Santa Claus

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

September 16, 2011 5 min read

Rest assured, Virginia. Santa Claus -- that jolly old elf -- will be coming to town this Christmas Eve, his reindeer-drawn sled filled with a bottomless sack of toys and treats for good boys and girls.

Of course, it wasn't always that way.

Today's Santa is a stew of fact and fiction, a centuries-old mix of ingredients that some think reach into pagan ritual but can be documented by the story of Bishop Nicholas of Myra.

Nicholas was a devout fourth-century Christian figure whose charitable acts and compassion for the needy --especially children -- brought him sainthood as his popularity spread across Europe during the Middle Ages. The anniversary of his death, Dec. 6, 343, is known as St. Nicholas Day and is still widely celebrated in Eastern and Western Europe as the main day of gift giving and holiday merriment.

A 1809 tongue-in-cheek satire about New York's early Dutch settlers, "Knickerbocker's History of New York," written by Washington Irving, describes the Dutch version of St. Nicholas (or Sinterklaas) as a jolly, elfin-like burgher puffing on a clay pipe. St. Nicholas was the patron saint of New Amsterdam; the town founded by Dutch merchants in 1626 and renamed New York after it was surrendered to the English in 1664.

Building from this, an 1821 illustration and description in "The Children's Friend," the first lithographed book published in America, in which Santa arrives from the North on Christmas Eve in a sleigh pulled by a flying reindeer.

There is also a description of St. Nicholas as a white bearded, plump, old elf dressed in fur "from his head to his toe" in Clement C. Moore's classic American poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas."

Cartoonist Thomas Nast shows Santa is his series of black and white illustrations for Harper's Weekly from 1863 to 1866. The last of his drawings, in color, shows Santa in a red suit.

Illustrator Haddon Sundblom's depicted a plump, wholesome, grandfatherly Santa in his paintings for Coca-Cola's 1931 holiday season advertising campaign. Inspired by the description in Moore's poem and Nast's color illustration, Haddon would go on to paint Santa portraits for Coca-Cola ads into the mid-1960s. All this was part of the in process that turned Santa into an American icon and commercial success.

While Santa continues to be omni present, the basic values represented by St. Nicholas have not been lost. In fact, more than a million people a year visit the website created by the Michigan-based St. Nicholas Center, a central repository for St. Nicholas-related material, notes its founder, Carol Myers. "People are looking for ways to have deeper meaning in their holiday activities. Understanding the real St. Nicholas shifts focus to more about giving than getting, more about compassion than consumption. Adults can tell St. Nicholas' story of caring for those most in need, the smallest and most vulnerable. They can ask, "How can we be like St. Nicholas?" "What are we going to do for others this Christmas?"

And, observes "Mary's Son: A Tale of Christmas" author Darryl Nyznyk, "Santa Claus is the secular world's response to Christmas. Retailers and the economy, in general, depend so heavily upon the Christmas spending season for their year that virtually everyone associated with any type of retail business relishes the symbol of Santa." Like others who would like to see people remember the real meaning of Christmas, he included the Santa character in his book "to re-introduce the birth of Christ and the love he espouses to a world which, for the most part, has lost sight of him to all the divisiveness and focus on money."

It's been 111 years since veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church, editor of The New York Sun, penned "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," history's most reprinted newspaper editorial. Yet his words still ring true today; we still live in a skeptical world, where without Santa, there would be no childlike faith, no poetry and no romance," adds State University of New York's Binghamton University associate professor Mary Muscari, author of "Let Kids be Kids: Rescuing Childhood." "Santa is a frame of mind. Santa represents giving, sharing, happiness, family and the youthful fun and creativity that lie too dormant the rest of the year."

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