Claus hasn't always looked like the jolly old fellow we
know today. Like so many other American traditions, he's a
product of the great American melting pot - a blend of
many different cultures and customs. His earliest
ancestors date back to pre-Christian days, when sky-riding
gods ruled the earth. The mythological characters Odin,
Thor, and Saturn gave us the basis for many of Santa's
But the most
influential figure in the shaping of today's generous as
loving Santa Claus was a real man. St. Nicholas of Myra
(now Turkey), a fourth century bishop. As a champion of
children and the needy, he was legendary for his kindness
A TRADITION OF
In a well
known story illustrating St, Nicholas' benevolence, we find
two of the basic principles of the holiday spirit - giving to
others and helping the less fortunate - as well as the
tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace.
this legend, there were three Italian maidens whose families
had fallen on hard times. Because their father could not
afford the dowries necessary for them to marry, he was
considering selling one of his daughters into slavery to get
dowries for the other two. When the good saint heard of the
family's plight, he went to their home late one night and
anonymously tossed three bags of gold down the chimney.
Miraculously, a bag fell into each of the sisters stockings,
were hanging by the fire to dry. His kindhearted gift made it
possible for all three sisters to marry.
of this story is that as each girl was ready to wed, St.
Nicholas came in the middle of the night when no one could see
him and tossed a bag of gold through an open window into her
stocking. The idea of gifts being delivered through an open
window may have begun as a way to explain how Santa enters
homes that have no chimney.
his wisdom and sensitivity, many groups claimed St. Nicholas
as their patron saint. Children, orphans, sailors, and even
thieves often prayed to the compassionate saint for guidance
and protection. Entire countries, including Russia and Greece,
also adopted him as their patron saint, as well as students
his life, St. Nicholas tried to help others while inspiring
the to imitate his virtues. Legends of his unselfish giving
spread all over Northern Europe, and accounts of his heroic
deeds blended with regional folklore. Eventually, the image of
the stately saint was transformed onto an almost mystical
being, one known for rewarding the good and punishing the bad.
The date of
his death, December 6th, was commemorated with an annual
feast, which gradually came to mark the beginning of the
medieval Christmas season. On St. Nicholas' Eve, youngsters
would set out food for the saint, straw for his horses and
schnapps for his attendant. The next morning, obedient
children awoke to find their gifts replaced with sweets and
toys, found their offering untouched , along with a rod or a
bundle of switched. St. Nicholas' Day is still observed in
many countries, and gifts are exchanged in honor of the spirit
of brotherhood and charity that he embodied.
THE MAKING OF SANTA CLAUS
Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the feasting
and veneration of Catholic saints were banned. But people had
become accustomed to the annual visit from their gift-giving
saint and didn't want to forget the purpose of the holiday. So
in some countries, the festivities of St. Nicholas' Day were
merged with Christmas celebrations, and although the
gift-bearer took on new, non-religious forms, he still
reflected the saints generous spirit.
he appeared as Weihnachtsmann, in England as Father Christmas,
and in France, as Pèrè Noël, who left small gifts in the
In the areas
where St. Nicholas was still portrayed as the gift-bearer, a
host of other characters developed to be his assistants. Two
of his most well-known helpers were Knecht Ruprecht and the
Belsnickle. Depending on the local tradition, they were either
attendants to St. Nicholas or gift-bears themselves, but in
all cases, both were fearsome characters, brandishing rods and
switches. It was not only their dusty to reward good children
but also to reprove children who were naughty and couldn't
recite their prayers.
Ruprecht (meaning Servant Rupert) was also by other names such
as Black Peter (so called because he delivered the presents
down the chimney for St. Nicholas and became blackened with
places, the images, of Knecht Ruprecht and St. Nicholas merged
to form Ru Klaus (meaning Rough Nicholas - so named because of
his rugged appearance), Aschen Klaus (meaning Ash Nicholas -
because he carried a sack of ashes as well as a bundle of
switches), and Pelznickle (meaning Furry Nicholas - referring
to his fur clad appearance).
Not all of
St. Nicholas' companions were frightening. In fact, the
Christkindl (meaning Christ Child) was thought to accompany
him in many countries. Often portrayed by a fair-haired young
girl, this angelic figure was sometimes the gift-bearer too.
SANTA IN AMERICA
to the New World brought along their various beliefs when they
crossed the Atlantic. The Scandinavians introduced gift-giving
elves, the Germans brought not only their Belsnickle and
Chistkindle but also their decorated trees and the Irish
contributed the ancient Gaelic custom of placing a lighted
candle in the window.
1600's, the Dutch presented Sinterklaas (meaning St. Nicholas)
to the colonies. In their excitement, many English-speaking
children uttered the name so quickly that Sinterklaas sounded
like Santy Claus. After years of mispronunciation, the name
evolved into Santa Claus.
American author Washington Irving created a new version of old
St. Nick. This one rode over the treetops in a horse drawn
wagon "dropping gifts down the chimneys of his favorites." In
his satire, Diedrich Knickerbocker's History of New York from
the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty,
Irving described Santa as a jolly Dutchman who smoked a long
stemmed clay pipe and wore baggy breeches and a broad brimmed
hat. Also, the familiar phrase, "...laying his finger beside
his nose...," first appeared in Irving's story.
was used again in 1822 in the now-classic poem by Dr. Clement
Clarke Moore, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," more commonly know
as "The Night Before Christmas." His verse gave an Arctic
flavor to Santa's image when he substituted eight tiny
reindeer and a sleigh for Irving's horse and wagon. It is
Moore's description of Santa that we most often think of
today: "He had a broad face, and a little round belly, that
shook, when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly."
Up to this
point, Santa's physical appearance and the color of his suit
were open to individual interpretation. Then in 1863, Thomas
Nast, a German immigrant, gave us a visual image of the
cheerful giver that was to later become widely accepted.
was asked to illustrate Moore's charming verse for a book of
children's poems, he gave us a softer, kinder Santa who was
still old but appeared less stern than the ecclesiastical St.
Nicholas. He dressed his elfin figure in red and endowed him
with human characteristics. Most important of all, Nast gave
Santa a home at the North Pole. For twenty-three years, his
annual drawings in Harpers Weekly magazine allowed Americans
to peek into the magical world of Santa Claus and set the
stage for the shaping of today's merry gentleman.
Haddon Sundblom added the final touches to Santa's modern
image. Beginning in 1931, his billboard and other
advertisements for Coca Cola-Cola featured a portly,
grandfatherly Santa with human proportions and a ruddy
complexion. Sunblom's exuberant, twinkle-eyed Santa firmly
fixed the gift-giver's image in the public mind.
Nicholas' evolution into today's happy, larger-than-life Santa
Claus is a wonderful example of the blending of countless
beliefs and practices from around the world. This benevolent
figure encompasses all the goodness and innocence of
childhood. And because goodness is his very essence, in every
kindness we do, Santa will always be remembered.