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Calendar >  The History and Legends of Santa Claus

The History and Legends of Santa Claus

By   /  December 14, 2021  /  No Comments

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TR Robertson — As another December rolls around, most everyone’s thoughts turn to the Christmas holidays, and everything connected with this holiday season. Even though Christmas signifies, for many, important religious celebrations, and observances; most people around the world, especially those people with children, also include a number of fictional, legendary, and well-known Christmas figures as part of their seasonal celebrations. One of the most important of these figures, especially for children, is Santa Claus, known by many other names – Santa, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, and Father Christmas. The story of Santa Claus is divided into two parts. One the story of a real person living almost two thousand years ago that was known for gift giving and helping the less fortunate and one the story of a mythical person capable of magical powers who is also known for his gift giving. Surprisingly, the legendary Santa Claus we, in the United States, are most familiar with is a result of a variety of stories from around the world, mixed in with a true story beginning long, long ago.

The real person linked to the fictional Santa Claus is St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas was a 4th century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in the region of Lycia (today Turkey) in the Roman Empire. He is said to have been born to a wealthy family but following his Christian faith he used his resources to help others. Another story says he was imprisoned during the rule of the Romans but was released by Constantine. Much of what is known about him is surrounded in legend. During his lifetime he is thought to have traveled as far as the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Germany. St. Nicholas is famous for giving gifts to the poor. One story surrounding his generosity says he saved three impoverished daughters of a Christian man from becoming prostitutes by presenting the girls with doweries so they could marry. He devoted his entire life to charity and Christianity. When he died, on December 6, 343, his body was buried in Myra. In 1087, most of his bones were taken by sailors and brought to the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari in southern Italy. Other parts of his bones were placed in San Nicola Lido in Venice, Italy. When he was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1446, St. Nicholas is said to have performed over 300 miracles. He is the patron saint of Greece and Russia and declared the patron saint of archers, sailors, children, and pawn brokers. Numerous churches throughout Europe and other countries bear St. Nicholas’s name. In many countries, December 6th is St. Nicholas Day and children receive gifts on this day.

Through the Middle Ages, December 6th remained the gift giving day associated with St. Nicholas. The date was moved to December 24th and 25th during the Reformation of 16th century Europe. Martin Luther was one of the proponents of moving the date to put the day of celebration closer to a day associated with Christ rather than a day focusing on a saint. Luther suggested the Christkind was the bringer of gifts, a traditional gift bringer in the majority of Europe. Also beginning in the 16th century in England was the belief in Father Christmas, during the reign of Henry VIII. Father Christmas was pictured as a large man dressed in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. He typified the spirit of good during Christmas bringing peace, joy, tasty food, and wine. During this time in England the celebrations were moved to December 24th and 25th.

In the Netherlands and Belgium, the belief in Sinterklaas as a gift bringer was based on St. Nicholas. The other gift bringer figures in Europe are de Kerstman (the Christmas Man) for the Dutch and Pere Noel (Father Christmas) in France. The Dutch divide their days of gift giving between Dec. 6 and December 24 and 25. In ancient Norse culture the gift bringer was Odin, a blue hooded, cloaked, white bearded man of the North considered the leader of the gods who rode an eight footed steed called Sleipnir. Children would leave their boots by the fire in their holiday season hoping gifts of fruits and other items would appear. Many also believe that Santa as a gift giver going down chimney’s dates to Norse and central European cultures where Odin was said to enter homes by going down chimneys.

All the stories surrounding the various giver of gifts during the holiday season would merge in the United States into a slow creation of the image we now associate with Santa Claus. The name Santa Claus would first appear in the U.S. press in 1773. He would be parodied in Washington Irving’s History of New York in 1809, pictured as a thick bellied Dutch Sailor smoking a pipe while wearing a green winter coat. Irving was attempting to tone down the wild Christmas celebrations held at this time under the pretense of “wassailing,” leading to depravity in reaction to the staunch Puritan anti-Christmas beliefs. Many towns on the east coast called for an end to Christmas celebrations of any kind.

In 1821, a book appeared called A New Years Present, to the Little Ones, containing a poem “Old Santa Claus with Much Delight” with a drawing of Santa on a sleigh pulled by a reindeer as he gave presents to children. On December 23, 1823, an anonymous poem was published in Troy, New York, in the “Sentinel” newspaper. The poem was called “An Account from St. Nicholas,” later to be called “The Night Before Christmas.” Clement Clarke Moore would later claim authorship, but other scholars say Henry Livingston, Jr. wrote the poem. In the poem Santa was described as a “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with a “round belly,” “miniature sleigh” and “tiny reindeer.” The reindeer were named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem. Dunder and Blixem would later be changed to Donner and Blitzen.

By 1845, Santa Claus was also commonly referred to as Kris Kringle. An 1853 magazine article described children preparing for Christmas by hanging stockings on the chimney mantle for their gifts. Cartoonist Thomas Nast, in an 1863 Harpers Weekly article, pictured Santa in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, but dressed in an American flag, reflecting the support of the Union in The Civil War. This Santa also held a puppet named Jeff. Other Nast cartoons popularized the idea that Santa lived at the North Pole. In an 1889 poem by Katherine Lee Bates, Mrs. Claus was introduced in “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride”. James Edgar portrayed Santa in 1890 in his department store at Christmas time. The 1897 editorial, “Is There a Santa Claus?”, included the now famous line, “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”. L. Frank Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz books wrote a children’s book in 1902 called The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, in which he described Santa’s reindeer leaping from house to house. Elves were also introduced as Santa’s helpers in the early 1900’s. Actor Leedham Bantock portrayed a much skinnier Santa in a silent film called “Santa Claus” in 1912. In the early 1900’s Santa would begin to appear in various parades in the U.S. and Canada around the Christmas season and would first appear in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City in 1924.

The image we commonly associate with Santa Claus, that of a portly, jolly, white bearded man with spectacles, wearing a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, white fur cuffed trousers, red pointed hat with a white fur trim, black leather belt and boots, carrying a red bag full of gifts for children was further popularized in 1930 when Haddon Sundblom created ads for The Coca-Cola Company around the Christmas season to advertise the Coca-Cola product. White Rock Beverage had used a red and white dressed Santa to advertise their mineral water and ginger ale in 1915. By the 1940’s Pepsi Cola would use the image of the Coca-Cola Santa to advertise their soda.

In the 1930’s, The Salvation Army and other charity groups would begin to use the Santa image we know today to help raise funds for their organizations. In 1937, Charles W. Howard established a Santa School for training department store and parade Santa’s. Robert L. May introduced Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as a promotional for Montgomery Ward Department Store, complete with a children’s booklet. Gene Autry would popularize Rudolph with his Christmas song in 1948 and in this same year Seabury Quinn authored a novel telling the story of Santa and the origins of Christmas.

Other traditions surrounding Santa includes leaving milk and cookies out near the Christmas tree, a U.S. and Canadian ritual. In Britain and Australia sherry or beer and mince pies is left out. In Denmark, Norway and Sweden Santa gets rice porridge with sugar and cinnamon. In Ireland he gets Guinness or milk and Christmas pudding or mince pies.

Needless to say, by the beginning of the 1950’s, our image of Santa and many of the traditions surrounding his visit on Christmas Eve was fully established in literature, children’s books, song, television and movies. The journey to this image was a long one, full of many twists and turns along the way. Santa Claus is still looked at in a variety of diverse ways throughout the world. However, you choose to believe in the image of Santa, the stories and traditions surrounding him always remember that St. Nicholas’s original purpose and goal was to help the poor, provide charitable gifts and happiness wherever he traveled. Keep that in mind as you celebrate the holidays with those you love.

The Merriest of Christmas to You and Yours and May Santa bring you something special this year.

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