CHARLOTTE, NC: There is no more iconic symbol of the Christmas season than that of Santa Claus. No matter how hard we try, it is impossible to ignore the personality of the jolly old elf dressed in red who drives a sleigh powered by eight reindeer. Whether known as Father Christmas, Father Frost, Kris Kringle or some other name, nearly every country has a person who represents the generous charity of the holiday season.
The Santa Claus legend derives its origins from the life of a real person.
“Santa Claus” is actually the English version of the Dutch name for St. Nicholas who lived in the 3rd century. To the Dutch he was Sinterklaas. This beloved figure ultimately became the legendary fantasy-world character of his historical counterpart, St. Nicholas.
Born to wealthy Christian parents in Patara, a harbor city in what is Turkey today, Nicholas had a life of wealth. Though his parents were extremely devoted to their faith, their wishes for a child had long gone unanswered until Nicholas was born.
Being an only child, he was reared with great affection until the plague struck Patara when Nicholas was a teenager.
Both of his parents died during the epidemic. 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 20’s he was recognized for his wisdom and was chosen Archbishop of Myra, another coastal town just to the south and east of Patara.
The 324 A.D. persecution of Christians in Rome
Shortly after becoming Archbishop, the Roman Emperor Diocletian began to violently persecute Christians. Nicholas was in prison for eight years. It is believed that he was tortured for his faith.
Constantine became the first Christian emperor in 324 A.D. Under Constantine’s leadership, Christianity was declared legal, but it also brought with it 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 critical Christian issues of the day. Though Nicholas was in attendance, he unknowingly became the most recognized person to participate in the now famous Nicene Creed.
When Nicholas died on December 6th, many countries observed that day, and still do, as St. Nicholas Day. In an effort to establish the representation of the generosity of the beloved St. Nicholas, Christian denominations, many in the United States, combined his practices with Christmas in the celebration of the birth of Christ.
Given that, to Christians, Christ is the “greatest gift to the world” the union seems to be a natural merger.
The decision was not without controversy, however, as many church leaders believed St. Nicholas would detract from religious aspects of the holiday.
Kris Kringle by any name is still Santa
Ironically, the name Kris Kringle is the English form of the German term for “Christ Child” or Christkind. However in the United States, that name became synonymous with St. Nicholas, St. Nick and Santa Claus even though German parents were given encouragement to teach their children that the Christ Child was the gift-giver.
The story doesn’t end there, however.
Fast forward to 1822 and a straitlaced professor of classics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City named Clement C. Moore. Moore had the idea of writing a poem for his children while taking a Christmas Eve sleigh-ride from Greenwich Village to their home.
The elf with a tummy like a bowl full of jelly
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 had no intention of publishing his work. He felt it was only written 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. However, Moore himself would not claim authorship for another 15 years.
Origins of the Santa we know and love
In modern times, it was the creativity of two New Yorkers who established the American version of the Santa we know today.
Several decades later, a popular New York cartoonist and caricaturist named Thomas Nast drew a modern version of Santa Claus based upon the traditional German figure of Sankt Nikolaus and Weihnachtsmann or Father Christmas.
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.
(Reprinted and updated from November 28, 2017)
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.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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