Lessons >>> Lesson 3
Stories about a man called Santa Claus have been told throughout the years in different parts of the world. The basic story about Santa Claus is this: on the night before Christmas, Santa Claus visits the homes of all of the good boys and girls and leaves them presents under the tree and fills their stockings with candy and small toys.
The basis for the Christian-era Santa Claus is Bishop Nicholas of Myra in Lycia (now Turkey), who died in 345 or 352. He was very rich, generous, and loving toward children. Often he gave joy to poor children by throwing gifts in through their windows.
In a well known story illustrating St. Nicholas' benevolence, we find two of the basic principles of the holiday spirit - giving to others and helping the less fortunate - as well as the tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace.
According to this legend, there were three Italian maidens whose families had fallen on hard times. Because their father could not afford the dowries necessary for them to marry, he was considering selling one of his daughters into slavery to get dowries for the other two. When the good saint heard of the family's plight, he went to their home late one night and anonymously tossed three bags of gold down the chimney. Miraculously, a bag fell into each of the sisters stockings, were hanging by the fire to dry. His kindhearted gift made it possible for all three sisters to marry.
The Orthodox Church later raised St. Nicholas, miracle worker, to a position of great esteem. It was in his honor that Russia's oldest church, for example, was built. For its part, the Roman Catholic Church honored Nicholas as one who helped children and the poor. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of children and seafarers. His name day is December 6th.
Although many of the stories about Saint Nicholas are of doubtful authenticity, his legend spread throughout Europe, emphasizing his role as a traditional bringer of gifts. The Christian figure of Saint Nicholas replaced or incorporated various pagan gift-giving figures such as the Roman La Befana and the Germanic Berchta and Knecht Ruprecht. The saint was called Sankt Nikolaus in Germany and Sanct Herr Nicholaas or Sinter Klaas in Holland.
After the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, the veneration of Catholic saints was banned. But people did not want to give up their annual visits from the gift-giving saint, and they did not want to forget the purpose of the holiday. In some countries the festivities of St. Nicholas Day were merged with Christmas celebrations. St. Nicholas underwent a transformation into a new, non-religious form, but he retained his generous spirit. In Germany, he appeared as Weihnachtsmann, in England as Father Christmas, and in France as Pere Noel.
When the Dutch came to America and established New Amsterdam - now New York City, they brought St. Nicholas or Sinter Klaas with them. After the British seized the city there was a great deal of intermarriage and, similarly, the legends of each group were married. Saint Nicholas became synonymous with the British Father Christmas and he began to visit homes on Christmas Eve.
St. Nicholas was slowly being transformed in America. The first "literary" description of St. Nicholas derived from Washington Irving's "History of New York" where he described him as a plump and jolly Dutchman. His book was published in 1809. In 1822, he was transformed again, this time by Clement C. Moore. His famous poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas") was published in 1923. It became very popular in the United States. Moore included such details as the names of the reindeer; Santa Claus's laughs, winks, and nods; and the method by which Saint Nicholas, referred to as an elf, returns up the chimney.
The illustrator Thomas Nast further elaborated the American image of Santa Claus and depicted a rotund Santa for Christmas issues of Harper's magazine from the 1860s to the 1880s. Nast also added such details as Santa's list of the good and bad children and Santa's toyshop at the North Pole. A human-sized version of Santa Claus, rather than the elf of Moore's poem, was depicted in a series of illustrations for Coca-Cola advertisements introduced in 1931. In modern versions of the Santa Claus legend, only his toy-shop workers are elves. Rudolph the ninth reindeer, with a red and shiny nose, was invented by an advertising writer for the Montgomery Ward Company.
Although most people view Santa as the embodiment of a spirit of giving, some argue that the modern image of Santa Claus conflicts with the true meaning of Christmas and promotes commercialism and greed. To reconcile the legend with the religious significance of Christmas, some Christians emphasize that the modern figure of Santa Claus is derived from stories about a saint who symbolized caring, love, and generosity.
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