By Stephen Goldsmith

Santa Claus once appeared on bank notes as a universally accepted symbol of charity and generosity, but did you know that once upon a time there was a five shilling fine for celebrating Christmas?

During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress authorized the printing of the first paper money to be issued by a centralized American government. When the first notes were issued, they were worth their equivalent in Spanish Milled Dollars. By the time the Revolutionary War ended, the United States was deep in debt, and inflation was rampant, and it took $400 Continental paper dollars to purchase items that were worth one Spanish Milled Dollar.

Americans had learned a valuable lesson, and were no longer interested in accepting paper money issued by the central government of the United States. This feeling would last right up through the War Between the States.

In order to fill the vacuum that was created when the U.S. Government stopped issuing paper money, individual states, banks, insurance companies, railroads, and even local merchants began to issue their own paper money. By the time the Civil War rolled around, there were well over 30,000 different paper money issues in circulation at one time or another.

Paper money issued by local institutions was readily accepted where it was issued, but when this same paper money was carried to different parts of the country, it usually traded at a discount. This created a difficult situation for merchants. They had to pay careful attention to which issuers were solvent, and which issuers were not.

Entire newspapers were devoted to this subject. One of these newspapers was The Bank Note Reporter. A sophisticated banker or merchant might subscribe to The Bank Note Reporter, and keep up with the status of most of the bank note issuers. Many of the notes that were in circulation were counterfeit, issued from fraudulent institutions, or traded at a severe discount, and The Bank Note Reporter listed this information.

The general public did not have access to this tool, and they often had to make their judgments of value and legitimacy based simply on the appearance of the bank notes. A beautifully engraved, colorful note with a beautiful and symbolic illustration inspired confidence, so bankers chose their symbols very carefully.

Portraits of universally accepted famous Americans such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were popular. Railroad trains, symbolizing the latest in transportation technology, were also prevalent. Eagles often appeared on these bank notes, and animals of local interest, such as frogs, pigs, cattle, and dogs were occasionally utilized.

Classical figures symbolizing strength and trust were frequently used, but perhaps the most whimsical and entertaining symbol seen on paper money was the one that stood for charity and generosity, and that was Santa Claus himself.

Santa was not always a universally acceptable symbol. According to Roger Durand (Interesting Notes About Christmas), in 1659 the Puritans passed a law that levied a five shilling fine for anybody found observing Christmas day "… by abstinence from labor, feasting, or any other way…."

By 1682, this law was repealed, and beginning in 1836 with Alabama, states and territories began recognizing Christmas Day as a legal holiday in this country. The use of Santa Claus as a universally recognized and popular symbol soon became widespread, and he eventually appeared on over thirty different obsolete bank note is sues in America, all very eagerly collected today.

We present a sampling of these wonderful notes in celebration of the Christmas Season...