WEBSTER COUNTY, KY (12/19/12) - With Christmas less than a week away, I thought I would take a moment to explore one of the biggest icons of the holiday season. Santa Claus. Who is he and where did he come from?
As early as 1773 the name “St. A Claus” appeared in the American press, but it was the popular author Washington Irving who gave Americans their first detailed information about the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas. In his History of New York, published in 1809 under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, Irving described the arrival of the saint on horseback each Eve of Saint Nicholas.
The first known reference to Santa Claus was in the Rivington’s Gazette (New York City) on December 23, 1773. The story read: “Last Monday, the anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called Santa Claus, was celebrated at Protestant Hall, at Mr. Waldron’s; where a great number of sons of the ancient saint the Sons of Saint Nicholas celebrated the day with great joy and festivity.”
It seems a bit odd that, although Santa Claus has become the face of secular Christmas, his roots are in the Christian world.
Saint Nicholas is remembered and revered among many Catholic and Orthodox Christians as the patron saint of sailors and children. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.
At about the same time Nicholas lived, Pope Julius I decided to establish a date for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. As the actual date for this event was unknown, the Pope decided to assign the holiday to December 25th. There had long been a pagan midwinter festival at this time of year and the Pope hoped to use the holiday to Christianize the celebrations.
Eventually, Saint Nicholas’s feast day also became associated with December 25th and his connection with Christmas was established.
For anyone who has ever wondered how “Santa Claus” and “St. Nicholas” were connected, in several European countries St. Nicholas is called “Sinterklaas”.
To first explain Santa’s appearance, Sinterklaas is traditionally portrayed as a figure with a flowing white beard and bishop’s apparel, including a red suit and hat. Following a 1930’s ad campaign, urban legends spread that Santa Claus was invented by The Coca-Cola Company or that Santa wore red and white because they are the colors used to promote the Coca-Cola brand. As Santa was already known to wear his red and white suit, this does seem to be just urban legend.
The story of Santa Claus began to look more like what we know now with the anonymous publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known today as “The Night Before Christmas”) in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823. Later the poem was attributed to Clement Clarke Moore.
Many of his modern attributes are established in this poem, such as riding in a sleigh that lands on the roof, entering through the chimney, and having a bag full of toys. St. Nick is described as being “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with “a little round belly”, that “shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly”, in spite of which the “miniature sleigh” and “tiny reindeer” still indicate that he was not a large man.
Santa’s size could be attributed to illustrator Thomas Nast, who depicted a rotund Santa for Christmas issues of Harper’s magazine from the 1860s to the 1880s.
The association of Santa Claus with the Salvation Army likely helped further Santa’s image as a gift giving soul.
J-E News Editor
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