Santa Claus... Kris Kringle...Old Saint Nick... We see him on advertising posters, in parades, at department stores...who is this guy and why does he have so many aliases?
Santa Claus, Kris Kringle and St. Nicholas continue to ignite the imaginations of children in the month of December. Around the world in a history since 280 A.D., St. Nicholas has inspired the giving of food and presents. Stories of both Santa Claus and St. Nicholas have continued to be associated with both Christmas and Christianity. Santa Claus slowly evolved from an interesting thread woven throughout the world’s cultures.
The stories of Santa Claus developed both from poetry and other literary works. St. Nicholas was the true inspiration of Santa Claus and traditions that are sometimes thought to contradict the Christian values and beliefs behind Christmas. The awe of snowflakes also contributed to this rich history. Names such as King Frost, Jack Frost, and Lord Snow had been used to explain winter weather. The beauty of a landscape freshly blanketed in white inspired the application of human characteristics to weather’s power.
At about the same time Nicholas lived, Pope Julius I decided to establish a date for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. As the actual time of year for this event was unknown, the Pope decided to assign the holiday to December 25th. There had long been a pagan midwinter festival at this time of year and the Pope hoped to use the holiday to Christianize the celebrations.
The stories that inspired Santa Claus are based upon the sharing of blessings. St. Nicholas was a kind young bishop who loved children and was told to leave gifts of money, clothing, or food at windows of impoverished, sick and suffering children and their families.
The Legend of St. Nicholas
The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas. It is believed that Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. Much admired for his piety and kindness, St. Nicholas became the subject of many legends. It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. One of the best known of the St. Nicholas stories is that he saved three poor sisters from being sold into slavery or prostitution by their father by providing them with a dowry so that they could be married. Over the course of many years, Nicholas's popularity spread and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death in 343 A.D., on December 6 with stockings hung to be filled in the morning. This was traditionally considered a lucky day to make large purchases or to get married. By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, when the veneration of saints began to be discouraged, St. Nicholas maintained a positive reputation, especially in Holland.
The story of St. Nicholas has survived the imprisonment of Christians and travels to distant lands. He was the patron saint of sailors and many others who helped to spread his December tradition. The story of his life, which gave rise to the story of Santa Claus, was written by a monk, repeated through poems, stories and songs, and largely spread by sailors and nuns. Voyagers may have been most responsible for the spread of the St. Nicholas tradition around the world. Returning from a visit to the Holy Land, a severe storm threatened to destroy a ship on which he was a passenger. He prayed as soldiers observed in amazement the calming of the sea. Having returned safely, the soldiers credited him with helping to prevent the wreckage.
St. Nicholas eventually suffered for his beliefs. He and many Christians were persecuted and imprisoned by Diocletian, a Roman Emperor. When St. Nicholas died he was placed in a tomb over which a Basilica was built.
Stories of St. Nicholas were very popular in Europe. Many songs have been written about him as well as churches built to honor him. Stories, traditions, gift-giving, and togetherness are common to Christianity, St. Nicholas and Santa Claus. St. Nicholas’s life has been honored by Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox. His long robe, satchel and Bible in hand has transformed into that of a heavy man with a white beard and hair, sack of toys, and a sleigh. Long after St. Nicholas’s death, the belief of Vikings in the god Odin helped to provide some of the characteristics associated with Santa Claus. God Odin came to earth dressed in a cloak to sit and listen to his people. He was described as having a long white beard and hair. Odin was also believed to fly through the sky pulled by an eight legged white horse.
Santa Claus fully developed in the United States where he, just like St. Nicholas, gives gifts under the cover of nightfall. Parents who continue to encourage the belief in Santa Claus but give gifts in secret are doing justice to Christmas. The main difference between the two is an element of favoritism involved. The true spirit of the Christmas holiday is that of selflessly given gifts. Spending time helping the poor and donating gifts to those less fortunate rather than just giving to family does excellent justice to all of these December traditions. The gift to man that was the life of Christ, remembrance of the devout Christian follower and patron St. Nicholas and the whimsical, cheery character of Santa Claus with his reindeer and elves all contribute to joyous celebrations around the world.
St. Nicholas made his first inroads into American popular culture towards the end of the 18th century. In December 1773, and again in 1774, a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honor the anniversary of his death. The name Santa Claus evolved from Nick's Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas). In 1804, John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society, distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society's annual meeting. The background of the engraving contains now-familiar Santa images including stockings filled with toys and fruit hung over a fireplace. In 1809, Washington Irving helped to popularize the Sinter Klaas stories when he referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York. As his prominence grew, Sinter Klaas was described as everything from a "rascal" with a blue three-cornered hat, red waistcoat, and yellow stockings to a man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a "huge pair of Flemish trunk hose."
Gift-giving, mainly centered on children, has been an important part of the Christmas celebration since the holiday's rejuvenation in the early 19th century. Stores began to advertise Christmas shopping in 1820, and by the 1840s, newspapers were creating separate sections for holiday advertisements, which often featured images of the newly-popular Santa Claus. In 1841, thousands of children visited a Philadelphia shop to see a life-size Santa Claus model. It was only a matter of time before stores began to attract children, and their parents, with the lure of a peek at a "live" Santa Claus. In the early 1890s, the Salvation Army needed money to pay for the free Christmas meals they provided to needy families. They began dressing up unemployed men in Santa Claus suits and sending them into the streets of New York to solicit donations. Those familiar Salvation Army Santa’s have been ringing bells on the street corners of American cities ever since.
In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a long Christmas poem for his three daughters entitled "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas." Moore's poem, which he was initially hesitant to publish due to the frivolous nature of its subject, is largely responsible for our modern image of Santa Claus as a "right jolly old elf" with a portly figure and the supernatural ability to ascend a chimney with a mere nod of his head! Although some of Moore's imagery was probably borrowed from other sources, his poem helped popularize the now-familiar image of a Santa Claus who flew from house to house on Christmas Eve–in "a miniature sleigh" led by eight flying reindeer–leaving presents for deserving children. "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" created a new and immediately popular American icon. In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore's poem to create the first likeness that matches our modern image of Santa Claus. His cartoon, which appeared in Harper's Weekly, depicted Santa as a rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard, holding a sack laden with toys for lucky children. It is Nast who gave Santa his bright red suit trimmed with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves, and his wife, Mrs. Claus.
18th-century America's Santa Claus was not the only St. Nicholas-inspired gift-giver to make an appearance at Christmastime. Similar figures were popular all over the world. Christ kind or Kris Kringle was believed to deliver presents to well-behaved Swiss and German children. Meaning "Christ child," Christ kind is an angel-like figure often accompanied by St. Nicholas on his holiday missions. In Scandinavia, a jolly elf named Jultomten was thought to deliver gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats. English legend explains that Father Christmas visits each home on Christmas Eve to fill children's stockings with holiday treats. Pere Noel is responsible for filling the shoes of French children. In Russia, it is believed that an elderly woman named Babouschka purposely gave the wise men wrong directions to Bethlehem so that they couldn't find Jesus. Later, she felt remorseful, but could not find the men to undo the damage. To this day, on January 5, Babouschka visits Russian children leaving gifts at their bedsides in the hope that one of them is the baby Jesus and she will be forgiven. In Italy, a similar story exists about a woman called La Befana, a kindly witch who rides a broomstick down the chimneys of Italian homes to deliver toys into the stockings of lucky children.
Rudolph, "the most famous reindeer of all," was born over a hundred years after his eight flying counterparts. The red-nosed wonder was the creation of Robert L. May, a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store.
In 1939, May wrote a Christmas-themed story-poem to help bring holiday traffic into his store. Using a similar rhyme pattern to Moore's "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," May told the story of Rudolph, a young reindeer who was teased by the other deer because of his large, glowing, red nose. But, When Christmas Eve turned foggy and Santa worried that he wouldn't be able to deliver gifts that night, the former outcast saved Christmas by leading the sleigh by the light of his red nose. Rudolph's message—that given the opportunity, a liability can be turned into an asset—proved popular. Montgomery Ward sold almost two and a half million copies of the story in 1939. When it was reissued in 1946, the book sold over three and half million copies. Several years later, one of May's friends, Johnny Marks, wrote a short song based on Rudolph's story (1949). It was recorded by Gene Autry and sold over two million copies. Since then, the story has been translated into 25 languages and been made into a television movie, narrated by Burl Ives, which has charmed audiences every year since 1964.
It's been said that Dutch settlers brought the tradition of Saint Nicholas to the North American city of New Amsterdam (which the British would later rename "New York"). However, research shows there's little evidence that Nicholas played much of a part in these early settlers' celebrations. It seems more likely that Saint Nicholas became an American tradition during a wave of interest in Dutch customs following the Revolutionary War. Washington Irving (of Sleepy Hollow fame) included him in a comic History of New York City written in 1809. John Pintard, founder of the New York Historical Society, took an especially keen interest in the legend and the Society hosted its first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner in 1810. Artist Alexander Anderson was commissioned to draw an image of the Saint for the dinner. He was still shown as a religious figure, but now he was also clearly depositing gifts in children's stockings which were hung by the fireplace to dry.
Moore had written the poem for the enjoyment of his own family, but in 1823 it was published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel. It became very popular and has been reprinted countless times under the more familiar title, The Night before Christmas. Where did Moore get the reindeer? The Saami people of northern Scandinavia and Finland often used reindeer to pull their sledges around and this found its way into the poem. Reindeer, which are much sturdier animals than North American deer, are well adapted to cold climates with their heavy fur coats and broad, flat hooves for walking on snow.
As time went by, more and more was added to the Santa Claus legend. Thomas Nast, a 19th century cartoonist, did a series of drawings for Harper's Weekly. Nash's vision of Santa had him living at the North Pole. Nash also gave him a workshop for building toys and a large book filled with the names of children who had been naughty or nice.
The 19th century Santa was often shown wearing outfits of different colors: purple, green and blue in addition to red. This slowly faded out so that by the beginning of the 20th century the standard image of Santa Claus was a man in a red suit trimmed with white. The Coca-Cola Company has often been cited for cementing the image of Santa with the colors red and white through a series of popular advertisements in the 1940's depicting Saint Nick enjoying their product (Coca-Cola's company colors are red and white). However, Santa was already well associated with these colors by that time. American artist Norman Rockwell had done a number of paintings with Saint Nick wearing red and white including A Drum for Tommy which appeared on the cover of The Country Gentleman in 1921. The truth is that by the time the Coke ads came out, Santa, in the public's mind, was already wearing only the modern version of his colors.
Every December 24th millions of people are visited by a short, fat guy in a red suit. Where did he come from, why does he do it, and how does he accomplish this seemingly impossible task?
Santa’s Physic’sSanta has been very popular in the 20th and 21st centuries but in the past few years he has had a few detractors. In January of 1990, an article appeared in Spy magazine under the name of Richard Waller that was skeptical of Santa's capability to do what he supposedly does each Christmas Eve. The article, after its initial appearance in the magazine, was republished innumerable times on the web and emailed all over the Internet.
Among other things Waller calculated that Santa, moving from east to west around the globe, could use the different time zones and the rotation of the Earth to extend his night for as long as 31 hours. Since he needs to visit approximately 92 million households (the number of Christian children divided by the average number of children per household at that time) according to Waller this means he needs to travel approximately 75.5 million miles. The article states that the distance divided by the time means Santa's sleigh must move at a speed of 650 miles per second, 3000 times faster than the speed of sound, to complete its route. Waller then went on to calculate that if every child gets a two-pound present, Santa's sleigh must weigh about 321,300 tons. He then ups that figure to 353,430 tons to account for some 214,200 reindeer he thinks would be needed to pull that heavy a sleigh. This total weight is about four times that of the Queen Elizabeth.
The article ends by noting that if the sleigh and team attempt to move through the atmosphere at 650 miles per second they would be exposed to enormous air resistance (the same way a spacecraft gets heated upon reentering the atmosphere) and they would explode in flames. Waller sarcastically ends the article noting that if there ever was a Santa, given the acceleration forces such a flight would subject him to, he must now be dead.
High-Tech Saint NickNumerous rebuttals have been written to the Spy magazine article. Some point out that there are flaws in Waller's calculations or assumptions. For instance, the payload problem could be handled by making numerous returned trips to the pole. It increases the length of the total trip by a tiny fraction, but divides the weight of the sleigh by the number of return trips.
Other writers note that Christmas does not come on the same day in all countries. Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas a few days after December 25th which means Santa gets at least two shots a year to complete his mission. One writer noted that the number of stops needed in the calculation is incorrect since dividing the total number of children by the average number of children per household to get the number of stops does not consider families where there are no children at all.
Roger Highfield, who wrote the book Can Reindeer Fly? The Science of Christmas, suggests that Wallers has not considered that Santa might have some high tech solutions to his problems. For example, "inertial dampers" - a device that's referred to in the Star Trek movies to keep the crew from getting shmoshed as the Enterprise accelerates to Warp 8 - could be used by Santa to solve his high-acceleration problems. The technology isn't known to our science, but to Santa, well, who knows?
In fact some people have even suggested that Santa has the technology to manipulate time. By creating an artificial time bubble around his sleigh and his person, he could speed himself up as much as he needed. Again, this is far beyond human technology, but he is Santa Claus...
However Santa does it, he seems to manage each year to delight millions of children on Christmas morning as he has done for centuries. Perhaps it's just magic, and maybe it’s just the magic inside each of us.