I know that it’s easy to think that Santa always been that large guy in the fashionable red suit, but his origins go back much further than the last century when that became the signature American look.
Back in the third century there was a man named Nicholas who lived in the village of Patara. At the time the city was a part of Greece, but today it is part of Turkey, along the southern coast.
Nicholas’ parents who were quite wealthy were devout followers of Jesus Christ and raised him to be so as well. But his parents died in an epidemic when Nicholas was still young. Because of what his parents taught him, Nicholas took to heart the message to “sell what you own and give money to the poor.” So, he used his inheritance and dedicated his life to serving God. He was appointed to be the Bishop of Myra and was known for his generosity.
During the rule of Roman Emperor Diocletian, Nicholas, along with many fellow Christians was persecuted and imprisoned. When he was released Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD and was buried in his cathedral church. The anniversary of his death became a celebration known as St. Nicholas Day. Celebrations of that day vary and we’ll talk about them at a different time.
There are many stories of the generosity of St. Nicholas and his generosity. He is venerated by the Catholic and Orthodox churches and is respected by Protestants. His compassion and generosity for those in need continue to be a model.
St. Nicholas had a bit of a different journey in America. In the early days of the colonies the celebration of Christmas was banned because of the connection of some traditions with that of pagan celebrations (another post indeed). But the working class still chose the day to party.
Then in New York a group got together and sought to change the celebration of Christmas. Drawing on the legends American author Washington Irving wrote a series of sketches that featured St. Nicholas soaring high above New York delivering presents to children. In 1821 an anonymous poem called “The Children’s Friend” was published that featured “Santeclaus” (a variation from the Dutch Sinterklaas). Santeclaus drove a sleigh pulled by reindeer with presents for the children.
Then in the poem most of us recognized Clement Clark Moore wrote for his family a story called “A Visit from St. Nicholas” which most of us recognize today as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Moore gave Santa the red suit, sent him down the chimney and helped name the reindeer. It was also the first to remove any religious reference to what Santa does and who he is.
By the early 1900s, the look of Santa in the red suit with the white beard was pretty standard in the United States. Merchants, including the producers of Coca-Cola, saw this as an opportunity.
These days, we have lots of stories of Santa. We have stories like The Santa Clause when Tim Allen becomes the new Santa and replaces the old one who met an untimely demise. We have stories like Bad Santa, or stories where Santa reenactors are a little too fond of the spirits. We have stories of Mrs. Claus having to take over. And every mall has a Santa where you can take your child for pictures.
Whatever Santa means in your home today, it’s important to remember where it all began some 1700 years ago, with a generous man named Nicholas.