Christians know that the birth of Jesus Christ is the “reason for the season.” Gift giving commemorates the generosity of the three Wise Men who traveled to Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Three hundred years later, a man named Nicholas was born in what is now Turkey. It was not long before legends began spreading about his marvelous deeds. One of the legends reflected his generosity and concern by giving gifts to the needy.
Eventually, Nicholas became one of the most universally revered saints. He was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in the ninth century. Over the centuries, the melding of Christianity with pagan cultures and the movement of nomadic tribes provided St. Nicholas with a unique role in each culture. Even the visual perception of him differed. Following is a brief recount of how this man and legend has brightened the lives of nearly every young child in the world for over a thousand years.
In 200 AD, St. Nicholas Bishop of Myra is credited with many miracles and good deeds, including providing bags of gold for the dowries of three sisters whose family had fallen upon hard times.
During the Middle Ages, the Dutch believed that St. Nicolas put the Devil (Black Peter) in chains. On St. Nicholas Eve, Black Peter would reward good children with gifts. The naughty or lazy children would be punished with a birch rod. The Dutch-German protestant reform movement brought with it the idea that the Christ Child should be the standard bearer for Christmas. The German word for Christ Child, “Christkindl’ eventually became Kris Kringle. Kringle carries a tiny Christmas tree and enters the house through an open window. Once he has finished decorating the tree and left the presents, he rings a bell to alert the household of his departure.
Dedt Moroz or ‘Father Ice” is an ancient Russian bedtime story often told to frighten children into being good. Dedt Moroz rewarded good with gifts and punished the bad.
Five hundred years after his death, St. Nicholas became the patron saint of Russia. He was also recognized as the patron saint of such diverse people as sailors, maidens, packers, and pawnbrokers.
The Medieval Santa Claus was generally an earth-bound gypsy wandering from house to house with his gifts and band of gnomes. The Victorian Santa Claus was known as “Father Christmas.” Prior to the 1800s, Father Christmas was portrayed in mammoth proportions, a giant in a fur-lined robe and mistletoe headdress.
In mid-nineteenth century, the English opted for a dignified look with a clay pipe and elegant clothing. The Americans, however, gave Santa a rougher, pioneer image. Later, with some help from Clement Moore’s 1848 illustrated edition of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” Santa began to evolve toward the image we recognize today. Abraham Lincoln was president at the time and asked Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nash to create a Santa image for America. Nash’s pen and ink drawing gave Santa the universal image he enjoys today – the plump, comfortable, loveable gent with a bag of toys on his back.
As war ranged between the states in the 1860s, one of the few concepts the North and the South probably agreed upon was the concept of Santa Claus. To both sides, Santa Claus was second only to baby Jesus. He was as popular in the North as General Grant and as popular in the South as General Lee.
During the 1920s and prohibition came the Soda Pop Santa. This novelty came, not from religion or from poetic inspiration, but from the world of advertising. The advancement of color reproduction allowed Santa to really shine in his red suit and rosy cheeks. During the Christmas season, his image was full blown on billboards across the nation. The famous soft drink ad created by Haddon Sundblom added size. The jolly old elf’s proportion of yesterday year had grown to match the baritone of his “HO HO HO.”
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.