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Origins of Santa Claus

Santa Claus traditions  |  Saint Nicholas

Santa Claus: Where Did he come from?
The origin of Santa Claus depends on which country's story you choose to adopt. Santa Claus comes from the Dutch words "Sinter Klaas", which is what they call their favorite saint, St. Nicholas. He is said to have died on December 6, A.D. 342. December 6th is celebrated as his feast day, and in many countries this is the day he arrives with his presents and punishments.

Nicholas lived in what is now called Turkey. He was born about A.D. 280 in the town of Patras. His parents were wealthy and he was well

Santa on the roof!
Chimneys aren't the only means of entrance for Santa Claus. Locked doors aren't a problem for him .
educated. Nicholas seems to have had a remarkable childhood. While still a young boy he was made Bishop of Myra, and because of this he has been known ever since as the Boy Bishop. He was renowned for his extreme kindness and generosity – often going out at night and taking presents to the needy. Santa's rise to fame can be traced to two legends – the three daughters and the children at the Inn.

Three Daughters
The first story shows his generosity. There were three unmarried girls living in Patras who came from a respectable family, but they could not get married because their father had lost all his money and had no dowries for the girls. The only thing the father thought he could do was to sell them when they reached the age to marry. Hearing of the imminent fate, Nicholas secretly delivered a bag of gold to the eldest daughter, who was at the right age for marriage but had despaired of ever finding a suitor. Her family was thrilled at her good fortune and she went on to become happily married. When the next daughter came of age, Nicholas also delivered gold to her.

According to the story handed down, Nicholas threw the bag through the window and it landed in the daughter's stocking, which she had hung by the fire to dry. Another version claims that Nicholas dropped the bag of gold down the chimney.

By the time the youngest daughter was old enough for marriage, the father was determined to discover his daughters' benefactor. He, quite naturally, thought that she might be given a bag of gold too, so he decided to keep watch all night. Nicholas, true to form, arrived and was seized, and his identity and generosity were made known to all. As similar stories of the bishop's generosity spread, anyone who received an unexpected gift thanked St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas and Children
Another one of the many stories told about St. Nicholas explains why he was made a patron saint of children. On a journey to Nicaea, he stopped on the way for the night at an inn. During the night he dreamt that a terrible crime had been committed in
the building. His dream was quite horrifying. In it three young sons of a wealthy Asian, on their way to study in Athens, had been murdered and robbed by the innkeeper. The next morning he confronted the innkeeper and forced him to confess. Apparently the innkeeper had previously murdered other guests and salted them down for pork or had dismembered their bodies and pickled them in casks of brine. The three boys were still in their casks, and Nicholas made the sign of the cross over them and they were restored to life.

Where did religion come in?
In newly Christianized areas where the pagan Celtic and Germanic cults remained strong, legends of the god Wodan were blended with those of various Christian saints; Saint Nicholas was one of these. There were Christian areas where Saint Nicholas ruled alone; in other locations, he was assisted by the pagan Dark Helper (the slave he had inherited from the Germanic god Wodan). In other remote areas, where the Church held little power, ancient pockets of the Olde Religion controlled traditions. Here the Dark Helper ruled alone, sometimes in a most confusing manner, using the cover name of Saint Nicholas or "Klaus," without in any way changing his threatening, Herne/Pan, fur-clad appearance. (This was the figure later used by the artist Nast as the model for the early American Santa Claus.)

The Catholic Saint Nicholas also had a confusing past. He was a compilation of two separate saints (one from Myra in Asia Minor, the other from Pinora), both of whom were – as the Church now admits – nothing more than Christianized water deities (possibly related to the Greco-Roman god Poseidon/Neptune.)

After the Vikings raided the Mediterranean, they brought the Christian Saint Nicholas cult from Italy to northern Europe, and there proceeded to build Saint Nicholas churches for the protection of their sailors. When, for instance, William the Conqueror's fleet was hit by a storm during his invasion of England, he is known to have called out for protection to Saint Nicholas. Although in those days, church services only mentioned Saint Nicholas as the protector of seafarers, they initially condoned a blending of the Mediterranean Nicholas myths with some that had been attached to the pagan Germanic god Wodan and to those of the even earlier Herne/Pan traditions.

By absorbing such pagan feasts and traditions, the Christian Church could subtly bring in its own theology: in this case, establishing the good Saint Nicholas, bringer of love and gifts, while grudgingly allowing the presence of the Olde Religion's Herne/Pan, but only as a slave to Saint Nicholas. Thus, in parts of Europe, the Church turned Herne into Saint Nicholas' captive, chained Dark Helper; none other than Satan, the Dark One, symbolic of all evil. His only remaining tasks now were to carry the bag, scare maidens and children into devout behavior, and drag sinners and pagans off to the Christian hell. Yet, in spite of this character assassination, the poor masses continued to see in this enslaved Dark Helper a reflection of their own enslavement. He remained their Herne, thumbing his nose at the Christian Church; a mischievous, nostalgic reminder of the days of their own free and lusty pagan past.

In Holland and several other European countries, the Saint Nicholas figure is still highly esteemed. He appears as a tall dignified bearded white-haired old man dressed as a Catholic bishop complete with cloak, mytre, and pastoral staff, a seemingly genuine Catholic saint, but with a bizarre quite unsaintly habit of riding through the skies on a white horse followed by his Dark Helper. It seems that our Catholic saint inherited some of these customs from the pagan Germanic god Wodan, who had also been a bearded, white-haired old man, also dressed in a hat and cloak, carried a staff (or spear), rode a holy white horse and dragged along the same dark slave/helper on a chain.

The Dutch Sinterklaas brings gifts to good children, while bad children are harassed by Zwarte Piet, the Dark Helper, who – brandishing his peculiar broom-like rod – threatens to put sassy young women and naughty children in the sack in which he has carried the gifts, the idea being that he will take them away to some terrible place in Spain (where Saint Nicholas, for no known historical reason, was supposed to have come from). This, of course, never happens since the good Christian Sinterklaas always intervenes on behalf of the naughty child – provided the child promises to better his or her ways. The bad (pagan) Dark Helper is then admonished by Sinterklaas and ordered to stop threatening the children.

Next, Sinterklaas distributes gifts to all "who have been good" (or until the twentieth century, to all "who knew their prayers"). In exchange, the children are supposed to leave food offerings for the saint's horse (usually hay and carrots), placed in either a shoe or stocking. In some areas, a glass of gin is also left as an offering for the good saint himself. When, by daybreak, the offerings have disappeared and been replaced by gifts, it proves that Sinterklaas has indeed paid a visit during the night.

We can clearly recognize in all this the lesson taught the pagans by the Christian Church, here represented by Saint Nicholas: You may enjoy your old fall/winter feasts, as long as you have learned your prayers and become good Christians. You will then be rewarded, but if you have not done so, you will be dragged away to hell by your own fearful, pagan past and its representative, the dark Herne/Pan – who is none other than Satan himself – unless you repent, here and now!

St. Nicholas with a European flair
Nicholas' natural affinity with children led him to be adopted as their patron saint, and his generosity to the custom of giving gifts to them on his feast day. The custom became especially widespread in the Low Countries, where the Dutch seamen had carried reports home of the saint's generosity. St. Nicholas was, however, a tremendously popular saint everywhere. Both Russia and Greece adopted him as their patron saint, and there are more churches in the world named after him than any of the apostles (especially The Netherlands).
Saint Nicholas was well-known for his generosity.

In the European countries, St. Nicholas is usually pictured as a bearded saint, wearing ecclesiastical robes and riding a white horse. He carries a basket of gifts for the good children and a batch of rods for the naughty ones.

In old Czechoslovakia, Svaty Mikulas was brought down from heaven on a golden cord by an angel. When he arrived on Christmas Day, the children rushed to the table to say their prayers. If they did well, he told the angel who came with him to give them presents.

In parts of the Alps, "ghosts of the field" cleared the way for St. Nicholas. Behind them came a man wearing a goat's head, and a masked demon with a birch switch. In Germany, twelve young men dressed in straw and wearing animal masks danced along after St. Nicholas, ringing cowbells. At each house, after gifts were given, the masked men drove the young people out and pretended to beat them!

For the children of the Netherlands, Dec. 6th is still more exciting than Christmas Day, for then St. Nicholas arrives. His arrival is celebrated and this is the day when children receive their presents. The excitement begins on the last Sunday in November, where everywhere can be heard the words, "Look there is the steamer bringing us St. Nick!"

St. Nicholas traditionally arrives by sea and disembarks at Amsterdam. He then mounts a white horse for a processional ride through the streets. Clothed in a bishop's scarlet cope and mitre, he wears white gloves and an enormous bishop's ring on his left hand. Black Peter accompanies Nicholas. St. Nicholas' arrival is greeted with cheers from the thousands of children and adults who line the route. Supposedly the bishop came from Spain. This story can be traced back to the sixteenth century when the Spanish dominated the Low Countries. The doublet, puffed velvet breeches, hose and plumed berets worn by his attendants – in particular Black Peter – are another forcible reminder of that period. Black Peter carries a large sack in which he is said to put all the boys and girls who have misbehaved during the course of the last 12 months. With bad kids in his sack, Black Peter then takes them away to Spain.

Immigrants to the New World must have recognized something familiar in the little figure of St. Nick. His fur costume suggested Pelz-Nicol to a Bavarian, and the little gnome-like figure Jule-nissen to a Scandinavian. His elfish qualities rang bells with other nationalities too, for example the Irish with their tradition of the "little people". In many ways, Santa was recognizable for many people, which probably helps to explain why he was adopted so readily – a new, but familiar, symbol for a new country.

Gift-giving comes of age
As in many other European countries, if presents were exchanged at this season, it was usually done at New Year's Eve and they were between adults rather than for children. In the 1840s, however, there was an increasing emphasis on Christmas Day. This seems to have happened for several reasons. The press – which now reached a far wider audience – stressed the fact that Christmas Day was the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Birthdays had always been a day for giving presents and it was a natural step to celebrate Jesus' birth by giving gifts on that day.

Kriss Kringle, another name for Santa, is derived from Germany's Christkindel, which means Christ Child.

Before Christmas had been banned by Oliver Cromwell from 1644 to 1660, there had been an old custom of giving sweets and small presents to children on Christmas Day. This had virtually stopped, but now the custom was enjoying a revival, in part because of the many articles that were being written in the Christmas editions of magazines about the "old traditions" of Christmas. Another influential element was that, just as in America, children were becoming a greater focus in society, and it seemed appropriate to use this time to give them greater emphasis.

The importation of the Christmas tree from Germany, and the accompanying rituals of gift giving on Christmas Eve, gave further impetus to the idea of presents. Santa Claus provided the final influence. By the end of the century, Christmas Day was firmly fixed – in England at least – as a children's festival and the day on which presents were given.

Santa Claus, or "Father Christmas", came back into English Christmas festivities when people were reminded of him from America. This injected new life into the English Christmas and was the answer to those who prayed that Father Christmas and his customs may be restored "to some portion of their ancient honors."

Celebrations around the midwinter solstice had been used for gift giving since Roman times. At the Roman winter festival – called the Saturnalia because they worshipped Saturn as the god of everything that grew – the Romans had a public holiday that lasted for a week. Everyone took part in the feasting and games. Even the slaves were made free for a day and allowed to say and do what they liked. People exchanged presents; a custom called Strenae, as a symbol of goodwill. At first, these gifts were green boughs from the grove of the goddess Strenia. Later, gifts were given of sweet pastries to ensure a pleasant year, precious stones, gold or silver coins to symbolize wealth, and, the most popular of all, candles as a symbol of warmth and light. As the Roman Empire spread, so did this custom of gift giving to other parts of the world. Since the Saturnalia marked the beginning of a new year, in most countries presents were given on New Year's Day, not Christmas Day. The advent and spread of Christianity caused the gift giving to be moved to other times of the year.

In Germany, the packages of Christmas gifts were called "Christ-bundles" and often came in bundles of three. There was something rewarding, something useful and something for discipline. In the seventeenth century, a typical bundle would contain candy, sugarplums, cakes, apples, nuts, dolls and toys. The useful things would be clothes, caps, mittens, stockings, shoes and slippers. The gifts "that belong to teaching, obedience and discipline" were items such as ABC tables, paper, pencils, books and the "Christ-rod". This rod, attached to the bundle, was a pointed reminder for good behavior. Another way of presenting gifts was the old German custom of the "Christmas ship", in which bundles for children were stored away. To some extent, this custom was also adopted in England, but never with the same degree of popularity.

In the centuries before Santa Claus was well known, and still today in many countries where he has not been widely adopted, the child Jesus is the gift-bringer. He comes with the angels during the night, trimming the tree and putting the presents underneath.

In Spain and Spanish-speaking countries, the child Jesus (el Nino Jesus) brings Christmas gifts for the children during Holy Night. He is found in the morning in the previously empty crib, and all the presents are arranged in front of it.

The German name of the Christ Child is Christkind, commonly used in its diminutive form Christkindel. His messenger, a young girl with a golden crown who holds a tiny "Tree of Light", brings the gifts of the Christ Child. Still today in America, "Kriss Kringle" -- deriving from the German Christkindel -- is another name used for Santa Claus.

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