How the beloved saint became a Christmas colossus.
It’s time to sort out that seemingly most out-of-place of Christmas symbols, the man single-handedly responsible for the secularization and materialization of this ancient and sacred season : Santa Claus.
Though it wasn’t always the case, today Santa Claus and Christmas go hand-in-hand. In fact, one of his German names, Weihnachtsmann, means literally “Christmas Man.” So how did this chubby, Pole-dwelling, milk-and-cookie gobbling sleigh-driver become the poster boy for a major religious holiday?
Well, that story begins long ago in what is now Turkey. Around the third century of the Common Era, the man who was to become Saint Nicholas was born to a wealthy and devout Christian family. When his parents died during an epidemic, young Nicholas decided to follow Christ’s teachings literally by selling his inheritance and using the money to assist the poor and needy. His pious work and inspirational character was soon recognized and he was made Bishop of Myra, a city on the southern coast of Asia Minor.
Like many Christians of the time, Nicholas was persecuted by the Roman Empire under Diocletian, but continued his religious work. The anniversary of his death, December 6, became a holiday, celebrated by Christians around the world. He is considered the patron saint of children, sailors, paupers, and many other groups.
Photo from St. Nicholas Society.
Many stories have been passed down of Nicholas’ good works, but the one that really stuck tells of a man who, for one reason or another, found himself unable to provide dowries for his three daughters. Knowing these women faced a life of spinsterhood and poverty, Nicholas resolved to intervene. It is said he gathered three pouches of gold coins and rode out in the night on his white horse to deliver them. Finding the door locked, he tossed the gold into the house either through the window or down the chimney, where they happened to land in the hosiery the sisters had hung by the fire to dry.
Thus, in one fell swoop, Nick inaugurated stocking-hanging, gift-giving, and chimney-delivery as festive traditions. In later years, it became a tradition to lay out nuts, apples, and sweets in shoes, socks, or boots on the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6, in hopes the saint might be out on another charitable ride. For children who had behaved badly, a rod would be left in place of gifts. Sometimes the punishing rod aspect would be ramped up with the help of Black Peter or the Krampus, who would accompany the saint and deliver beatings to naughty children.
During the 19th century, American writers began to try to rework the Christmas holiday along more new world lines. The European experience of class antagonism and dragging naughty children to hell didn’t jive with the sunnier, more egalitarian ideals of the young American nation. A greater emphasis on a jolly gift-giver who bribes children to behave was just what the doctor ordered. Clement Clark Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was one of several publications which fueled the growing American Santa mythos, which now included a flying sleigh and reindeer. Moore drew from Washington Irving’s “Knickerbocker History of New York,” which showed a plumper Nick, bedecked in fur with a bundle of toys.
Along with the new looks and duds came a new name. Our modern Santa Claus is a English slurring and blending of the Dutch Sinter Klaas and the German Sankt Niklaus. English children picked up on the toys and presents aspect pretty quickly, but as protestants don’t celebrate saint’s days, another solution had to be found. The proximity of St. Nicholas’ Day to Christmas made for an easy shift. Nick simply took a few extra weeks to prepare for his gifting sojourns.
As America’s love of the gifts-on-Christmas idea grew, Santa became a great tool for positive P.R. In the 1860’s, political cartoonist Thomas Nast used the new face of Christmas in drawings for Harper’s Weekly, even depicting Santa distributing gifts to Union soldiers during the Civil War. President Lincoln even credited these images with helping to demoralize the South. Nast originated the North Pole workshop and elfin assistants.
From there, Santa became the ubiquitous face of Christmas that he his today, hawking numerous products, from Coke to Mercedes. These corporate gigs lead to accusations that Santa is a holiday sell-out, allowing the meaning to be hidden by colorful wrapping and bows. In fact, there’s reason to argue that neither Santa nor the saint have any business with Christmas at all, having been moved there as a convenience for protestant kids.
But I think the modern Christmas spirit that we’ve wrapped up in red fur isn’t entirely different from the charitable, loving ideals of the man on the white horse, caring for a neighbor in need. The message of Christmas is peace and goodwill, and shows both in a big way.
Though they look and act differently, and are separated by many centuries and wardrobe changes, I have a feeling Nick and Claus might get along pretty well. They’ve got a few things in common, and at the very least, they both wear funny hats.