Nicholas was often replaced by Baby Jesus, usually with an assistant, as he himself, so went the idea, could not carry the sack of gifts – after all, he was still a baby. These assistants varied per region. Sometimes, they were malicious versions of St Nicholas, such as Pelznickel in the south of Germany. There were female figures too: Frau Holle in Germany, Aunt Arie (a witch with goose feet and iron teeth) in France.
Furthermore, all over Europe, you encountered the tree stump, which we now mostly know in the form of a Christmas dessert (usually under its French name, bûche de noël), but which used to bring gifts: sometimes without further ado, sometimes only after singing children had beaten on it with sticks. (To this day, historians have not been able to figure out why people thought that Baby Jesus needed an assistant, but that a tree stump could manage by itself.)
The rise of Santa Claus
In the Netherlands, people resisted the abolishing of St Nicholas, and the holiday remained. St Nicholas then travelled with Dutch people across the ocean to New York – which was then still New Amsterdam – and thus took up residence in the United States. Later on, other immigrants here (especially the English) also needed someone to bring their December gifts, and so an American version of St Nicholas arose in the 19th century: Santa Claus.
In the process, the figure changed character: Santa Claus was not a strict Christian saint, but a friendly figure, with no religious association, who brought little gifts to everyone; children no longer needed to fear him. This new character also gained a new appearance: Santa remained an old man, but instead of being tall and thin, he became short and fat. This fitted the ideas that the 19th-century Americans had about fat and thin. At that time, it was fashionable to be fat.
Fat people were seen as healthy, prosperous and important, and often (but not always) as friendly - precisely the qualities that suited the new Father Christmas. By the end of the 19th century, we see that Santa Claus was consistently portrayed as a not overly tall man with a substantial belly.
Around 1900, the slimness ideal arose in America (in Europe, this had already happened some twenty years earlier), and it became important for all people, both men and women, to be thin. Slimness was a sign of one’s ability to deal with the superfluity of the modern age, and slim people were regarded as attractive and healthy. This view would remain throughout the 20th century, especially for women (and above all for white women from the middle and upper classes).
Will Santa Clause become thin again?
This means Santa’s appearance became standardised just in time. If this had happened a few decades later, he might have been thin instead of fat. Ultimately, we will probably head in this direction nevertheless. A few years ago, Australian doctors wrote a half-serious, half-satirical article in which they stated that a fat Father Christmas set a bad example for children. This might be a first sign that the belly of Father Christmas is slowly getting ready to shrink back to Sinterklaas format.