Yes, Virginia, There IS a Santa Claus!
This is, hands down, my favorite time of year.
Santa Claus is the centerpiece of the whirlwind of holiday merriment, and he is a worthy emissary of the true meaning of Christmas. I am delighted to give you some historical facts and anecdotes surrounding the legend of the loving sprite known as Santa Claus, Old Saint Nick, and Kris Kringle.
The tradition of celebrating the Winter Solstice is ancient and pagan. It goes back in time well before the birth of Christ. The Druids celebrated the coming of winter, as did the Scandinavians, the Germans, the Greeks, etc. The Romans celebrated the birthday of their sun god, Mithras in the winter. Although it wasn’t popular to celebrate a person’s birthday during this time, the Christian Church leaders under Pope Julius I, made an executive decision to institute a festival in celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Jesus was thought to have been born in the spring, but, nonetheless, his official designated birthday remains December 25th.
But where did the concept of Santa Claus come from?
The original Santa, Saint Nicholas, was born in Turkey in the 4th Century AD.
Nicholas was very pious. He was born of a wealthy merchant family and devoted his life to Christianity. At a very early age, he became a bishop, the youngest bishop in the history of the Church. He was known as "the boy bishop". He was also known and greatly loved for his generosity toward the poor.
The Romans, often at odds with the Christian Church, tortured Nicholas and imprisoned him. Nicholas was later freed by Constantine, the new emperor of Rome. Constantine became a Christian, and established the Christian Church as the official religion. He appointed Nicholas a delegate to the Council of Nicea where many important matters were decided.
Nicholas was also noted for his great love of children. He became the patron saint of sailors, Sicily, Greece, Russia, children, and maidens.
Many miracles were attributed to the good Nicholas.
Do any of you remember those little mesh purses, filled with foil-covered "coins"? Our mom always put a purse of gold "coins" in each of our Christmas stockings. My guess is that she was not aware of the famous story connected to those gold coins. It goes like this: There was a nobleman in Myra (Nicholas’ home town), who had three daughters of marriageable age. The nobleman was without money and could not provide a dowry for his daughters. Disaster of disasters, his daughters were about to be sent out to the street to beg for food. When Saint Nicholas heard about this, he quietly and inconspicuously approached the nobleman’s house and threw a sack of gold in through the window at three different times. One sack for each of the daughters. He tried to keep his identity a secret, but the nobleman discovered that it was Nicholas who gave them the gold that changed their lives.
Here we see a definite connection to our modern Santa Claus, who also slips in and out of the house, without being seen, leaving his generous bounty behind.
About 200 years after his death, Nicholas became a great figure in Christian legend, an earthly representative of the Supreme Giver of Gifts. Saint Nick was a popular saint all over Europe. His feast day was December 6th, but somehow, it started to be associated with Jesus’ birthday, and especially in America, the dates converged. The birth of Jesus Christ combined with the spirit of giving became Christmas for all of us.
The Dutch kept the legend of Saint Nicholas alive. In the 16th Century, Dutch children placed their wooden shoes near the hearth so that Saint Nicholas could fill them with sweets. The Dutch called Saint Nicholas "Sint Nikolaas", which became "Sinterklaas", and finally, "Santa Claus" (Anglican).
The jolly fat man in a red suit is an American impression of Santa. It comes from the famous poem written in 1822 by Clement C. Moore, "The Night Before Christmas".
Illustrator and cartoonist Thomas Nast’s vision of Old Saint Nick was conceived in the U.S., in the 19th Century, for Harper’s Weekly. It was a friendlier version than the German Saint Nick, but not quite the jolly elf yet. Nast had Santa living in the
North Pole where he had a workshop for making toys, and a big book which was filled with the names of children who were naughty or nice. Norman Rockwell brought Santa closer to "everyman" with his covers for the Saturday Evening Post.
The quintessential Santa Claus is portrayed in the classic Coca Cola ad in 1931, by illustrator Haddon Sundblom, with Santa drinking a frosty bottle of Coke. This is the happy elf we all know and love.
The concept of reindeer comes from Scandinavia and Lapland, where the reindeer are hardy and could definitely pull a sleigh. Speaking of reindeer, and in keeping with the spirit of Santa, I would like to share with you a sweet story about Rudolph. As you know, my sister and I lived and worked in New York City. We used to go to a wonderful restaurant in lower Manhattan called Coach House. A business associate was visiting us from California, and we decided to dine at our favorite watering hole. The Christmas season was upon us and everywhere twinkling lights and fragrant pine boughs buoyed our spirits. We were seated in a banquette next to a gentleman who seemed to want to have a conversation with us. He was very charming and interesting, and we had a jovial chat while waiting for dinner to arrive. I later learned that the gentleman was Johnny Marks, the composer who wrote "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", among many, many other hit tunes.
In the years that followed that pleasant evening, I learned that Marks was a WWII hero. The actual story of Rudolph was written in 1939 by Johnny Marks brother-in-law, Robert L. May. May had written the story line for Montgomery Ward Department Stores. He was employed at the time as a copywriter, so the rights to the story legally belonged to Montgomery Ward.
The story took off.
Unfortunately, the success was of no help to May, who fell into financial disaster due to his wife’s terminal illness.
Here’s where the spirit of Santa Claus comes in, to make this a wonderful Christmas tale... with a generosity not often seen in the corporate world, Montgomery Ward’s president turned the rights over to May in 1947. At that moment his money problems ended. His brother-in-law, Johnny further immortalized his delightful story, and Rudolph remains a permanent fixture in American pop culture to this day.
For me, and I hope, for all of you, the spirit of Santa is quite real, reminding me that giving is not about spending money, it is about caring and "being there" for another human being. While diamonds are nice, friends are better.
Yes, I do believe in Santa!
Do you know why Santa comes down the chimney to deliver his gifts? The lore comes from Lapland. The Laps lived in houses that went up in an open peak, an opening large enough for Santa to slide through.Things got complicated when the lore reached Europe, the British Isles, and America. Although our chimneys could never allow such a passage, we all know that Santa is, after all, magic, and he has not let us down.
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