In the early 1700s, American colonists had limited options when it came to money. There was no universal colonial currency, so they used European coins and bills. As the population in the New World swelled, colonies began minting their own forms of currency, but they didn’t replace European money in popularity, despite coin and bill shortages. So colonial banks came up with a solution by issuing their own paper money backed by land holdings or gold.
Despite the federal government’s attempts to standardize after the Revolutionary War, American banks continued to use their own, proprietary forms of money well into the 19th century. By 1860, around 8,000 banks in the United States had their own variations. During these wild years, known as the “Free Banking Era,” all sorts of strange coins and bills in various denominations were crafted. Many featured portraits of various local governmental or banking officials while others included images from folklore. But one man was featured on more bills during this period than any other: Santa Claus.
Jolly ol’ Saint Nick appeared on three-dollar bills issued by several financial institutions, including the Howard Company Bank in Boston. Another Massachusetts-based bank created a 20-dollar bill featuring Santa. (If you think about it, is this really any weirder than the one-eyed pyramid on the back of the one-dollar bill?)
Nowadays, these bills are hard to come by and fetch a pretty penny at auction, so you probably won’t see one in your Christmas stocking. But Santa has popped up on plenty of novelty bills in recent years, in denominations as high as a million dollars.
“Santa Dollars” also debuted in the mid-80s, the brainchild of Marketing Productions, a fundraising organization based in Florida. They’re genuine legal tender “enhanced” by pasting a removable image of Santa Claus over George Washington’s on real dollar bills. (That means the company makes novelty money, and sells it to organizations for real money in order to help them earn money!) The bills have proven popular enough to inspire similar ones featuring the Easter Bunny and cupid for Valentine’s Day.