The Spirit of St. Nicholas Lives On In Santa Claus


We all know Santa Claus as the jolly man in red who brings gifts to children on Christmas Eve. But did you know that he has a long and fascinating history that goes back to the 3rd century?

The origin of Santa Claus can be traced back to a monk named Saint Nicholas, who was born around A.D. 280 in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life to Christianity. He was also known for his generosity and kindness, especially to the poor and the children. He gave away all his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping those in need. One of the most famous stories about him is that he saved three sisters from being sold into slavery or prostitution by their father by secretly throwing bags of gold into their house at night, providing them with dowries so that they could get married.

Saint Nicholas became the bishop of Myra and performed many miracles during his lifetime. He was also the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students. He died on December 6, A.D. 343, and his feast day was celebrated on that date. Many people honored him by giving gifts to each other and to the poor.

The popularity of Saint Nicholas spread across Europe and beyond. Different cultures adopted and adapted his legend and traditions to suit their own customs and beliefs. For example, in the Netherlands, he was known as Sinterklaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas). He was depicted as a bearded bishop in a red robe, riding a white horse, and accompanied by a helper named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), who carried a sack of gifts and a rod to punish naughty children. On the eve of his feast day, December 5, children would leave their shoes by the fireplace or the door, hoping to find presents from Sinterklaas the next morning. They would also sing songs and eat treats such as chocolate letters, gingerbread men, and speculaas (spiced biscuits). 

In England, Saint Nicholas was replaced by Father Christmas, a figure who represented the spirit of good cheer at Christmas. He was usually depicted as a large man in a green or red robe, with a long white beard and a wreath of holly on his head. He did not bring gifts, but rather visited homes to feast and drink with the people. He was also associated with the old pagan customs of the winter solstice, such as the Yule log, the holly and the ivy, and the mistletoe.

In France, he was known as Père Noël (Father Christmas), and he brought gifts to children on Christmas Eve. He wore a long red cloak and a hood, and carried a large sack of toys on his back. He entered the houses through the chimney and filled the shoes that children left by the fireplace with candies, fruits, nuts, and small toys. 

In Germany, he was called Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man), and he also brought gifts to children on Christmas Eve. He wore a long red coat and a red cap, and had a white beard and a sack of presents. He was sometimes accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Rupert), a dark-clad figure who carried a switch to punish bad children.

In Scandinavia, he was known as Jultomten (Yule Gnome) or Julenissen (Yule Elf), and he lived in the forest or under the floorboards. He was a small, old man with a long white beard and a red cap, and he wore gray clothes and wooden shoes. He brought gifts to children on Christmas Eve, but only if they left a bowl of porridge for him.

In Russia, he was called Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), and he was a tall, slender, wizard-like figure who wore a long fur coat and a fur hat. He had a long white beard and a staff, and he rode a sleigh pulled by three white horses. He brought gifts to children on New Year's Eve, and he was accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden), who wore a fur coat and a fur cap, and had long blonde hair and blue eyes. 

The modern image of Santa Claus as the jolly man in red who brings toys to children on Christmas Eve was largely shaped by two New Yorkers in the 19th century: Clement Clarke Moore and Thomas Nast.

Clement Clarke Moore was a professor of literature and theology who wrote a poem for his children in 1822, titled "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (also known as "The Night Before Christmas"). The poem described a magical visit from a "right jolly old elf" who flew in a miniature sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. He had a "little round belly that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly", and he was dressed "all in fur, from his head to his foot". He came down the chimney with a "bound", and filled the stockings with toys. He then winked his eye, twisted his head, and "laying his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose". He sprang to his sleigh, and as he drove out of sight, he exclaimed, "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!". 

The poem was published anonymously in a newspaper in 1823, and became an instant hit. It was later attributed to Moore, who claimed authorship in 1837. The poem introduced many of the elements that we associate with Santa Claus today, such as his appearance, his mode of transportation, his names (Santa Claus is derived from Sinterklaas), and his catchphrase.

Thomas Nast was a political cartoonist who drew a series of illustrations of Santa Claus for Harper's Weekly magazine from 1863 to 1886. He based his drawings on Moore's poem, but also added his own touches, such as giving Santa a home at the North Pole, a workshop where he made toys with the help of elves, and a list of children's names that he checked twice to see who was naughty or nice. He also gave Santa his distinctive red suit with white fur trim, a black belt and boots, and a long white beard. 

Nast's illustrations popularized the image of Santa Claus in America and around the world. They also influenced other artists and writers who further developed the character and the story of Santa Claus, such as Norman Rockwell, Robert L. May, and Gene Autry.

Today, Santa Claus is one of the most recognizable and beloved figures of Christmas. He is celebrated in songs, movies, books, and advertisements. He is also a source of joy and wonder for millions of children who write letters to him, visit him at malls and parades, and wait for his arrival on Christmas Eve. He represents the spirit of giving, kindness, and magic that makes Christmas a special time of the year.

However, Santa Claus is not only a fictional character, but also a real person who lives in the hearts and minds of those who believe in him. He is inspired by the legacy of Saint Nicholas, who was a real person who lived a life of faith and charity. He is also influenced by the traditions and cultures of people from different parts of the world, who have their own ways of celebrating Christmas and honoring the saint. He is also shaped by the imagination and creativity of artists and writers, who have given him a personality and a story that appeals to people of all ages and backgrounds.

Santa Claus is a symbol of Christmas spirit, but he is also a reflection of ourselves. He is what we want him to be, and he is what we make him to be. He is the embodiment of our hopes and dreams, our values and virtues, our memories and traditions, our love and gratitude. He is Santa Claus, the jolly man in red.
The spirit of Saint Nicholas is real, and St Nicholas may be very happy to see that his generous spirit of giving to others continues to this day in 2023. 

 So whether Santa comes to you on a sleigh pulled by 8 reindeer leaving presents under the tree, or he comes to you as a gift from an office buddy, friend or relative, or even from a smile or a warm hello from a person who is just being kind, just know that Santa is indeed alive and well as we continue to  honor the love inside of ourselves  with the spirit of giving and thoughtfulness to one another. 


Source: Conversation with Bing, 11/15/2023

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