This month’s cover, “Santa Claus in a Hot Air Balloon” (30 in. by 26 in.) by Frank Earle Schoonover, sold for $57,812.50 at Heritage’s recent Illustration Art Auction in New York on Oct. 26, 2013. Schoonover presents the instantly recognizable modern image of Santa Claus, which became popular in the 19th century due to the significant influence of Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” However, the actual origins of Santa Claus lie further back in history. 

Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Christian bishop in what’s now Turkey. He was renowned for his generosity and gift giving, famously offering dowries to the three daughters of an impoverished, but pious, man, so that they wouldn’t have to become prostitutes. 

Prior to Christianization, the Germanic peoples celebrated a midwinter event called “Yule.” It reputedly featured a number of spiritual occurrences, but was most notable for the “Wild Hunt,” a spectral procession led through the sky by the long bearded god Odin.

As Christianity spread westward, these images, among others, were amalgamated into the Scandinavian figure known as “Sinterklaas.” Sinterklaas has a long white beard, wears a red cape and maintains a book of notes about whether each child has been naughty or nice to administer his distribution of presents.

And just think, over all those years of giving, Santa never once filed a gift tax return!