“Santa Claus” is the most famous of the myriad of traditions surrounding the Christmas season. He is one of the most enduring global personifications of the holiday season.
Santa now enjoys a nearly universal image as the jolly plump gentleman carrying his bag of toys, steering his reindeer and sliding down chimneys. This image we all have of him is relatively new, considering how long he has been part of the culture of virtually all peoples for hundreds of years.
The primary reason Santa Claus was not always perceived in the same form as he is today was the primitive means of communication available in those early times, combined with the slow intermingling of cultures and religious beliefs.
When Christianity spread throughout the Old World, the drama of the first Christmas was told to each succeeding generation. Gift giving commemorated the generosity of the three wise men who traveled to Bethlehem bearing gold frankincense and myrrh as gifts.
Three hundred years later a man named Nicholas was born in what is now Turkey. It was not long before legends began spreading about him and the marvelous deeds reputed to him. One of the legends directly concerned the giving of gifts demonstrating his concern for those in need.
St. Nicholas was eventually to become one of the most universally revered saints, a patron of many occupations and even some nations. Although canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in the ninth century, it is generally believed this official recognition would have been bestowed years before had the Church developed the official sainthood status earlier.
St. Nicholas’ death on December 6th made that date on the calendar his special day. The various cultural and religious rites commemorating St. Nicholas day gradually became associated with Christmas as an extension of the holiday season.
The melding of Christianity with pagan cultures over the centuries, through the Crusades, the movement of nomadic tribes, and conversion, gradually provided St. Nicholas with a unique role in each culture. As with the role he played. the visual perception of him differed as well. In some areas his image was shaped by the belief in the pagan god Odin. In others, Saturn played a major role.
This volume shows the various images of the man and legend who has brightened the lives of nearly every young child in the world for over a thousand years.
From earliest times when gods and goddesses ruled the affairs of humans, legends grew to explain the unusual and the unknown. There were no written records and each legend relayed by word of mouth frequently changed at the discretion of the story teller.
In prehistoric times unusual occurrences were attributed to the acts of gods and goddesses. The lore of European countries is filled with legendary figures responsible for the sun, moon, lightning, thunder, good crops, the rainbow and other natural phenomena. Each deity had a day or period of celebration in his or her honor.
Many countries retained their specific holidays until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when communication between areas became more common and cultures merged. It took many years before the pagan beliefs were superseded by Christianity.
Throughout the legends, be they Scandinavian, German, Italian, Russian, French, Spanish or English there was a time of gift giving and celebrating during the winter solstice. The gift givers were male and female, pixie and saints each coming from legendary heroes of places of origin.
Communication between nations improved in 1850 when the International Postal Union was formed, then the legends of Christmas became somewhat en - tangled. The Italian Befana and Russian Babouska, both female figures, and the: German Christkindt and England’s Sir Christmas left customs in confusion.
In 1821 an American scholar wrote a poem about Christmas for his children. Little did he realize the St. Nicholas he created would become so popular. In “A Visit From St. Nicholas” by C. C. Moore, every group could find something familiar.
His name was St. Nicholas, later shortened to Santa Claus, who satisfied the Dutch and German people. His jolly character went well with his Pixie origin and the Scandinavians envisioned their gods Thor and Odin going through the sky in a sled drawn by reindeer.
European countries took the lovable American Santa Claus into their heart. Illustrators changed St. Nicholas from priestly robes to more secular clothes; they also gave him a bag of toys and had him on roof tops ready to go down a chimney. His clothing was sometimes red, sometimes brown, blue, or purple; whatever suited the illustrator. It was not until 1890 before red became the most popular color.
The American Santa Claus has been accepted by most of Europe. The slow transition of nearly seventy years finds some countries still practicing old customs but Santa Claus, as the gift giver is nearly universal.