Christmas Past: When Did Santa First Go Ho Ho Ho?

Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle – call him what you will, the development of this composite folkloric figure has been pretty thoroughly mapped. Much has been written about how writers like Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore and Robert Lewis May, along with artists like Thomas Nast and Haddon Sundblom helped to develop the popular image of Santa: name an aspect of Santa’s persona, and the origin typically won’t be hard to trace.

There’s a notable exception to this, however. When, exactly, did Santa first say “ho ho ho”? A search on Google will reveal discussions about why he goes “ho ho ho” rather than, say, “ha ha ha” (consensus is that “ho ho ho” indicates general joviality, while “ha ha ha” could be construed as laughing in mockery) but little or nothing about when “ho ho ho” became the officially-sanctioned Santa laugh.

So, I decided to finish my trip through festive history by researching the question myself.

Firstly, I found precious little indication that Santa went “ho ho ho” in the nineteenth century. Back in the time of Dickens, you may well have heard a supernatural being go “ho ho ho” on Christmas, but it wouldn’t have been a gift-giving man in red – it would’ve been a mischievous little goblin. Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers, includes a story-within-a-story in which a man named Gabriel Grub encounters just such a creature:

“Ho! ho!” laughed Gabriel Grub, as he sat himself down on a flat tombstone which was a favourite resting-place of his, and drew forth his wicker bottle. “A coffin at Christmas! A Christmas box! Ho! ho! ho!”

“Ho! ho! ho!” repeated a voice which sounded close behind him.

[…]

“I – I – am afraid I must leave you, Sir,” said the sexton, making an effort to move.

“Leave us!” said the goblin, “Gabriel Grub going to leave us. Ho! ho! ho!”

The fact that both Gabriel and the goblin use what would later become the official Santa laugh is presumably coincidental. More intriguing, however, is this song published in an 1867 volume called Fresh Laurels for the Sabbath School (It’s been printed elsewhere since then, and possibly beforehand as well – I was unable to trace its exact origins). Entitled “The Christmas Tree, or Kris Kringle” the song describes Kris Kringle – identified as a helper of Santa Claus, rather than the man himself – riding on a reindeer sleigh. His arrival is accompanied by much laughter: ”Oh ho, Oh ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho”.

Come the early twentieth century it becomes easier to find examples of “ho ho ho” being put into the mouth of Santa Claus (and I stress, it does seem to be only the American Santa at this point, rather than the English Father Christmas). For example, a 1911 edition of Teachers Magazine contains a stage play in which Santa Claus is given the following couplet:

Ha! Ha! Ha! Ho! Ho! Ho!
How is your health, I’d like to know?

But the earliest instance of Santa saying “ho ho ho” that I’ve come across is children’s story called “Santa Claus and the Mouse”. This piece was widely reprinted across various books, newspapers and educational publications, and it seems that a number of the editors who handled it couldn’t resist adding their own personal touches; consequently, it exists in a number of different versions. Here’s one from a 1905 edition of Primary Education:

Then little mousie said: “I can put one thing more in that stocking. Ho! Ho! Ho!” “You just try,” said Santa. And he did try. He crept right in the stocking and gnawed a tiny hole. “Ho! Ho! Ho! You shall have a Christmas cheese for that.”

While the first “Ho! Ho! Ho!” here is attributed to the mouse, a version of the story from 1908 gives it to Santa:

Then little mousie said, “Oh, Santa, Santa, I can put one thing more in that stocking!” “Ho! Ho! Ho!” said Santa; “you just try!”

There are other versions, including one where Santa says “Ha! Ha! Ha!” and another in which Santa’s laugh is not recorded. Nonetheless, versions containing “Ho! Ho! Ho!” appear to have been widespread.

“Santa Claus and the Mouse” never achieved quite the same level of immortality as “The Night Before Christmas”, but given how many publications it appeared in over the first two decades of the twentieth century, it may well have done its bit to shape children’s impressions of Santa Claus. Is it possible, then, that this is the story that cemented “ho ho ho” as the canonical Santa laugh…?

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