Ho, ho, ho! Merry Currency!

By on December 21st, 2016 in Editorial

The American (and now effectively universal) idea of Father Christmas is rooted in the tales and traditions of early Dutch immigrants who settled in what was then known as New York’s New Amsterdam.


The Dutch character of Sinterklaas has its origins in the renowned generosity of the 4th century’s Saint Nicholas, known for doling out gifts to the needy. The Dutch, however, put a uniquely offbeat spin on the Saint by recasting him as a scraggly chap accompanied by a Moor/minstrel/chimney-sweep known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Sinterklaas also had a rather extreme approach to the naughty/nice dichotomy, rewarding nice children with sweets and beating naughty children with a giant stick.

The somewhat more cuddly, American-style Santa Claus began to coalesce in the wake of an 1823 poem by Clement Clarke Moore called A Visit from St. Nicholas or The Night Before Christmas (“‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;” etc.).


The new “jolly old elf” version of St Nicholas supposedly came to Moore as he took a winter sleigh ride, and he combined characteristics of the original Dutch folklore with features of a local Dutch handyman he knew, chucking in eight reindeer and a magical sleigh for good measure. It was also Moore’s idea (for obscure religious reasons) to have Santa arrive on Christmas Eve.

The popularity of Moore’s poem meant that when a number of Northern states designated Christmas a state holiday in the mid-1800s, banks began co-opting the image of Santa Claus for use on their local currencies, in the hope of generating faith and goodwill in their banking practices.

As you can see below in a few select banknotes from The Roger H. Durand Santa Claus Notes Collection (kindly reproduced here courtesy of Heritage Auctions), the representations of Santa Claus feature a range of folkloric elements and run the gamut from spindly Sinterklaases to the plump, jovial Santas we recognise today.

Bank of Milwaukee $5 (Jan. 2, 1855)
Value: $23,000
milwaukee-wi-bank-of-milwaukee-5-jan-2-1855Courtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com

Courtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com

Let’s start with a particularly alarming example. The Bank of Milwaukee appear to have imagined Santa as a rubber-faced man-child wearing Victorian-style pantaloons on this 1855 $5 note. He looms ominously over a pair of fatigued and/or depressed children in a way that fails to make clear whether he has just stolen their doll or is giving them a new one. Hurrah for Santa!

Knickerbocker Bank, City of New York $2

Value: $25,300
knickerbocker-bank-of-the-city-of-new-york-2Courtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com

Courtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com

A much more debonair Santa gazes coyly into your eyes from this $2 note printed by the Knickerbocker Bank of New York. Huffing away on an unspecified substance and toting a knapsack full of tiny trumpets, he is either in the process of putting a lovely gift inside a stocking, or is preparing to torture a Borrower.

City Bank of Biddeford, ME $2 (Jan. 1, 1859)

Value: $20,700
Courtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com

Courtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com

Oh dear. What is going on here? A cross between Rumplestiltskin and the final scene of Don’t Look Now, this lilliputian Santa waves threateningly over his shoulder as he gears up to transfer gifts from the stocking on his back to the stockings hung from the mantelpiece. The home’s guard ferret stands by with a blank look on its face, completely ineffectual in preventing the tiny Santa from creepily tiptoeing all over the place. This $2 note from the City Bank of Biddeford is a $20,700 nightmare.

Saint Nicholas Bank of New York, NY $5 (Feb. 24, 1864)

Value: $34,500
saint-nicholas-bank-5-feb-24-1864-heritage-auctionsCourtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com

saint-nicholas-bank-detail1Courtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com

Ah! That’s a relief. The most valuable note on this list brings us closer to what we now consider to be the gold standard of Santa Clauses. His facial hair is a bit lacklustre and his sleigh disappointingly adheres to the laws of gravity, but make no mistake: the entourage of reindeer and the toys jangling about on the back of his vehicle quite clearly give the game away.

Howard Banking Company of Boston, MA $5 (Aug. 23, 1853)

Value: $8,625
Courtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com

howard-detailCourtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com

This is even more like it. Santa Claus prepares for take-off from a roof on this $5 note printed by Boston’s Howard Banking Company. His reindeer are magically launching themselves into the sky, even if the one on the far left appears utterly terrified at what it’s doing, perhaps having lied about its flight qualifications during the job application process. Meanwhile, Santa himself has a distinctly piratey vibe as he glances furiously over his shoulder at a chimney periscope pumping smoke out into the wintery air, thereby belittling Santa’s tiny pipe.

Bucksport Bank $50 (Oct. 10, 1854)

Value: $4,887.50
bucksportCourtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com

bucksport-detailCourtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com

Now we’re talking! Look how fat and jolly this Santa is! Thrice the size of a single reindeer, Santa bulges happily out of his cardigan in a way that foreshadows the joyous feasting of all our future Christmases. Filled with wide-eyed cheer and boasting merrily bushy eyebrows, Santa is so ebullient that he is completely oblivious to the fact that he is fly tipping all of the children’s toys into the streets below. Happy Christmas, everyone!

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James is freemarket’s Chief Commercial Officer. He has a history of finding new ways to solve age-old financial challenges and was responsible for launching some of the first online money transfer and prepaid card initiatives in Europe.

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