This is week three of my look at Christmas carols and what would Christmas be without Santa? So, how did Santa come to be? How many different versions of Santa belief are there?
It all started with Saint Nick.
Jolly old St. Nicholas, Lean your ear this way!
Don’t you tell a single soul, What I’m going to say;
Christmas Eve is coming soon; Now, you dear old man,
Whisper what you’ll bring to me: Tell me if you can.
When the clock is striking twelve, When I’m fast asleep,
Down the chimney broad and black, With your pack you’ll creep;
All the stockings you will find Hanging in a row;
Mine will be the shortest one, You’ll be sure to know.
Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susy wants a dolly;
Nellie wants a story book; She thinks dolls are folly;
As for me, my little brain isn’t very bright;
Choose for me, old Santa Claus. What you think is right.
Nicholas was a Bishop and I doubt he made a habit of ducking down chimneys.
Santa Claus means Holy Claus, short for Nicholas. The word “santo” is “holy” in Latin as well as its descendent tongues, such as Spanish and Italian. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, St. Nicholas was born in the ancient city of Patara. As a youth he traveled to Palestine and later became Bishop of Myra. He was imprisoned during the persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian and was later attendant at the First Council of Nicea in 325 a.d.
Legend says that he showed unusual kindness to the poor and the weak; oftentimes leaving things for them while they were asleep. In the Middle Ages he became patron saint of charitable fraternities, children, and other things as well as patron saint of the City of Moscow, Russia. After the Reformation, the legend of St. Nicholas died out everywhere except in Holland. It migrated to the U.S. with Dutch Reformed Christians.
The Dutch, who were prominent in New Amsterdam (now New York), called him Sint Klaas. But, other sources suggest Christkindl (aka Kris Kringle, which became yet another name for Santa) came from the arrival of German settlers instead.
The first Colonists, primarily Puritans and other Protestant reformers, did not bring Nicholas traditions to the New World. What about the Dutch? Although it is almost universally reported that the Dutch brought St. Nicholas to New Amsterdam, scholars find scant evidence of such traditions in Dutch New Netherland. Colonial Germans in Pennsylvania kept the feast of St. Nicholas, and several later accounts have St. Nicholas visiting New York Dutch on New Years’ Eve.
Something else that’s interesting is how people have changed the mythology of Nick and how he travels around and passes out gifts. It varies from country to country.
Because of the gift-giving legends associated with Nicholas, it was held (especially in Belgium and Holland) that on the Eve the Feast of Nicholas, the bishop himself would come from heaven and visit children in their homes, giving gifts to those who had been good. Nicholas, decked out in full ecclesiastical garb (bishop’s vestments, with miter and crozier), would arrive on a flying gray horse (or white donkey, depending on the custom). In some variations of the legend, he was accompanied by Black Peter, an elf whose job was to punish children who had been bad.
It’s also been suggested that there are links in the St. Nick/Santa mythology to Odin and Thor, but it’s hard to prove. There are enough coincidences to make it worth wondering about though.
Plus, it turns out there’s a bit of a debate over ownership of A Visit from St. Nicholas. Clement Moore wrote a poem about Santa, but Major Henry Livingston, Jr. might really deserve credit for the one Moore’s best known for.
St. Nick might be Santa, but Santa isn’t really St. Nick. Not anymore. Between local legends and poetry and advertising, the popularity of the man in red grew until he and St. Nick took Christmas over. St. Nick had a feast day of his own – December 6th, in fact – and this might be part of why Christians get so bent out of shape about him. Not only is he a gift giver, but he’s doing it on Baby Jesus’ Big Day.
Nevermind that Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25th. It was decided later to put his birthday there to replace the Saturnalia festival which Roman pagans liked celebrating.
After brushing aside inconvenient facts (such as the bible’s own accounts placing the birth of Jesus in the spring), the names were changed- but the holiday remained the same. Elements of popular Pagan nativities were borrowed to create a backstory fit for the new god, from the heralding star to the shepherds visiting the newborn in his cave.
Before that time, Christians had one holiday- Easter-and no reason to celebrate the birth of their god, a very pagan tradition (indeed, a number of nativities were celebrated at Christmas-time, including that of Mithras, known throughout the empire as ‘the light of the world,’ and the nativity of Sol Invictus, the birthday of the sun) Before then, Christians avoided any birthday celebrations as inappropriately pagan.
Heady stuff. So really, if they want to get their stockings in a knot over Santa, then maybe it makes just as much sense to complain that nobody properly celebrates Mithra’s birthday now that Christians have their silly Jesus hoarding the day.
Why should Jesus be the only one getting gifts?