NORTH POLE — It might be a surprise to some the Jolly old Elf welcomed down so many chimneys this Christmas season was at one time a true to life person, compassionate and giving enough to be named a Saint and began a tradition that has lasted nearly 2,000 years.
Born circa 280 AD in Patara, near Myra in modern day Turkey, St. Nicholas was from a wealthy family and affluent background. Instead of following in his family’s footsteps, Nicholas instead gave away his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping and aiding the poor and sick.
One legend has it Nicholas once saved three girls from slavery and prostitution by providing the necessary money for a dowry for them to be married. A truly generous soul, Nicholas was named a Saint and he became known as the protector of children and sailors.
St. Nicholas’ Feast Day is Dec. 6, the anniversary of his death, and is considered lucky for purchasing gifts and getting married.
The Protestant Reformation, the period in which many of the modern-day branches of Christianity broke away from the Catholic Church, would change the landscape of Europe and the Middle East, including the diminishing of Saints’ observances.
Not so for St. Nicholas, who remained very popular, especially in Holland where he was called Sinter Klaas, the easily recognizable forerunner of the name Santa Claus used in the United States.
St. Nicholas made his first appearance of record in the United States in the late 18th century, in December 1773 and December 1774. A New York newspaper reported these two years there was a large concentration of Dutch who had honored the Saint on the anniversary of his death.
Although the mention of or appearance of Sinter Klaas would be hard to come by for several decades, the story grew and the traditions associated were passed along.
In 1804 John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society, gifted his fellow members with a series of woodcuts which depicted St. Nicholas with many of the Christmas trappings familiar today, including images of stockings hung by the chimney with care.
In 1809 Washington Irving got in on the act and helped perpetuate St. Nicholas in America, naming him the Patron Saint of New York. During the period he was described as a “rascal” with a blue three-cornered hat, red waistcoat, and yellow stockings to a man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a “huge pair of Flemish trunk hose.”
In the early 19th century St. Nicholas — and Sinter Klaas — had evolved into Santa Claus and he was incorporated into the Christmas season. In 1820 stores had begun to advertise Christmas shopping and by the 1840’s newspapers had begun to dedicate entire sections to advertisements for the holiday shopping season.
1841 was the pivotal year children turned out to see Santa for the first time as a Philadelphia shop provided a life-sized model for children and it wasn’t long before stores were providing live models for children to visit and share their wish lists with.
The Salvation Army version made its first appearance in 1891 as the organization needed funds to pay for the services they provided to the needy and the Red Kettle Bell Ringer was born, dressed as Santa of course.
The image of a modern-day Santa comes from a poem written by Episcopal minister Clement Clark Moore in 1822, and immortalized by the artwork of Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist whose images appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1881, when he penned “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” or as it is better known today, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
Moore, being a minister, almost didn’t publish the piece because of its frivolous images, but it is fortuitous he did, as it has been the image children and adults in the United States have been seeing since.
Santa Claus may be the name known in America, but there are other images and names which have been used the world over as well.
Swiss and German children send their lists to Christkind or Kris Kringle, the Scandinavians have Jultomten, Father Christmas visits England, Pere Noel fills the shoes of French children, in Italy La Befana rides a broomstick, but it may be the Russian legend which is the most interesting.
According to their tale, an elderly woman Babouschka gave wrong directions to the wise men to keep them from finding the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem. Babouschka couldn’t find the three wise men to fix what she had done and since then has visited Russian children with gifts, hoping one is the Christ child to make up for her actions.
Santa may be a unique image to our culture, but the idea behind the generosity of the St. Nicholas pervades many cultures the world over.
Reach D. C. Moody at 864-855-0355.