Monday, December 10, 2012

Santa Claus: The Real Deal and the Legend

With the Christmas season now upon us, I'm hoping to have several "Did You Know?" posts relating to what is definitely my favorite holiday. After seeing the following Christmas decoration in a local hobby store and then posting a picture of it on Facebook and the subsequent debate, I knew that my first Christmas post just had to discuss the fact and legend around Santa Claus

There were a lot of comments about this picture, some complaining of the commercialization of Christmas, others about how confusing such a mix of what is often described as the religious and secular faces of the holiday together could confuse children, and the annoyance by some that such a fictional character could become such a focal part of the Christmas holiday. All this discussion got me thinking. Just where do we get the legend of Santa Claus? And how did the legend evolve into the modern day jolly incarnation we all are familiar with?

The primary real-life source for the man of legend is one Saint Nicholas of Myra. Nicholas was born in 270 AD in what was then called Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). He was a Greek Christian, and by all accounts very devout from an early age. His parents died during an epidemic when he was young, and so he was raised by his uncle, who was a Bishop. Young Nicholas would be raised in the church, and eventually become a priest, and later a Bishop. An interesting side note for those of you who know your Church history, Nicholas was one of the Bishops who signed the Nicene Creed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.

St. Nicholas was known as a generous man and a gift giver. The most famous story attributed to him was when he secretly gave money to a pious but poor Christian man who had three daughters. The man could not afford dowry's for his daughters and feared that if they could not be married off they may have to resort to prostitution to support themselves. St. Nicholas is said to have secretly tossed bags of gold into the man's house, one for each daughter, so he could marry them off. In some versions, he places the gold in stockings that have been hung out to dry, while in others, he tosses them down the chimney of the poor man's home.

The other early source for the legend that is Santa Claus comes from ancient pagan traditions held by the tribal peoples of Germany and Scandinavia, where legends of a gift-giver existed in local lore that would show up around the pagan holiday of Yule, which is around the same time that Christians now celebrate Christmas. The tradition holds that the gift-giver (usually identified as the Norse god Odin) would be flying through the air on a magical horse, and that children would leave their boots by the fireplace filled with treats for the gift-giver's horse to eat, and the gift-giver would replace the food with gifts for the children.

As is likely true for many pagan traditions, the idea of the gift-giver became Christianized when the tribes in Germany and Scandinavia themselves converted to Christianity. St. Nicholas's feast day is December 6, and in medieval Europe, the lore around "Sinterklaas" (which is commonly used in the Netherlands by the Dutch), began to take root, having characteristics from the historical St. Nicholas and the pre-Christian legends. The children in this region would celebrate St. Nicholas' Day on December 6, believing that the Saint would arrive and give out gifts to the boys and girls that had been good during the year. After the reformation, protestant Christians replaced the idea of Sinterklaas with the Christ Child, and moved the celebration to Christmas Eve.

In Colonial America, the ideas of the Dutch Sinterklaas would merge with the English "Father Christmas" to create the basis for our modern concept of "Santa Claus." Much of our modern traditions around this man of myth go back to the 1823 publication of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (known today as "T'was the Night Before Christmas"). In this poem that many of you are probably familiar with, we get the traditions of Santa Claus flying through the air on a magic sleigh pulled by reindeer, coming down the chimney, described as being "chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf" with a belly that jiggled when he laughed. The names of the original eight reindeer come from this poem as well. The first "modern" image of Santa Claus comes in 1863, published in Harper's Weekly Magazine by famous political cartoonist Thomas Nast (who is remembered for having popularized the figure Uncle Sam, as well as using the donkey to symbolize the Democratic Party in the US). 

I hope you've enjoyed reading about this well-known Christmas tradition, and I look forward to providing some more interesting information about other holiday traditions throughout December. 

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