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THis and That - The history of Santa Claus PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, December 27, 2011 10:24 AM

Santa Claus has been around for many, many years.  Some of the stories or legends show Santa first appearing on Earth 200 or 300 years after the birth of Jesus Christ in the beloved form of St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas was a real person. Nicholas, the only child of wealthy parents, was born around 280 AD in Asia Minor, or Patara, now in Turkey. His mother taught him the Scriptures. Nicholas lost both parents during an epidemic. Their estate left him with a great deal of wealth. Over the years he became very generous to others, sharing his wealth for the benefit of many people in need.

Nicholas was well educated and did a lot of traveling. During one of his voyages, he was on a ship plying the Mediterranean and a storm came up. Nicholas asked God to calm the fierce storm. The weather cleared up and the ship drifted into the harbor of Myra, in what is now Turkey. At that time the elders of the local church were attempting to elect a new Bishop. According to legend, one of the elders received a dream in which he was told that they should choose the next person named Nicholas (which means “victory” in Greek), who visited the church. In walked the nearly ship-wrecked Nicholas, to thank God for his survival. To his surprise, he was elected the Bishop of Myra.

Nicholas was credited with many miracles and good deeds. One of these memorable good deeds reportedly concerned three young girls from a once wealthy family. Their father could no longer afford to give the girls each a dowry so they could marry. They secretly agreed to draw lots, the loser to sell herself into slavery to provide a dowry for the two lucky ones. The legend has it that Nicholas heard of their plight and made a nighttime visit, dropping a bag of gold into their windows. With that they each had a dowry, saving the one from slavery.

Nicholas became a very popular Bishop, known for his generosity, especially to children. Nicholas died around 345 AD. His death of Dec. 6 became his “feast day,” which later evolved into a date of gift giving. Many of us, especially with German ancestry, still celebrate St. Nick’s Day. We put our dishes out on the night of the 5th of December. When the children awake in the morning of the 6th, they discover St. Nick has filled their dishes or stockings with candy, oranges and nuts. He often comes to adults too, if you’re good.

The season of the Winter Solstice was a time for merriment and gift giving way back in pagan times. As time went on, most countries continued to have a special gift giving at that time.  There was Pelznickel (furry Nicholas) and Frau Holda in Germany. Sweden adopted St. Lucia as the Lady of Light on the Bringer of Light. Legend tells us she brought food to the country to feed the children during a terrible famine. Befana was a legendary female gift giver to Italian children for almost two thousand years. She was active at Christmas Time and made her visits on the Twelfth Night of Christmas, the Epiphany.  Russians had the grandmotherly, Babouska.

Back in the 16th Century, Martin Luther declared that St. Nicholas was robbing the true meaning of Christmas. As a result the Christ Child became the gift giver. Soon in Bavaria the gift giver became the Clhristkindt.  In Alsace, bordering on Germany, The Christkindt was sometimes pictured as a boy angel, the Alsace Angel. In the Pennsylvania Dutch Country Christkindle (Christ Child) was transformed to Kris Kringle. This name is used by many even today.

England had Father Christmas or Sir Christmas. At one time Oliver Cromwell banned the excessiveness of the celebrations associated with the Catholic Saint, St. Nicholas or Santa Claus and the winter solstice. This ban lasted about 20 years. About the same time Santa Claus was brought to the new world. The Dutch explorers, led by Henry Hudson, built their first church on the island of Manhattan and dedicated it to Sinter Klas. They began celebrating the gift giving again. St. Nicholas returned on Dec. 6 on a white horse, sometimes accompanied by Black Peter, who sometimes brought sticks to bad children. When the British took control of New Amsterdam they merged Sinter Klas with Father Christmas, making the day of celebration around the winter solstice, which again made Dec. 25 the date of celebration.

In 1809, the writer Washington Irving created a jolly St. Nicholas character who appeared in Knickerbacker’s History of New York. Then in 1822 an Episcopal Priest, named Clement Moore wrote his famous lighthearted poem called “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” Clement Moore was a biblical scholar, who could speak several languages. Much of his scholarly work has been forgotten but his is best remembered for his Christmas Poem, which was published in the Troy Sentinel and became “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”  Moore gave the eight reindeer their names… “Now Dasher, now Dancer, now Prancer and Vixen; On Comet, on Cupid and Donder and Blitzen!” Rudolph came along later, thanks to Gene Autry. After Moore wrote his immortal poem he inspired a Harpers Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast to pick up his pen and draw the famous Nast Santa Claus, a plump, lovable gent with a bag of toys flung on his shoulder.  
Then in 1930, a Chicago Commercial illustrator, Haddon Sundblom, painted the jolly and garbed Santa in an advertising campaign for Coca-Cola. Sundblom painted his last Coca-Cola Santa during the 1964 season.  It has survived to become the most famous image of all.
One of my mother’s favorite stories was “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” by Francis P. Church, editor of the New York Sun. It’s also one of my favorites so I would like to share it with you.

A little girl by the name of Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the editor:
Dear Editor,
I am 8 years old.  Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.  Papa says, ‘If you see it in the Sun it’s so,’ Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O’Hanlon

The editor, Francis P. Church replied:
“Virginia your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.  They do not believe except what they can see.  They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensive to their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little.

In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant. In his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him; as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole truth and knowledge. 
Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus.  He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.

Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight.

The eternal light with which childhood fills the world be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but there is no sign that there is no Santa Claus.

The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there.  Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unreachable in the world. You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside the curtain and view the picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.

Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives and lives forever! A thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”  

This was in 1897, and it remains a classic, over a century later.
Merry Christmas!


Last Updated on Tuesday, November 06, 2012 3:32 PM

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