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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Who Was Santa Claus?

Santa, that jolly old soul. A lot of kids are first introduced to (and often terrified by) Santa at the mall or shopping center. And with all the sales and commercialization of holidays, ALL the holidays, these days, the real story gets a little lost. So who was the man behind the myth?
The legend is traced back hundreds of years to a monk who was named St. Nicholas. He was born around 280 A.D. in what is now modern day Turkey. He was admired for his piety and kindness, which led to many legends about him. After giving up all his inheritance, he traveled the countryside helping poor and sick people. Over the years his popularity spread and he became known as a protector of children and sailors. There is a feast day held on Dec 6th, the anniversary of his death. He remained the most popular saint even after the Protestant Reformation. He was especially popular in Holland. There were also other figures in history that rewarded good children: ChristKind or Kris Kringle delivered presents to Swiss and German children; Jultomten delighted Scandinavian children with gifts delivered in his sleigh drawn by goats; The English had Father Christmas; Pere Noel filled the shoes of French children with goodies.

Then idea or image of St Nicholas began to evolve. In December of 1773 and again in 1774, a New York newspaper ran pieces about Dutch families gathering on the anniversary of St. Nicholas' death. The name Santa Claus then evolved from the Dutch nick name, Sinter Klass. In 1804, John Pintard, a New York Historical Society member handed out woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society's annual meeting. In the background of the engraved image was the now-standard stockings filled with toys and hung on the fireplace mantel. Washington Irving added to the image when he called St. Nicholas the patron saint of New York in his 1809 book, The History of New York.

In 1822 Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem for his three daughter's called "An Account of A Visit from St. Nicholas" which we now know as "Twas the Night Before Christmas". Moore was hesitant to publish his poem because of it's frivolous nature, but it is that poem which is largely responsible for the "right jolly old elf" image we recognize today. Moore likely borrowed his imagery from many sources, but his poem helped popularize the image and the story of Santa and his eight tiny reindeer, flying from house to house, delivering presents to good boys and girls. In 1881, political cartoonist, Thomas Nast drawing on the imagery of Moore's poem, created the first likeness that matches the image of Santa that we hold today. It was Nast that drew Santa as a round, cheerful man with a white beard, holding a large sack filled with toys. Nast also gave santa the Red suit trimmed in white fur, the North Pole workshop, the elves and his wife, Mrs. Claus.
Shopping malls began to advertise Christmas shopping in 1820 and by the 1840's, stores printed separate sections for the holiday shopping, featuring images of the popular Santa Claus. In 1841 a Philadelphia store displayed a life-size Santa Claus and thousands of children showed up to see it. It wasn't long before stores began enticing parents and children into their stores with the promise of seeing a "live" Santa. In the early 1890's, the Salvation Army needed a way to pay for the free meals they provided to the needy, so the dressed up unemployed men as Santa and they walked the streets of New York soliciting donations and they have been ringing bells in many American cities since then. And who could forget the Coca Cola Santa? Those depictions are probably the most well know by recent generations. Coke began using depictions of Santa in their advertising in 1931. Artist Haddon Sundblom created a piece to be used each year during his 33 years with the company. His paintings were influenced and based in large part on Moore's "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" poem. The ad campaign ended in 1964 and Haddon Sundblom died in 1976, but his art lives on thanks to the Coca Cola Company who still use the images to this day.

It appears that nearly every place on the globe has a legend that mirrors what we call Santa Claus. And over the many hundreds of years I am sure their image of Santa has changed and evolved with each interpretation.Whether real or fictional, it's nice to think that even throughout the passage of time, the stories of Santa inspire the spirit of giving and each year the renewed sense of that spirit gives hope to so many.

Merry Christmas!

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