THE STORY OF ST NICHOLA$
Once upon a time in a land far, far, away…..there was a very kind man named Nicholas of Myra…..Well that’s not exactly how it goes but, it has potential, right? St Nicholas lived in the 4th century AD in Myra, Asia Minor (Turkey). As a young man he inherited much wealth from his parents. Soon after his inheritance he quickly developed a reputation of being a very kind wealthy young man who was very, very generous to the poor. So here’s the story that gave Nicholas his beloved status. There was a very poor widowed father (a merchant) who had 3 lovely daughters but they could not marry b/c they had no dowries. This alternative w/o a dowries were dire. He would have to “sell” his daughters into lives of servitude or of prostitution. Knowing this poor man’s plight, one night, Nicholas of Myra secretly dropped a bag of gold down the chimney (or was it through an open window?) into the poor man’s house. Legend has it that the bag fell into a stocking that had been hung by the fire to dry. He repeated his silent golden droppings 2 other times on 2 different nights. The poor man’s daughters could now marry. Eventually, b/c of his kindness and his love of God, Nicholas was made a saint. He became the patron saint of children and of sailors. (He reputedly saved a boat from capsizing b/c of a deadly storm.) The legend of his good deeds today is still appreciated in the Islamic nation of Turkey. The moral of the story is that good deeds make a good dude no matter what religion, country of origin or historical period of time.
St. Nick (ie St. Nicholas) was born in Patara (also part of Turkey, now). His birth year is given as 280 AD± and his death was chronicled as Dec, 6 343. He was a very popular saint in Europe till the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s stopped the practice of venerating saints. Nicholas of Myra nevertheless remained a very popular and an important figure in Holland. The Dutch celebrated St. Nicholas’s feast day (Dec 6th) by encouraging their children to put their clean shoes outside their bedrooms or their bedroom doors or their house doors or wherever on the night of Dec 5th. If they did, it was virtually a “shoe in” that St Nick would visit them. In the morning, Dutch kiddies found small gifts/treats, etc in their shoes. The 1st wave of Dutch Immigrants came to America in the 1700s. Indeed, they brought Sint Nikolas (Sinter Klaus) with them and truly had an early “foothold” on the Xmas season, holiday gifting, etc.
From $interKlau$ to $anta Clau$
The legend of St. Nicholas of Myra was clearly transformed by Dr. Clarke Clement Moore’s (CCM) vision of Santa Claus in his 1822 poem (published in 1823), Twas The Night b-4 Xmas. Leaning strongly on the legend of St. Nicholas, CCM noted a chimney and stockings hanging by a fire while all waited the arrival of ST Nicholas. (Those stories sound connected to me. How about you?)
While the Protestant Reformation limited St. Nick’s appeal throughout 16th century Europe (beyond Holland) Xmas gifts still had to be delivered in time for Xmas by someone. The result was that in the UK, the Brits found Fr. Christmas as a replacement. He became Pere Noel in France and Kris Kringle in Germany. Initially, US immigrants (from Holland) as noted above called that Xmas gifting guy Sinter Klaas, hence Santa Claus. During the Victoria Era of history, St. Nick regained his popularity as artists, poets, musicians, etc rediscovered old stories and the softer emotional side of life.
Perhaps, it’s the mystery of St Nicholas’ bags of gold to the poor merchant’s daughters in the 300s that is the continuous “secret sauce” of Xmas gifting (w/i the umbrella of secrecy) or may be it’s just the pure magic of Xmas itself but over 1500 yrs later, we find that even CCM’s poem was/is shrouded in uncertainty/secrecy as some scholars have claimed that it was NOT Dr. Moore who wrote Twas The Night Before Christmas. Rather it was a distant relative of Moore’s wife, Henry Livingston. No matter though b/c Santa Claus continued to evolve. About 40 yrs past CCM’s poem (1861±), Thomas Nast 1st illustrated a slim if not “fit” St. Nick in Harper’s Weekly. This depiction had him wearing a Stars & Stripes outfit. Over the next 20 yrs of Mr. Nast’s artwork, Santa developed a tummy and wore his more traditional red and white trimmed Santa Claus suit. On 1/1/1881 Harper’s Weekly published Nast’s most visually compelling pic of Santa with a big belly, a pipe, a red suit and an arm full of toys. What kid today couldn’t recognize this “jolly old elf, so lively and quick I knew in a moment, he must be St. Nick”.
The next and perhaps the last adjustment to the evolution of today’s Santa occurred 50 yrs later (1931) when Haddon Sundblom went from smoke to Coke when he removed the pipe from Santa’s hand and gave him battle of Coca Cola. The red background of the Coke label was a very good match for Santa’s now very, very red suit with white furry highlights. They of course, wonderfully corresponded to the white scripted name Coca Cola on the bottle. (Bottoms Up, Santa, Bottoms Up!) We’re told by thenorthpole.com that a few yrs after Sundblom’s Coke Santa that CCM’s 8 tiny reindeer were augmented by Montgomery Ward’s addition of Rudolph, The Red Nosed One (1939) who eventually led Santa’s sleigh into even greater Xmas sales. While our buddy Coke – A – Claus has a few yrs on his “bod”, AdAge has just reported (11/14) that for the 1st time since the holidays of 2011, the big guy will again be Coca Cola’s Xmas ad center piece. Coke features Santa observing (from “above”, of course) “people engaging in everyday moments of kindness!” Much in the same spirit of Nicholas of Myra 1,715 yrs± ago. (Don’t you think?).
YES, VIRGINIA, THERE REALLY, REALLY, REALLY WA$ A $T.NICHOLA$!!
No story about the magic of Xmas, the mystery/secrecy of St Nicholas / Santa Claus would be complete w/o THAT letter from an 8 yr old, Virginia O Hanlon to the editor of the NY Sun and his response to it. The year was 1897 and Ms O’ Hanlon asked her father if there was a Santa Claus. Her father suggested that she write to the NY Sun and ask the editor telling her if you “see it in the Sun then it must be so!” She wrote and editor Francis P Church replied in one of the most compelling and eloquent editorials, ever written. In sum he said “Yes Virginia there is Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love, generosity and devotion exist and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy……. No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives forever, a thousand yrs from now; Virginia, nay 10 times a thousand yrs from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood!” (AMEN BROTHER, AMEN.) Mr. Church no doubt echos the thoughts & feelings of ol’ ST Nick, himself.
FROM FRANCIS CHURCH TO THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH
8 tiny reindeer & Rudolph aside, “When in Rome do as the Romans do”. Late 20th Century church politics caught St.Nick b/c he is one of those saints who was caught b/t fact and fiction, b/t loving remembrance & legendary assemblage and b/t an almost silent church commemoration, today, and a vast European secular celebration of yesterday. In 1969 Pope Paul VI officially demoted St. Nicholas’ feast day (making it an optional) b/c there had been so much shake and bake and so little steak and cake around St Nicholas’ life. Even so, christianitytoday admits with so many legends about St Nick so many people touched by them, that these “archives” say something about the historical man. So, “Yes Virginia,” there is a Santa Claus and we fervently believe there was a St Nicholas of Myra as well.
HPPY FEAST DAY, ST NICK!
Sources: For more about the Xmas transformational force that were St.Nicholas and Santa Claus to Xmas gifting, please see Ch 3 “Christmas Bazaar” in LE Schmidt’s Consumer Rites (1995)