Sunday, December 20, 2015

Santa Claus

from an old Coke ad

Of course you know who that is. And possibly you know him by other names like Old St. Nick, St. Nicholas and the name Sinter Klaas (which we know as Santa Claus), came from the Dutch. So, obviously, the jolly old elf was brought over by the immigrants from various European countries, and certain traditions which have long been observed. The customs actually date back centuries to when the historical St. Nicholas actually lived... but more about that in a bit.

In Europe they called him St. Nicholas and celebrated his Feast Day on December 6th, with festive sports and gifts for children. Once the idea spread in America, his visit was soon popularly associated with Christmas, rather than the aforementioned day. And his whole appearance eventually differed from the Dutch St. Nicholas, that it had become exclusively an American creation.

St. Nicolas was bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (Turkey), of the Byzatine Empire in the 4th century. He had a well-known reputation for kindness and generosity, which then gave rise to many legends that made him the most popular and revered of all Christian saints. One well-known legend says he gave a bag of gold to each of three poor daughters of a pious Christian on consecutive nights to provide dowries for marriage and saved them from having to turn to prostitution--[what a cruel world it was back then].  It was also said that he "restored to life three young students who had been cruelly butchered and placed in a salting tub by an evil innkeeper."-from Collier's Encyclopedia & Wikipedia.

A popular custom in America, where Christmas became a holiday for children, it was easy to plop Santa Claus in the guise as the bringer of gifts to children. The history of December 25th as the Nativity of Christ has it's own historical story. Evolving from midwinter festivities ranging from various feast such as Epiphany, which is on January 6th (which Armenian churches still observe), the Jewish Hanukkah Feast of Lights, and the Yuletide Feast of the Winter solstice (Norse, Briton, Saxon), have all combined for celebration of some sort during this time of year.

Of course the association of Santa Claus with snow, reindeer, and the North Pole does suggest a Norse, or Scandinavian tradition of the Yuletide season. In Clement C. Moore's poem, "A Visit from St. Nicolas the eight tiny reindeer could fly from roof-top to roof-top" is without a doubt one of it's better known stories.

We didn't have a chimney for Santa to come down, but we always had gifts somehow dropped off on the front porch on Christmas Eve. I knew later that while we were distracted elsewhere in the house, one of my older brothers would go around to the front, make some sort of stomping noises and go "HO-HO-HO", and be gone. The gifts were probably already there.

Where did the idea of him coming down the chimney come from?

In pre-Christian Norse tradition, Odin would often enter through chimneys and fire holes on the solstice.
In the Italian Befana tradition, the gift-giving witch is perpetually covered with soot from her trips down the chimneys of children's homes. In the tale of Saint Nicholas, the saint tossed coins through a window, and, in a later version of the tale, down a chimney when he finds the window locked.

The hearth was held sacred in primitive belief as a source of beneficence, and popular belief had elves and fairies bringing gifts to the house through this portal. Santa's entrance into homes on Christmas Eve via the chimney was made part of American tradition through the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas"where the author described him as an elf.
~from Santa Claus - Wikipedia

The first published illustration of Santa was from a woodcut by cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1863. I don't happen to have access to this woodcut, but he wears the traditional hat and coat and beard, a sack over his
back about to go down a snow-covered chimney.

For a saint to be so popular in such traditions over the centuries, you have to figure the original St. Nicholas must have been the nicest guy. We now have Santa trackers, parades with him as the star of the procession, and Santa websites and schools (yes, there are such places where one learns how to act and ho-ho-ho like the jolly old elf himself).

I hope to check in a little before Christmas and shed some light on how Christmas came to be celebrated on the 25th, and maybe a few more of the traditions like the Christmas Tree. If I don't make it on the 25th, I'll work to get it up soon after.


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