Writer’s Note: As is the case every year, holiday shopping “encouragements” have been evident for months. Rows of artificial trees (resplendent in any number of lights, but undecorated --- the boxes of decorations for sale are stacked nearby) stand like sentries watching as shoppers pass by. It didn’t get cool, let alone cold, until just a few weeks ago. That didn’t stop the merchandisers. Didn’t even slow them down.
A new marketing strategy has been implemented because of something called the “supply chain disruption”. Traditionally, Black Friday sales are held on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day. This year they began in October. Soon they were rebranded “Black Friday Days” and then they were transitioned into Black Friday Month! At the same time, we were told that we needed to shop early so that we could have Christmas presents this year. The only hitch was that at the same time, inflation was soaring.
It seems to me that right now might be just the right time to take a closer look at that “jolly old elf” in the red suit with nine magic reindeer.
Here comes Santa Claus ... thank goodness! — GP
Is Santa Claus Real?
You Bet He Is!
First things, first. Full disclosure: I believe in Santa Claus — always have, and always will. He is very much “real” and through him we embrace the secular spirit of Christmas. I am not alone, although there are some folks afoot who claim that Santa is just a myth. My money says that those are the folks destined for the old coal-in-the-stocking treatment.
The truth is that Santa has been around for a mighty long time — 1,741 years as of this Christmas, to be exact! He is among the most recognizable figures in the world, although he does go by different names and wears different clothes depending on where he is at the moment.
I mean, how can Santa be expected to wear that iconic red, fur-trimmed suit in the tropics? No, in the warmer climates, children of all ages still recognize him — even in his Bermuda shorts! They also expect Santa to throw their presents through the window since the climate there is too hot for chimneys.
Santa Through Historic Records . . .
Most historians agree that our Santa Claus first appeared back around 280 A.D. in Myra, a small village located in modern-day Turkey. A man named Nicholas lived there and was known for his generosity, especially toward children. Nicholas had significant inherited wealth, but chose to give it away and dedicate his life to helping others less fortunate. Often the recipients of his gifts were children who needed it most. Because of his good works, Nicholas was named the bishop for Myra. After his death, he was canonized and became a saint — St. Nicholas.
Over time, St. Nicholas became both the patron saint of Christmas and a protector of children. He was so beloved that on his feast day, parents left out gifts for their children in memory of his good deeds toward children. He remained very popular, and by the Renaissance he was considered the most popular saint in Europe. When saints lost favor during the Protestant Reformation, St. Nicolas still remained a favorite.
It was through The Netherlands where St. Nicholas, known in Dutch as “Sint Nikolaas”, came to America. Near the end of the 18th century, Dutch immigrants from Holland gathered in groups in New York to honor “Sinter Klaas” (an informal form of Sint Nikolaas) on the anniversary of his death (December 6th). It doesn’t take much of a stretch to see how the Dutch name “Sinter Klaas” transitioned to our English name, “Santa Claus”.
What Does Santa
On December 23, 1823, an anonymous poem was published in New York entitled “A Visit from St. Nicholas”. It wasn’t until 1837 that the author, Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), a professor of Oriental and Greek Literature and Divinity and Biblical Learning at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York City, was identified. Clement wrote the poem for his three daughters.
The poem, a hugely popular piece, was renamed “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and ultimately published in book form. Among many of Santa’s secrets that Moore’s poem revealed was that Santa places his finger beside his nose and nods his head so that he can go back up the chimneys. The poem also gave us a visual image for the ever-elusive Santa — a portly and jolly old elf!
Some years later a political cartoonist used Moore’s poem as his inspiration for his drawings of Santa Claus. Thomas Nast was a German immigrant who moved to New York City with his family when he was 6 years old. Known today as the “Father of the American Cartoon”, Nast was a popular caricaturist and editorial cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly beginning in 1862. Most of his cartoons centered on the American Civil War, and strongly favored the Union.
Nast’s first images of Santa appeared in January 1863. Both were thinly disguised political cartoons. In one, Santa is drawn distributing Christmas gifts in a Union Army camp. In the other, Santa’s appearance is less obvious.
The cartoon features two oval portraits — one of a mother kneeling in prayer and the other of a soldier alone on the battlefield. In the upper corners, serving almost as a frame, Santa appears on the right in his sleigh and on the left about to climb down a chimney. It was from Nast that we get even more of Santa’s secrets revealed — we see that he wears a red suit trimmed in white fur and that he lives at the North Pole where he has a workshop manned by elves.
One of my favorite Nast cartoons of Santa was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1871. It features Santa at his desk, smoking his pipe, and sorting letters into one of two categories: good children and naughty children. This cartoon is credited with beginning the tradition of children writing a letter to Santa Claus.
Santa By Any Other Name
Our Santa Claus is known around by world by a variety of names. In the United Kingdom, he is “Father Christmas” and wears a green robe. In France (and in south Louisiana) he is Pere Noel or “Papa Noel”. He wears a red cloak. He travels by sleigh in France, but by pirogue in south Louisiana. Our Papa Noel moves through the bayous, his route lit by wonderfully creative bonfires on the levees.
In Russia, he is called Ded Moroz (“Father Frost”). His companion is Snegurochka (“Snow Maiden”). For Swedish children, his name is Juotomten. He distributes his gifts from an enormous sack. In Norway, he is Julenisse. He wears a grey suit and has a grey beard instead of a white one. For Austrian, Swiss, and German children, he is Christkindl. With a long golden robe, Christkindl brings gifts on Christmas Eve for good children.
For Italian children, La Befana is Santa’s partner. The children (and adults) all enjoy one of Jim’s and my favorite Italian Christmas traditions as La Befana shows up all during the holidays in unexpected places — like train stations throughout the cities or in a gondola in Venice! (We saw her in Rome. She was easy to spot — children were encircling her, eager for a candy treat.) Although Santa Claus can be seen throughout Italy, all eyes look for a glimpse of this good-natured witch who brings good luck to those who spot her.
Even though not all children hang up stockings for Santa to fill, he understands and adapts. In the Netherlands, the children set out their wooden shoes for Santa. In Hungary, they set out their boots — in the window! And in Puerto Rico, Santa finds shoe boxes filled with grass. The grass is a treat for his reindeer which the children want to honor, too.
Believe. Always Believe
Writer Marshall M. Morgan wrote a short poem that I find appropriate for this special season. I hope that you will enjoy this ode to that jolly old elf . . .
“It’s always good for us to pause
And think awhile of Santa Claus–
That jolly symbol we revere
When we approach the changing year.
Behind his beard so long and white,
In which our children take delight,
There beats a heart from color free
Which bids all children ‘come to me.’”
May this holiday bring joy and love to each of you. And may you never, ever stop believing.