Tuesday, December 8, 2015

How a Saint Became Santa

We all believe in Santa at some point in our lives, but the story of how a Saint evolved into the jolly, red faced man guided by (probably female!) reindeers, with his ho-ho-ho signature is really interesting.

So, where did Santa Claus come from? How did this wonderful Christmas character who is so giving begin? We didn't make him up. Saint Nicholas, whose name was changed over the years to Santa Claus, was a real person, a bishop in the church in the fourth century.

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 modern-day Turkey. Much admired for his piety and kindness, St. Nicholas became the subject of many legends.  As the bishop of Myra he was credited with doing a number of miracles involving sailors and children.

 After his death this led him to become the patron saint of both groups as well as for unmarried girls.   It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick.  His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6.  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 name Santa Claus evolved from Nick’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas). 

But The History Goes Back Much Further:

Prior to Christianization, the Germanic peoples (including the English) celebrated a midwinter event called Yule (Old English geola or guili).  With the Christianization of Germanic Europe, numerous traditions were absorbed from Yuletide celebrations into modern Christmas. During this period, supernatural and ghostly occurrences were said to increase in frequency, such as the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky. The leader of the wild hunt is frequently attested as the god Odin and he bears the Old Norse names Jólnir, meaning "yule figure" and the name Langbarðr, meaning "long-beard".

An 1886 depiction of the long-bearded Germanic god Odin by Georg von Rosen

The god Odin's role during the Yuletide period has been theorized as having influenced concepts of St. Nicholas in a variety of facets, including his long white beard and his gray horse for nightly rides which was traded for reindeer in North America.  Margaret Baker comments that "The appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts.  Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus ..."

The British Father Christmas

Father Christmas dates back as far as 16th century in England during the reign of Henry VIII, when he was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry. As England no longer kept the feast day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, the Father Christmas celebration was moved to 25 December to coincide with Christmas Day. The Victorian revival of Christmas included Father Christmas as the emblem of 'good cheer'. His physical appearance was variable, with one famous image being John Leech's illustration of the "Ghost of Christmas Present" in Charles Dickens's festive classic A Christmas Carol (1843), as a great genial man in a green coat lined with fur who takes Scrooge through the bustling streets of London on the current Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas onto the happy populace.

Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding on a goat.

Father Christmas is now widely seen as synonymous with the Santa Claus figure.

Names for Santa Around the World

BelgiumPere Noel
BrazilPapai Noel
ChileViejo Pascuero (“Old Man Christmas”)
ChinaDun Che Lao Ren (“Christmas Old Man”)
FrancePere Noel
GermanyWeihnachtsmann (“Christmas Man”)
HungaryMikulas (St. Nicholas)
ItalyBabbo Natale
JapanHoteiosho (a god or priest who bears gifts)
NorwayJulenissen (“Christmas gnome”)
PolandSwiety Mikolaj (St. Nicholas)
RussiaDed Moroz (“Grandfather Frost”)
SwedenJultomten (“Christmas brownie”)
United KingdomFather Christmas

How He Came to America:  

Thomas Nast immortalized Santa Claus with an illustration for the 3 January 1863 issue of Harper's Weekly. Santa was dressed in an American flag, and had a puppet with the name "Jeff" written on it, reflecting its Civil War context. 

Thomas Nast drew on Clement Clarke Moore's poem ... *an Episcopal minister, he wrote a long Christmas poem for his three daughters entitled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”) 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.

Thomas Nast's Depiction of Santa Claus

In America, the story that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole may also have been a Nast creation. His Christmas image in the Harper's issue dated 29 December 1866 was a collage of engravings titled Santa Claus and His Works, which included the caption "Santa Claussville, N.P." A color collection of Nast's pictures, published in 1869, had a poem also titled "Santa Claus and His Works" by George P. Webster, who wrote that Santa Claus's home was "near the North Pole, in the ice and snow". The tale had become well known by the 1870s. A boy from Colorado writing to the children's magazine The Nursery in late 1874 said, "If we did not live so very far from the North Pole, I should ask Santa Claus to bring me a donkey."

In 1939, May wrote a Christmas-themed story-poem to help bring holiday traffic into his Montgomery Ward 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. 
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.
Santa Physics!!

Santa 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) 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.



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