By Dr Sarwan Singh Randhawa
Community Librarian – Supervisor, Muriel Arnason Library, FVRL
The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas. It is believed that Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. to a wealthy family in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. His parents died, and he inherited a considerable sum of money, but he kept none of it. He gave away all of his wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick.
Nicholas was chosen a bishop by the people of Myra at very young age. But life was not always good for him. He along with many others was thrown into prison for not worshipping himself as a god as declared by the Roman emperor Diocletian. He was released in 313 AD when Diocletian resigned and Constantine came to power. He then returned to his post as Bishop of Myra continuing his good works until his death on December 6, 343.
After Nicholas died, he was canonized as a saint. Much admired for his piety and kindness, he became the subject of many legends. Over the course of many years, Nicholas’s popularity spread and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6, a holiday in many countries. This was traditionally considered a lucky day to make large purchases or to get married.
Many stories are told of his generosity as he gave his wealth away in the form of gifts to those in need, especially children. Legends tell of him either dropping bags of gold down chimneys or throwing the bags through the windows. One of the best known of the St. Nicholas stories is that he saved three poor sisters from being sold into slavery or prostitution by their father by providing them with a dowry so that they could be married.
By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, when the veneration of saints began to be discouraged, St. Nicholas maintained a positive reputation, especially in Holland. During the Protestant Reformation, German Protestants depicted the Christ child, “Chriskindl”, as a giver of gifts. This helped merge the association of St. Nick with Christmas. Later, this association with Chriskindl was translated to Santa’s other name: Kris Kringle. In England he came to be called Father Christmas, and in the Netherlands, the saint’s name, Sinter Nikolass, became shortened to Sinter Klaas.
The American version of the Santa Claus figure received its inspiration and its name from the Dutch legend of Sinter Klaas, brought by settlers to New York in the 17th century, and the name evolved into what it is today – Santa Claus. As early as 1773 the name appeared in the American press as “St. A Claus”. A popular author, Washington Irving gave Americans detailed information about the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas in his book “History of New York” published in 1809 under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. This Dutch-American Saint Nick achieved his fully Americanized form in 1823 in the poem “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke. It was further elaborated by illustrator Thomas Nast, who depicted a rotund Santa for Christmas issues of Harper’s magazine from the 1860s to the 1880s.
Finally, from 1931 to 1964, Haddon Sundblom created a new Santa each Christmas for Coca-Cola advertisements that appeared world-wide on the back covers of Post and National Geographic magazines. This is the Santa we know and love today with a red suit trimmed with white fur, leather boots and belt, long white beard and a pack of toys slung onto his back.
In these days, Santa Claus is a symbol of hope, faith and trust. People believe that he is a jolly, happy and really fat (in good sense) guy, who visits on Christmas Eve, entering houses through the chimney to leave presents under the Christmas tree and in the stockings of all good children. In addition, children are taught that Santa rewards the good children and leaves the bad ones empty-handed.