Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Story of St Nicholas, Father Christmas and Santa Claus

Did you know that the origins of Father Christmas and Santa Claus lie with an early Christian Saint called Nicholas of Myra?  He came from the Lycian port of Myra in south west Turkey and lived in the fourth century AD.  He was an early Christian bishop and he probably died on 6th December as this was celebrated as his feast day in the medieval calendar.  He was regarded as a patron of sailors and navigation. It is thought that he was a survivor of the persecutions of Diocletian, and that he had been exiled and imprisoned.  Later accounts state that he attended the Council of Nicaea and argued against the Arian heresy.

Old Father Christmas - Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Old Father Christmas

There are several legends that surround St Nicholas.  One that is credited with being the legend that linked St Nicholas to gift giving is that he was told of a man who could not get the money together to provide dowries for his three daughters.  Because of this man’s pecuniary difficulties, he was planning to send them to work in a brothel.  St Nicholas reputedly saved them from this fate by throwing three bags of gold through their window one night.  This legend led to St Nicholas being regarded as a protector of marriage.

Another legend of St Nicholas is that he found out that the cook of an inn offered the meat of children that he killed to his patrons.  When he investigated, he found the bodies of three small boys pickled in a tub.  He blessed the bodies of the dead children, which instantly restored them to life.  Because of this legend, St Nicholas became a patron of children and it became a custom in some countries, such as the Netherlands and Belgium, to give children presents on his feast day of 6th December.

He was buried in the cathedral church in Myra and a unique relic called manna was said to form in his grave.  This manna was a miraculous liquid that was purported to heal people. The bones of St Nicholas were brought to Bari in Italy in 1087 by a group of Greek merchants, after the Turks captured Myra, and buried under the altar of a new church, the Basilica San Nicola, inaugurated by Pope Urban II.  Some of the bones were taken to Port in France and others were taken to Worms in Germany.  Many churches in Europe were dedicated to St Nicholas, especially in the ports of the Hanseatic League.  The reformation in many parts of Europe, brought to an end the veneration of Catholic saints, but the old customs and legends of St Nicholas persisted and developed into modern times.

It came to be believed that St Nicholas judged whether or not children had been good or bad and in the Netherlands he was supposed to ride his white horse across the sky, dropping presents down the chimneys of the good children on the evening of 5th/6th December.   They would find these gifts the next morning, and they would often be hidden in shoes.  If the child had been bad during the year, it was believed that a small bag of salt would be left in place of the presents. Hiding the gifts in the shoes was a reflection of the older custom of putting money into poor people’s shoes on the feast of St Nicholas. He became known as Sinterklaas, and actors would dress up in bishop’s robes and visit children and tell them how to behave.  In Germany they developed the custom of electing a boy bishop on December 6th.

Sinterklaas is said to have had a helper or helpers, known as ‘Black Pete’, and they carry a bag containing sweets for good children and a swatch of willow branches with which to spank naughty children.  This is linked to the legend of St Nicholas saving the lives of three small Moorish boys who had been condemned to death for a crime that they had not committed.  In gratitude they stayed with the Saint and helped him to deliver the gifts from the rooftops.  The dark colour of their skin is said to be linked to the Moorish origins of the three boys rescued by or because they are associated with chimney sweeps. Traditionally Sinterklaas and Black Pete arrive in the Netherlands and Belgium on a steamboat from Spain, and nowadays they are then paraded through the towns, cheered on by crowds and even broadcast on television.  Sweets and ginger biscuits are tossed to the children in the crowds and traditional Sinterklaas songs are sung.

Sinterklaas is the basis for the American figure of Santa Claus.  New York started life as an old Dutch colonial town called New Amsterdam which had been traded by the Dutch for other territories.  It is believed that during the American War of Independence, because the customs surrounding Sinterklaas were not of English origin, they were changed and incorporated into a figure called Santa Claus.  In 1835 the Saint Nicholas Society was formed by a group of New Yorkers, including Washington Irving, to celebrate the heritage of New York City, and in 1850 a teacher called Jan Schenkman published an illustrated children’s book called ‘St Nicholas and His Helper’ which introduced the concept of Christmas presents being delivered down the chimney.

The modern American Santa Claus is depicted as a rotund figure that is dressed in a red suit with white fur rather than a bishop’s robes and has a sleigh with flying reindeer rather than a flying horse.  Drawings by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Illustrated Weekly in 1863-66 encapsulated this modern vision of Santa, and this figure was used by several large advertisers such as Coca-Cola.  Santa Claus is believed to live for most of the year at the North Pole with his wife Mrs Claus, his myriad helper elves and the magical flying reindeer, where they make all the toys that they will need for the coming Christmas.  Children now write a letter to Santa just before Christmas that lists all the toys that they would like Santa to bring them and outlining how good they have been throughout the year.  In turn, Santa Claus is said to make a list of all the children who were ‘naughty or nice’ that he uses to calculate how many Christmas presents each child is to receive.  Especially naughty children are believed to be left a lump of coal on Christmas Eve by Santa rather than presents.  It has also become a tradition to leave out a glass of milk and a plate of cookies for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve and some carrots for the reindeer.

The English Father Christmas was initially represented as a Christmas visitor and the personification of the spirit of Christmas, rather than an entity that delivered presents at Christmastime.   In Saxon times, they had a ‘King Frost’ or ‘King Winter’, who was someone who was chosen, dressed in green and given a big hat or crown to wear. ‘King Winter’ was believed to be able to make the winter weather less harsh and help them get through to the spring.   In the Middle Ages in England the local parish would hire an actor or borrow a religious person from another parish to disguise themselves and go around the homes in the area to see which families had any problems.  They would then go back and report to the Parish Priest, who would then try to make sure that those families received help.

Father Christmas - Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Father Christmas

 An archaic version of Father Christmas was mentioned in an old carol in the fifteenth century, and he became more popular with the publication of Ben Johnson’s ‘Captaine Christmas’ in the seventeenth century.  The Puritans tried to do away with all English Christmas traditions, including that of Father Christmas, but they were not successful and Father Christmas continued to make his Yuletide visits.  He was often depicted as a pagan figure with either ivy or icicles around his head. The whole concept of Christmas went through a great revival during the Victorian era in England, and by the 1870’s Father Christmas was delivering Christmas presents and hanging Christmas Stockings from the end of beds just like the American Santa Claus.

These days the English Father Christmas and the American Santa Claus are almost indistinguishable and a fat jolly old gentleman in a red suit with a white beard can be found in Santa’s Grotto in most major department stores in the towns of America and the United Kingdom.  He is surrounded by elves giving out candy canes, no longer admonishes naughty children and hands out presents.  He is now a totally benign figure that adorns our Christmas cards and decorations, and slides down our chimneys on Christmas Eve to stuff our stockings with gifts!

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