Santa Claus Came to Town and How He Got Here
By Patricia Guthrie
“‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house . . .” ‘Jolly Old St. Nicholas . . .’ ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’ What images come to mind? A rather chubby, merry and ageless man with a twinkle in his eye, carrying a bag full of toys from a sled, way too small to provide gifts for more than sixty-million children around the world.
Nine reindeer, the lead, Rudolph, overpowered by a red-glowing nose who paws anxiously, trying not to topple off a steeply slanted roof covered with ice and snow. Realistic? Hell no. Fun? Absolutely.
Does Santa Claus actually have anything to do with Christmas? Nope . . . Not really.
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, the namesake of its religious beliefs. Except for Easter, it is the holiest of days in the Christian calendar. Christmas is the only religious holiday that has survived the separation of Church and State in the United States, despite many attempts to have it stricken from the Federal holiday calendar.
Santa Claus has come along for the ride–and what a ride it has been! So what’s Santa Claus all about? How did he get to be so popular? Who is he? Was he even real?
There is some disagreement about that. He traces back to one Bishop Nicholas of Myra (d350) who, real or not real, became one of the most beloved saints to ever grace the face of this earth. He was revered in both Eastern as well as Western churches, one of the few things they ever agreed on. So loved was he, Emperor Justinian built a church in his honor in 540 AD. It seems the good bishop could do no wrong. He was the patron saint of children, mariners, merchants, countries, and cities. He saved dowerless maidens in distress by throwing money into their windows. He is credited with saving ships at sea and somehow or other, saving countries from famine. After he was dead, he was reported to have come down from heaven to distribute gifts to good little boys and girls. Later, he seemed to have gained a side-kick named ‘Black Peter,’ who punished those children who weren’t so good. It was (and still is) a dream come true for parents who could now dangle the proverbial carrot in front of their kids, in anticipation of the arrival of good St. Nick.
Those who disavow the existence of Nicholas seem to think his legend originated from the pagan gods of the pre-Christian era. There were similarities between the Teutonic God Odin, who flew around in the air on a gray horse and wore a long white beard. Thor was another God who seemed to have Nicholas’ attributes, i.e., he came from the North, wore a suit of red, rode through the heavens in a chariot drawn by white goats, and was friendly and cheerful and loved to drop down through chimneys for some reason or other.
When Christmas was settled as a day to celebrate the Christian tradition, the Roman Church decided on an old pagan day of celebration of Dec. 25th. There was no way to pin down the real birth date of Jesus, and trying to keep their flock away from paganism, the church decided to bring their religious holiday into the pagan calendar–hoping to wipe out any trace of pagan celebration. The odd thing is, if indeed he did live, Nicholas was a Christian man himself, a bishop of the church and one of those to have been present at the first council of Nicea. That cannot be proved, as his name is not listed as an attending bishops.
Santa Claus in America
During the reformation which spread around Europe in the sixteenth century, the Feast of St. Nicholas all but disappeared. Christkindl (Christ child) replaced Nicholas as the bearer of good tidings and gifts. The Protestant reformers felt that their children should not spend their time worshiping a bishop, lured by presents and goodies. They thought they could channel their energies instead into celebrating the birth of the Christ child. The custom changed slightly with Christkindl being the main player instead of Nicholas. The practice of gift giving, however, remained. Despite this new emphasis, the Nicholas legends prevailed, especially among the Dutch.
During the 1600s, exchanging gifts or celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas was forbidden by the Puritans in America. It wasn’t until the Dutch settled in what later became New York that they brought with them their tradition of SinterKlaas. SinterKlaas was just one variation on the name of St. Nicholas and they celebrated it on the eve of Dec. 6th, the anniversary of his death. Switching the date to Dec. 25th came when the English took over the colony. The English children wanted their own SinterKlass. As the Protestants didn’t believe in celebrating saints days, the date was changed.
Washington Irving, writing under the pseudonym of Diedrich Knickerbocker, mentioned the holiday in his satire, ‘The History of New York.’ Good old St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, was depicted riding into town on a white horse, which later somehow learned to fly over the treetops pulling a wagon. William Gilley printed a poem about ‘Santeclaus’ and described him as wearing fur and driving a sleigh, now pulled by a reindeer.
The most famous spin in the history of Santa Claus in America came with the poem written by Dr. Clement Moore, a dentist, who was also a theology and classics professor at Union Seminary. He wrote ‘A visit from St. Nicholas,’ that went on to become ‘The Night before Christmas.’ At last, Santa had a description. He was now a jolly, happy and a rather hefty soul who had a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer named: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen. Later, Robert L. May created the ninth and most famous reindeer of all. He was the guiding-light of the team, and his name was Rudolph.
So far, Santa Claus was pictured as elf-size, fitting in his compact sleigh, which made timely deliveries to all those homes around the world extremely difficult. However, Haddon Sundblom, an illustrator for the Coca-Cola Company helped Santa with those shipments when, in 1931, he drew a series of Santa images and pictured him human-size for their Christmas advertisements. Santa’s stature and the ads continue to the present time.
The much loved Nicholas of Myra seems to have gained a reputation that even the greatest and most famous might envy. Larger than life, his saga lives on as the patron saint of almost everybody; mariners, merchants, children, cities (including Moscow) and countries (Greece, Russia, Italy) and seems to have grown year by year. As much as Christmas is a Christian holiday, it is also a holiday that celebrates generosity and kindliness of spirit even amongst those who might have the hardest of hearts during the rest of the year. Despite all the holiday craziness that we must endure, Christmas and Santa Claus go hand in hand in featuring one of the most beautiful and reverent holidays for the human spirit.
A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS
by Clement Clarke Moor
‘Twas the night before Christmas,
when all through the house,
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
in hopes that ST. NICHOLAS soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap,
had just settled down for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash;
tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave the lustre of midday to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came.
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
‘Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN!
On, COMET! on CUPID! on, DONDER and BLITZEN!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!’
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew,
with the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof,
the prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes, how they twinkled! his dimples how merry.
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry.
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
that shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
and filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprang to his sleigh; to his team gave a whistle.
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
‘HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD-NIGHT.’
Bucher, Pastor Richard P. (1999); The Origin of Santa Claus and the Christian Response to Him.
Evangelical Trinity Lutheran Church.
Van der Meulen, Roel; Sinterklaas, A Dutch Tradition, Project Galactic Guide
Religious Tolerance; All about Santa Claus, http://www.Religioustolerance.org/santa.htm.
Goode, Stephen (1996); After 17 centuries, Kris Kringle is still making his rounds; Insight on the News.
Dodd, Brian (1995); History of Santa Claus, American Origins. Quote from Encarta 95. http://www.the-north-pole.com/history/
2 thoughts on “Santa Claus Came to Town, and How He Got Here.”
I love the history of our current traditions. The blending of all those ideas and celebrations. I’m glad we have Santa and the giving, mixed in.