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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
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
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
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!