Ever wonder how the Santa Claus of 21st-century Christmas lore came about? Here's the story of how an almost completely unknown bishop became the most recognized holiday character in Western civilization.
A MAN NAMED NICHOLAS
In the fourth century A.D., a man named Nicholas became the bishop of a village called Myra in what is now Turkey.
That's all we know about him.
Nevertheless, Bishop Nicholas of Myra was later canonized and went on to become the most popular saint in all of Christianity. He is the guardian saint of Russia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Norway, and Greece. He is the patron saint of children, virgins, pawnbrokers, pirates, thieves, brewers, pilgrims, fishermen, barrel makers, dyers, butchers, meatpackers, and haberdashers. He has more churches named after him than any of the apostles. And he has evolved into one of the best-known characters in the world -the fat, jolly, red-suited Santa Claus who delivers presents on Christmas Eve, St. Nick.
How did it happen? It took centuries.
MAKING A SAINT
It's a pretty safe guess that the real Nicholas of Myra was a kind and generous man, because most of the legends attributed to him describe kind acts toward children. Here are two of the most famous:
1. The Three Daughters. Nicholas was walking past a house when he overheard a man telling his three daughters that he was selling them into prostitution because he didn't have enough money for the dowries that would make them desirable wives. Later that night, Nicholas snuck back to the house and threw a bag of gold through a window. He did the same thing the following night, and then again a third night, providing enough gold for all three daughter's dowries. (According to a later version of the story, one of the bags landed in a stocking that was hung out to dry over a fireplace.)
Because of this, he became the patron saint of young brides and unmarried women. And because he delivered financial aid at a time when the girls needed it the most, pawnbrokers made him their patron saint. To this day, the symbol of the pawnbroker trade is three balls of gold -a spinoff of St. Nick's three bags of gold.
2. The Three Boys. For centuries, it was common to paint St. Nicholas holding his three bags of gold. But not every artist painted them well ...and at some point during the Middle Ages, artist painting new pictures of the saint began mistaking the bags for three human heads. To explain this image, a second legend evolved. According to this tale, St. Nicholas checked into an inn during a terrible famine and was surprised when the innkeeper served him meat -which had been unobtainable for months- for dinner. Suspecting the worst, Nicholas snuck down into the cellar and found the pickled bodies of three murdered young boys floating in a barrel. He restored the boys to life and helped them escape.
ST. NICK AND KIDS
These tales helped make St. Nick the patron saint of children. And to honor him, Europeans began giving gifts to their children on the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas, which fell on December 6.
(Image credit: Flickr user Roel Wijnants)Nicholas was especially popular in Holland. The Dutch St. Nick was tall and gaunt, wore the traditional dress of a bishop, including the pointed bishop's hat (a mitre), and carried a long shepherd's staff. He also rode on a donkey, not in a sleigh. Later, it became a white horse. On St. Nicholas's Eve, children left shoes filled with straw for the donkey, and by morning the straw was gone and their shoes were filled with presents.
ST. NICK ARRIVES IN AMERICA
In 1664, the flourishing Dutch colony of New Amsterdam was taken over by British forces -who renamed it "New York" after the Duke of York.
For the next 200 years or so, the Dutch citizens of the colony waged a losing battle to preserve what was left of their culture and traditions. One of the most active groups was an association of Dutch intellectuals who called themselves the "Knickerbockers."
Writer Washington Irving was a member of the group, and in 1809 he published a satirical version of Dutch traditions in a book called The Knickerbocker's History of New York. It contained several dozen references to "Sinter Klaas" (an adaptation of "Sint Nikolass"), including a tale of how he flew across the sky in a wagon and dropped presents down chimneys for good little girls and boys -not just on Christmas, but on any day he felt like it.
Irving "created a new popularity for the bishop," Teresa Chris write in The Story of Santa Claus. "He saw Saint Nicholas in America not in clerical robes, but as a jolly fellow, like the good Dutch burghers." And New Yorkers loved the image.
Irving's description of the saint rapidly became known to New Yorkers. The English settlers enthusiastically adopted the joyful Dutch celebrations of St. Nicholas' Day, but they gradually merged them with their own traditions of celebrating Christmas or the New Year. It is not hard to see how Sinter Klaas became Santa Claus in the mouths of English-speaking New Yorkers.
SANTA'S HELPER: CLEMENT CLARKE MOORE
A most important contributor to the modern image of Santa was a professor of divinity in New York -Dr. Clement Clarke Moore.
When Moore, a friend of Washington Irving, sat down to write his children a Christmas poem in 1822, he was heavily influenced by Irving's vision of Sinter Klaas and his flying wagon and gift-giving. But Moore made a few more alterations to make the story more believable. For example, Chris writes, "The clogs that the Dutch children left by the chimney corner on December 6 became something all children could relate to in cold weather -stockings." And the wagon became a "miniature sleigh" pulled by "eight tiny reindeer."
The sleigh and horse with its bells was a common means of transport in New England...And for it to be pulled by reindeer gave St. Nick an exotic link with the North -a land of cold and snow where few, if any people traveled and hence was mysterious and remote.
Moore described Santa as a dwarfish "jolly old elf," dressed in furs who goes down chimneys to give children their gifts. Moore even gave the reindeer names: Dasher, Dancer, prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen. Other Christmas stories have portrayed St. Nicholas on a white horse, or with one or two reindeer -one version even had him in a cart pulled by a goat- but Moore's account was so vivid and compelling that it became the standard.
Moore never intended for anyone other than his children to hear A Visit From St. Nicholas -in fact, for more than 20 years he refused to admit he was the author (apparently because he was afraid it would damage his standing in the stuffy academic community of the 10th century). But his wife liked the story so much that she sent copies to her friends ...and somehow the poem wound up printed anonymously in the Troy, New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823. It eventually became known as The Night Before Christmas. It was so popular that within a decade it had become a central part of the Santa legend...as well as the best-known poem in American history.
Now Santa had a personality and a mission, and was permanently linked to Christmas. But what did he look like?
SANTA'S HELPER: THOMAS NAST
In the mid 1800s, it was popular to draw St. Nick either in his bishop's robes or as a man with a pointed hat, long coat, and straight beard. Sometimes he even had black hair.
This changed in 1863, when Harper's Weekly hired 21-year-old Thomas Nast to draw a picture of Santa Claus bringing gifts to Union troops fighting the Civil War. The Santa that Nast drew combined Clement Moore's description of St. Nicholas in his poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas" with, believe it or not ...Uncle Sam. Nast's Santa was a jolly, roly-poly old man who wore a star-spangled jacket, striped pants, and a cap.
"The drawing boosted the the spirits of soldiers and civilians alike alike because it showed that the spirit of Christmas had come to the Civil War," says historian James I. Robertson. It was so popular, that every year, for 40 years, when the magazine asked Nast to draw Santas, he stuck with the same concept -although he did drop the stars and stripes in favor of a plain wool suit. "Hence," Robinson says, "the American Santa Claus took shape by repetition. We just became accustomed to this same figure."
A GROWING IMAGE
Nast added new little details every Christmas: one year he showed Santa pouring over a list of naughty and nice children; another year showed him in a toy workshop in the North Pole.
Nast also went on the become the most famous political cartoonist of the 19th century -he's responsible for giving the Democratic Party its donkey and the Republican Party its elephant- but his Santa drawings are his best remembered works.
In fact, Nast almost singlehandedly established the Santa "image" as it is today... except in one major area: the color of his suit. That was a product of Coca-Cola.
SANTA'S HELPER: HADDON SUNDBLOM
In 1931, the Coca-Cola company hired an artist named Haddon Sundblom to create the artwork for a massive Christmas advertising campaign they were preparing.
Until then, the soda was primarily a summer drink, with sales dropping off sharply in the cooler winter months. Coke hoped to reverse this trend by somehow linking the drink to the winter holidays...and they decided the most effective way to do that would be to make Santa a Coke drinker. Sundblom was told to create a painting of Mr. Claus that the company could use in magazine advertisements.
Sundblom's first brainstorm was to dump Nast's black-and-white Santa suit in favor of one in Coca-Cola red and white. Then he managed to find a real-life retired Coca-Cola sales rep named Lou Prentice who looked so much like Santa he could be used as a model. Prior to the Sundblom illustrations," Mark Pendergrast writes in For God, Country, and Coca-Cola, "the Christmas saint had been variously illustrated wearing blue, yellow, green, or red... After the soft drink ads Santa would forever be a huge, fat, relentlessly happy man with a broad belt and black hip boots-and he would wear Coca-Cola red... while Coca-Cola has had a subtle, pervasive influence on our culture, it has directly shaped the way we think of Santa."
SANTA'S HELPER: ROBERT MAY
More commercial influence: In 1939, Montgomery Ward hired ad man Robert May to pen a Christmas poem that their department store Santas could give away during the holiday season.
He came up with one he called "Rollo the Red-Nosed reindeer." Executives of the company accepted it, but didn't like the name Rollo. So May renamed the reindeer Reginald -the only name he could think of that preserved the poem's rhythm. Montgomery Ward rejected that name, too. Try as he might, May couldn't come up with another name that fit -until his four-year-old daughter suggested Rudolph. the rest is history. When the poem was put to music and recorded by singing cowboy Gene Autry, it became the second-bestselling single in history.
________________________________The article above is reprinted with permission from The Best of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader.
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