Holiday-themed currency? Old St. Nick used to be on dollars

The surprising reason banks used Santa's image on tender

By Bloomberg News

Dec 22, 2014 @ 1:46 pm EST


Money can be so boring. Or, at least, U.S. paper currency. Green, black, cream, some president's head. With the holiday season upon us, we have holiday stamps, holiday checks, holiday-themed toilet paper. Would it be so horrible to have holiday-themed currency?

They didn't think so before the U.S. Treasury stepped in to un-democratize the design of U.S. currency. Before it did that in 1861, there actually was holiday-themed currency featuring Santa Claus, and earlier versions of St. Nicholas.

“From 1793 to 1861, when the U.S. Treasury was given exclusive rights to produce legal tender, thousands of different styles of bank notes were created by U.S. banks,” and prominent on some of their holiday-themed currency, a blog post from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York tells us, was Santa Claus.

Santa was extremely popular back then, the post says, thanks to a) Christmas becoming an official holiday in many Northern states, and b) the printing in 1823 of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” by Clement Clarke Moore (that was the original title; today, it's known as "The Night Before Christmas").

It wasn't exactly sentiment fueling the banks' creativity. One motivation was that, since a lot of people kept the collectible bills as keepsakes, they wouldn't be eager to redeem the bills for their underlying value in gold. If they did keep them and passed them down through the years, their heirs would be happy: One obsolete Santa bank note sold for $40,000 in 2011, according to Heritage Auctions.

Here are other examples of the bank notes, including a few of the visual "vignettes" featured on many of them. The top one here shows a somewhat svelte Santa visiting two children in bed. Apparently, the early version of Santa, or "Sinterklass," brought over by early Dutch settlers was much thinner than the rotund Santa of today.

Michelle Obama would likely be a fan of this version of Santa -- if he weren't smoking a pipe.

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