CHARLOTTE, NC, November 28, 2017 – There is no more iconic symbol of the Christmas season than that of Santa Claus. No matter how hard we try, there is no way to ignore the personality of the jolly old elf dressed in red who drives a sleigh behind eight reindeer.
Whether known as Father Christmas, Father Frost, Kris Kringle or Santa Claus, nearly every country has merry elf who represents the generous charity of the holiday season.
Santa Claus is real
A little-known fact is that the Santa Claus legend derives its origins from the life of a real person. In modern times, it was the creativity of two New Yorkers who established the American version of the Santa we know today.
“Santa Claus” is actually the English version of the Dutch name for St. Nicholas who lived in the 3rd century. In Dutch his name was Sinterklaas who ultimately became the legendary fantasy-world character of his historical counterpart, St. Nicholas.
The story of Nicholas, the first Santa Claus
Nicholas was born to wealthy Christian parents in Patara, a harbor city in what is Turkey today.
His parents were extremely devoted to their faith and it was many years before Nicholas was born despite their prayers. Being an only child, he enjoyed great affection until the plague struck Patara. Both of his parents died during the epidemic. Nicholas was in his teens.
As an orphan, Nicholas quickly recognized the suffering of others thanks, in large part, to the love he had received during his upbringing.
That devotion and tenderness carried over to his personal life and, using his large inheritance, the young man decided to honor God through generosity and good deeds.
By the time Nicholas was in his early 20s his wisdom was well known. The young man was chosen Archbishop of Myra, another coastal town just to the south and east of Patara.
Constantine, the first Christian emperor
Shortly after becoming Archbishop, the Roman Emperor Diocletian began a violent persecution of Christians. Nicholas was in prison for eight years. Constantine became the first Christian emperor in 324 A.D. and Christianity was once again legal. But it came with newfound challenges regarding Christian doctrine.
In an attempt to unify the faith, Constantine summoned bishops from across the empire to meet in Nicea to discuss the critical Christian issues. Nicholas was in attendance and he unknowingly became the most recognized person to participate in the now famous Nicene Creed.
December 5th, St. Nicholas Day
When Nicholas died on December 6th, many countries began observing the day as St. Nicholas Day. Other Christian denominations, combined the generosity of the beloved St. Nicholas with Christmas in order to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Given that to Christians, Christ is the “greatest gift to the world” the union seemed to be natural.
The decision was not without controversy, however, as many church leaders thought the St. Nicholas story would overwhelm the religious aspects of a holiday they felt should be in devotion to Christ.
Ironically, the name Kriss Kringle is the English form of the German term for “Christ Child.” In the United States that name became synonymous with St. Nicholas, St. Nick and Santa Claus even though German parents taught their children that the Christ Child was the gift-giver.
The Night Before Christmas
The story doesn’t end there. In 1822 a professor of classics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City named Clement C. Moore had the idea of writing a poem for his children during a Christmas Eve sleigh-ride from Greenwich Village to their home.
According to legend Moore’s inspiration for Santa Claus came primarily from vivid descriptions of the fat, jolly Dutch burghers with their white beards, red cloaks, wide leather belts, and leather boots. Others believe that Moore most likely arrived at his concept from Washington Irving’s “Knickerbocker History” (1809) and “The Children’s Friend”, a Christmas poem published in 1821.
One thing that is certain is that Moore opted for seven additional reindeer over the single deer that originally pulled Santa’s sleigh.
Moore wrote the poem for his own children. In his own mind, Moore felt the poem was “a mere trifle” and not at all dignified. When a family member submitted it to the mass media however, it became an overnight success, though Moore himself would not claim authorship for another 15 years.
The modernization of Santa Claus
Several decades later, a popular New York cartoonist and caricaturist named Thomas Nast drew a modern version of Santa Claus. The traditional German figure of Sankt Nikolaus and Weihnachtsmann or Father Christmas was Nast’s inspiration.
The Christmas card Santa Claus image printed by Louis Prang was also popular.
Coca-Cola did help to create the modern-day image of Santa, and in fact the way most of us see Santa Claus – friendly and plump with a white beard – did come from Coca-Cola advertising. Before Coke’s modern version, Santa was drawn in a variety of ways – even as a scary elf. One thing is always consistent, his bright red garments.
Coca-Cola introduced this new friendly, human image of Santa (created by illustrator Haddon Sundblom) in December 1931. (This picture is of a 1931 ad.) From 1931-1964, Sundblom was busy creating holiday ads for Coke featuring Santa. Those iconic images continue to be seen each year on bottles, cans, and 12-packs.
The rest is history. The combination of Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and Nast’s caricatures have endeared Santa Claus as we know him to Americans for decades.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Featured Image: Courtesy Santa Claus Lane on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/santaclauslaneclovis/
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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