Once again, it’s that time of year! Nativity scenes decorate towns as Christmas trees are erected in living rooms. Stockings are hung, The Grinch is read to circles of children, and hot chocolate brews. And malls who have been dressed for Christmas since Halloween flood the media with sales. And lure customers with a man dressed in red, who promises children he’ll grant their very wishes.
A tradition which has been a part of this season for centuries, is the jolly man known as Santa Claus. Either myth or real–a subject that can become quite a violent debate during this time–either real or myth, this man has played a major role in celebrating this holiday.
In honor of Santa, mostly because I have very little time to erase my name from the Naughty List, here is a short list of facts about this man, with “a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.”
Kris Kringle’s life is portrayed in numerous books, merchandise, and Christmas specials, but who was the actual, historical Santa Claus?
His name was Saint Nicholas ( Ἅγιος Νικόλαος). He was born in Patara, Lycia in Asia Minor (which is now modern-day Turkey) on the 15th of March in 270 AD. He was born to a wealthy Christian family, who sadly passed away because of an epidemic when he was young. Nicholas, though financially well-off, was then raised by his uncle, who was also named Nicholas as well as the bishop of Patura, who would later ordain his nephew as a presbyter (priest).
Nicholas was determined to dedicate his inheritance to works of charity:
An opportunity soon arose for St. Nicholas and his inheritance. A citizen of Patara had lost all his money, and needed to support his three daughters who could not find husbands because of their poverty; so the wretched man was going to give them over to prostitution. Nicholas became informed of this, and thus took a bag of gold and threw it into an open window of the man’s house in the night. Here was a dowry for the eldest girl and she was soon duly married. At intervals Nicholas did the same for the second and the third; at the last time the father was on the watch, recognized his benefactor and overwhelmed Nicholas with his gratitude. It would appear that the three purses represented in pictures, came to be mistaken for the heads of three children and so they gave rise to the absurdstory of the children, resuscitated by the saint, who had been killed by an innkeeper and pickled in a brine-tub (Catholic.org).
Being a passionate man, Bishop Nicholas, under the ruthless Roman Emperor Diocletian, suffered for his faith by the emperor who persecuted Christians. “He was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves and robbers” (StNicholasCenter.org). Fortunately, he was later released by Emperor Constantine (the same emperor who established Christmas Day on December 25th in 336 AD), and upon the emperor’s request, attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD–the first ecumenical where Jesus’ deity was defended. During the council, Nicholas the Confessor is famous for being so overwhelmed by his passion and rage, that he got up from his seat in the midst of the debate, crossed the room, and slapped the Arianism-heretic Arius across the face in the sight of all, feeling that the priest was personally attacking the church by his claims there was a time when the Son was not, that he was not eternal, and was instead at a later time created by the Father.
St. Nicholas fell asleep on December 6 in 343 AD, at the ripe old age of 73. He was then buried in his cathedral in Myra, and the date of his death became St. Nicholas Day in his honor (though it is December 19 on the Julian Calendar).
Santa Around the World
There are many myths and legends which surround the man of St. Nicholas, several mythical in nature about his life and miracles which he performed, which provides a challenge when trying to distinguish this man from his legend. However, perhaps the greatest tradition which has been inspired by this man, and in a way immortalizes him, is Santa Claus.
Like many popular figures of myth and legend, Father Christmas is known by many many names around the world. A few which include:
- Germany–Weihnachtomann (“Christmas Man”)
- Norway–Julenissen (“Christmas Gnome”)
- Sweden–Jultomten (“Christmas Brownie”)
- Russia–Ded Moroz (“Grandfather Frost”)
- Morocco–Black Peter
And perhaps my most favorite because of Tim Allen’s, The Santa Claus, “Topo Gigio!”
Additionally: Experts do not agree on the origin of the name Kris Kringle. Some believe it is a mispronunciation of Christkind, German for Christ Child. Others feel it originates with the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of Belsnickle. Christkind originates with Martin Luther. A part of Luther’s breaking away from Catholicism included the elimination of the Saints. To provide children with a tradition similar to St. Nicholas, Luther introduced Chirstkind, an angelic spirit who presented German and Swiss children with presents. Those who follow this tradition see Kris Kringle as a rendition of Christkind (Reference.com).
Not only is Joulupukki known by an assortion of names, but Sinter Klaas is also depicted in various ways, and has varying traditions surrounding him. Some which are quite different than what we believe and practice within the U.S. For example, in Brazil, Papai Noel has tanned skin, sweats a lot, and likes to eat beans. And De Kerstman in Holland is even more bizzare in American eyes, as David Sedaris points out in his essay, “Six to Eight Black Men”:
I’ve never been much for guidebooks, so when trying to get my bearings in a strange American city, I normally start by asking the cab driver or hotel clerk some silly question regarding the latest census figures. I say silly because I don’t really care how many people live in Olympia, Washington, or Columbus, Ohio. They’re nice enough places, but the numbers mean nothing to me. My second question might have to do with average annual rainfall, which, again, doesn’t tell me anything about the people who have chosen to call this place home.
What really interests me are the local gun laws. Can I carry a concealed weapon, and if so, under what circumstances? What’s the waiting period for a tommy gun? Could I buy a Glock 17 if I were recently divorced or fired from my job? I’ve learned from experience that it’s best to lead into this subject as delicately as possible, especially if you and the local citizen are alone and enclosed in a relatively small space. Bide your time, though, and you can walk away with some excellent stories. I’ve heard, for example, that the blind can legally hunt in both Texas and Michigan. They must be accompanied by a sighted companion, but still, it seems a bit risky. You wouldn’t want a blind person driving a car or piloting a plane, so why hand him a rifle? What sense does that make? I ask about guns not because I want one of my own but because the answers vary so widely from state to state. In a country that’s become so homogenous, I’m reassured by these last touches of regionalism.
Guns aren’t really an issue in Europe, so when I’m traveling abroad, my first question usually relates to barnyard animals. “What do your roosters say?” is a good icebreaker, as every country has its own unique interpretation. In Germany, where dogs bark “vow vow” and both the frog and the duck say “quack,” the rooster greets the dawn with a hearty “kik-a-ricki.” Greek roosters crow “kiri-a- kee,” and in France they scream “coco-rico,” which sounds like one of those horrible premixed cocktails with a pirate on the label. When told that an American rooster says “cock-a-doodle-doo,” my hosts look at me with disbelief and pity.
“When do you open your Christmas presents?” is another good conversation starter as it explains a lot about national character. People who traditionally open gifts on Christmas Eve seem a bit more pious and family oriented than those who wait until Christmas morning. They go to mass, open presents, eat a late meal, return to church the following morning, and devote the rest of the day to eating another big meal. Gifts are generally reserved for children, and the parents tend not to go overboard. It’s nothing I’d want for myself, but I suppose it’s fine for those who prefer food and family to things of real value.
In France and Germany, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, while in Holland the children receive presents on December 5, in celebration of Saint Nicholas Day. . . .
Why is Santa Fat?
Did you know that Swiety Mikolaj has not always been fat in the U.S.? Originally, Baba was skinny; however, that changed, not because of malk and cookies, but because of Coca-Cola. Seriously, I’m not making this up:
As Coca-Cola ramped up their holiday advertising in the 1920s, they wanted to move away from the strict looking Santa. Coke turned to illustrator Haddon Sundblom for this project in 1931. Sundblom would create a more lovable Santa: embracing children, raiding the fridge and of course sipping bottles of Coca-Cola (BusinessInsider.com).
Did you also know that around the world, there are other Christmas mythological characters who have roles to play during this season? However, I would much rather believe in Santa, than in these other frightening things:
Krampus–a demon-like creature who beats children to make them nice.
Jólakötturinn–the Icelandic Yule Cate who eats lazy children who do not do their chores.
And Frau Perchata–a witch in Austria and Germany who will punish the sinful by ripping out their internal organs and replacing them with garbage.
(There are also five other horrifying Christmas characters, who can be found via this link: http://mentalfloss.com/article/54184/8-legendary-monsters-christmas)
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog as much as I did writing it. I also hope in the memory of St. Nicholas, that thoughts of giving will dominate your minds, and that you’ll keep a love for the poor within your hearts.
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”