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Viewpoint: Revered saint, winter solstice legends influence our modern view of Santa

At the South Washington Heritage Christmas brunch on Sat, Dec. 12, I gave a history of the Santa Claus tradition in America and I want to share the story of the transition of Catholic Bishop St. Nicholas to today's Santa.

He's known as the ambassador of joy, goodwill, kindness and generosity, but he wasn't always clad in crimson.

It's a journey from a religious icon to a secular image not associated with a religion. Muslims, for example, acknowledge St. Nicholas, but he is not revered.

The story begins in ancient times.

St. Nicolas of Myra (modern day Turkey) lived in the 4th Century. In his town, there lived three young women. Their father couldn't pay customary dowries and considered selling a daughter into slavery to get money to pay dowries for the other two.

St. Nicolas heard their story and wanted to help, but he also wanted to remain anonymous. He is said to have put three bags of gold down their chimney and, miraculously, they fell into the young women's stockings drying by the fireplace.

Many groups, and countries, claim him as their patron saint. St. Nicholas is known as patron saint of children, orphans, students, prisoners and pawnbrokers.

He became the patron saint of sailors on a trip to Egypt and Palestine. One day, the sea was very rough and a sailor fell over board. Nicholas calmed the sea, saved the sailor and brought him back to life.

One writer said St. Nicholas is patron saint of "darn near everyone."

He died on Dec. 6 and is still honored in many countries with an annual feast that came to mark the beginning of the medieval Christmas season. On St. Nicholas Eve, children set out food for the saint and straw for his horse.

The next morning, obedient children wake to find their kindnesses repaid with sweets and toys, but naughty ones find their offerings untouched alongside a bundle of switches.

All through Europe in the Middle Ages, people incorporated ancient traditions into Catholic doctrine.

One German legend told of a shaggy, dark man, Ru Klas, who appears at the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. He heralds the warmth of the coming season. His gifts of fruit and nuts hold the promise of plentiful crops to come.

The observance of Christ's mass, or Christmas, replaced the mid-winter festival. The medieval mid-winter legend begins to blend with St. Nicholas and he becomes Ru Klaus.

After the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century, feasting and reverance of Catholic saints was banned, but people still hung on to their gift-giving saint.

Protestants suggested that the Christ Child be substituted for St. Nicholas but this notion resulted in combined images. For a time, artists showed St. Nicholas with Christkindle who accompanied him on his yearly visits.

In Germany, St. Nicholas became Weihnachtsmann and Belznickel.

Unlike the gentle saint, Belznickel is a mischievous character who enjoyed frightening children, then softened his mood and offered them sweets at the door.

In America, Puritans passed a law against the celebration of St. Nicholas and Christmas in 1600s but it didn't stick.

The origins of the American Santa Claus is said to have started when the New York Historical Society was formed in 1809, but it's not as simple as that.

Immigrants of every nation carried the gift-giver with them to America including the Dutch who brought Sinterclaus to the American colonies.

Scandinavians contributed gift-giving elves called Tomte.

Germans decorated trees and the Irish placed a lighted candle in the window.

After years of mis-pronouncements, Sinterclaus, and the other legends merge into Santa Claus.

The New York society named Nicholas as its patron saint, joining the long line of other patron groups.

It so happens that Washington Irving was also a member of the society. Later that year, he published "Knickerbocker's History of New York." Santa Claus is depicted as a sprightly fellow who disappears up the chimney by laying his finger beside his nose and rides over housetops in a horse-drawn wagon.

In 1823, Clement Moore wrote "The Night Before Christmas," combining many legends that came before him.

Christmas cards appeared in Victorian times and became available to middle class people who could now read. This contributed to the Santa image.

Enter Thomas Nast in 1840 with his drawings of Santa in the "New Yorker" magazine.

He now had a full beard and a wide belt, but he was small and gnome-like.

Santas begin appearing in stores during the holidays around 1850.

The modern view of Santa and the red suit trimmed in white fur begins with Haddon Sundbloom, a Chicago commercial artist.

His best customer was Coca-Cola.

He drew annual depictions of Santa Claus, using his own image, for the company from 1931 to 1953.

In 1939, Santa got an extra reindeer with the invention of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" (also the name of one of our cats) by Robert L. May who created him for Montgomery Ward as a Christmas promotion.

If Santa had not been a legend passed down through generations, we would've invented him. In a sense, that's what we did.

Apparently we continue to need the Jolly Old Elf who is the ambassador of joy, goodwill, goodness and generosity.

Judy Spooner is a staff writer for the Woodbury and South Washington County bulletins. She is also a volunteer for the Washington County Historical Society and is married to Gary Spooner, who appears as "Santa Gary" at many local holiday events.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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