Traditions of Christmas: Santa Claus

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The history of Santa Claus begins with a man called Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, now Turkey. Saint Nicholas was known for his charity and

Saint Nicholas is the inspiration for Santa Claus
Saint Nicholas is the inspiration for Santa Claus

wisdom. Legends tell of him coming from a wealthy family and giving all his money to the poor. He died in 340 AD and was buried in Myra.

Late in the 11th century religious soldiers from Italy took the remains of the Saint Nicholas back with them to Italy. They built a church in honor of him in the town of Bari, a port town in southern Italy. Soon Christian pilgrims from all over the world came to visit the church of Saint Nicholas.

These pilgrims took the legend of Saint Nicholas back to their native lands. As the legend of Saint Nicholas spread it took on the characteristics of each country. The feast day of Nicholas, where presents were received, was traditionally observed on December 6. After the Reformation, German Protestants encouraged veneration of the Christ child as a gift giver on his own feast day, December 25. As the Nicholas tradition prevailed, it became attached to Christmas itself.

In some cultures Saint Nicholas travels with different assistants, Santa Claus elves, to help him.

In Holland, Sinterklaas sails in on a ship arriving on December 6th. He carries a big book which tells him how the Dutch children have behaved during the past year. Good children are rewarded with gifts and the bad ones are taken away by his assistant, Black Peter.

In Germany Saint Nicholas also travels with an assistant, known as Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, or Pelzebock, and comes with a sack on his back and a rod in his hand. Good children receive a gift, but naughty children are punished by the assistant with a few hits of the rod.

Pere Noel
Pere Noel

In France Father Christmas or Pere Noel bring gifts for the children. And in England Father Christmas, a more austere and thinner version of Santa Claus, brings gifts.

Switzerland has the Christkindl or Christ Child who bears gifts. In some towns children await the Holy Child and in others Christkindl is a girl-angel who comes down from heaven bearing gifts.

In some countries good witches or elves play the role of Santa. The Scandinavian countries celebrate with one of Santa Claus elves, called the julenisse or the juletomte who bears gifts. Italy celebrate with one of good witches, La Befana, who dresses all in black and brings gifts to children on the Epiphany, January 6th. In many Spanish countries; Spain, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and South America, the children wait for the Three Kings to bring their Christmas gifts.

Father Christmas is the name of Santa Claus in the United Kingdom.  He dates back to the time of Henry VIII in the 16th Century.  He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas.  Santa is seen as bringing peace, joy, good food, and happiness.  Today, Father Christmas is widely synonymous with the Santa Claus figure.

The American image of Santa Claus gradually evolved into the image of a plump, jolly and kind Santa Claus, with big white beard, in Santa Claus costume of red and white Santa suit and hat – with knee breeches and a broad brimmed Santa hat, who has eight flying Santa Claus reindeer, later joined by Rudolph the red nosed reindeer, and many Santa Claus elves on the North Pole to make enough gifts for children around the world. The article “Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus,” seemed to catapult his status and image even more.

There are many legends and miracles attributed to Saint Nicholas but the ones that give him his gift-giving role involves his love of children. He was very shy, and wanted to give money to poor people without them knowing about it. In Puerto Rico children puts greens and flowers in small boxes and place them under their beds for the camels of the Three Kings.

Traditional image of Santa Claus
Traditional image of Santa Claus

Santa Claus incorporates many traditions, Christian and Pagan, and brings us all together. Kids all over the world know who Santa Claus is and are taught that he brings them presents the night before Christmas (or in some countries on December 6th – St. Nicholas’ Day). For a short time of each year the world is united. It is the idea of peace and unity and giving that is Christmas and that is the real message to be taken from it all.

Stories such as ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas; Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus; Frank Baum’s {author of Wizard of Oz} book The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus helped provide an image of the jolly man in red in the early 20th Century.

Coca-Cola Company used Santa to popularize their drinks in the 1930s.

In more recent times, TV specials and movies such as Miracle on 34th Street, The Santa Clause, Santa Claus is Coming to Town and numerous other specials have enhanced the way we view Santa Claus.

 

 

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