By Brenda Tadych
Why do people, Christians and non-Christians alike, wholly embrace the idea of Santa Claus and his reindeer? Could it simply be the promise of gifts? Part of me doesn’t want to believe that, but really, it’s the only explanation that seems plausible. This conundrum led me to do research on the origins of Santa Claus, beginning with Saint Nicholas.
Despite eight years of Catholic school, the only thing I really remember learning about Saint Nicholas was he was a kind person who loved children. I’ve subsequently learned quite a lot about him and one could argue that indeed, gifts are the root of it all.
In the 3rd Century, a young man named Nicholas was born to a wealthy and devout Christian family in what is now modern day Turkey. Despite losing his parents at a young age Nicholas chose to live an altruistic life and throughout the rest of his days, he gave away his inherited wealth to the poor and sick.
One legendary story of his remarkable gift-giving is of a merchant who had three daughters. Because of unfortunate circumstances, this merchant did not have a dowry (money paid to a bridegroom by the bride’s parents on the wedding day) for any of his daughters and feared they would not be able to marry. In those days, young women without a dowry were often forced into slavery or prostitution.
Nicholas heard of the situation and on three separate nights secretly slipped the merchant a sack of gold, one sack for each daughter. It’s said that when Nicholas tossed the gold sacks into the merchant’s window (or perhaps dropped them down his chimney) they landed in the shoes or stockings that had been left near the fireplace to dry. Thus began a tradition of children leaving their stockings near fireplaces in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.
The Saint Nicholas legend inevitably became intertwined with others. It became hard to tell where the legend of Nicholas ended and that of Kriss Kringle and Sinterklass (Santa Claus) began.
If you are wondering how exactly Saint Nicholas became associated with Christmas on December 25th, the majority of sources I consulted suggest Saint Nicholas Day (celebrated in many parts of the world on December 6th) gradually merged with the day celebrating Jesus’s birthday - both being in December - and both days were about giving. Saint Nicholas gave of his wealth and Jesus Christ gave of himself.
There is certainly a stark difference between the lean and suffering Nicholas and the stout and jolly fellow in the red suit we recognize today as Santa Claus. While Nicholas was beloved and revered as a helper and protector, he also suffered persecution for proclaiming his faith and was imprisoned for years. Jolly? He was not.
Not surprisingly, his image has evolved over time giving the grim, serious man a more child-friendly semblance. And because Nicholas was a bishop and red was the color of the bishop’s robe, conventional thinking links the color of the bishop’s robe to Santa’s present-day red suit.
What about those reindeer? Those beautiful creatures were widespread in Eastern Europe in the 1800’s when the famous poem about Old St. Nick was written, naming the eight reindeer that guided Santa’s sleigh. Whether the true author of what we know as “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” was Clement Clarke Moore or Henry Livingston, Jr. (a debate I did not know existed), we know both were New Yorkers who had surely heard tales of Dutch settlers and the rugged reindeer used for pulling sleds and sleighs in their native countries.
While the legend of Saint Nicholas may have endured because of the gift-giving, the timeless, selfless message of giving while expecting nothing in return also lives on. When we give to programs such as Toys For Tots and Adopt-A-Family, we’re paying homage to Saint Nicholas. He was one extraordinary, ordinary person.