Part one – Genesis of the Gift Giver
During this narrative I will be answering the eternal question which is all pervading during the festive season namely does Santa Claus really exist?
Obviously the answer we want is a resounding yes and so it will be.
Secondly I will be exploding the popular myth that it was the Coca Cola Company who were responsible for the red suited image of Santa.
St Nicholas is known by many different names around the world and he undoubtedly a legend.
The legend began in the 4th century A.D. in what is now Demre in modern Turkey.
Nicholas was a Christian priest and was born in 280 A.D. in the Lycian city of Patara near the ancient city of Myra where he later became Bishop.
Nicholas was the son of a wealthy man and when he inherited his father’s wealth he travelled the land helping the poor and sick and he was greatly admired for his piety and kindness.
He became the subject of many legends for example he was said to have brought a dead child back to life and he once saved the life of a prisoner by putting himself between the condemned man and his executioner also he is said to have stopped a storm in order to save three sailors from drowning.
But the most enduring and perhaps the best known of the Nicholas legends was when he secretly left golden dowries at the house of a poor man who was on the verge of selling his three daughters into slavery or prostitution.
The dowries meant the three poor sisters could be married.
This remarkable event has led to a tradition we still celebrate to this day as the sisters had left there stockings by the fire to dry and it was in the stocking where Nicholas placed the gold.
Despite his many secret late night visits to the homes of the poor and needy of the city he is forever known as the gift giver of Myra.
In the year 303 A.D., Diocletian the Roman emperor commanded all citizens of the Roman Empire to worship him as a god.
Nicholas and his fellow Christians believed in but one god and in all conscience could not obey the Emperor.
In his Anger, Diocletian threatened the Christians with imprisonment if they did not comply.
Many Christians including Nicholas defied The Emperor and were imprisoned.
Nicholas was confined to a small cell for almost ten years and suffered greatly but never wavered in his beliefs.
It was In 313, when Constantine replaced Diocletian to become the first Christian Emperor and Constantine’s first act was the release of the Christians and upon his release Nicholas returned to his post as Bishop of Myra where he continued his good works until his death on December 6, 343.
On his death he was sainted to become St Nicholas the patron saint of Children and sailors.
Part two – Growth and Prohibition
In the eyes of the Catholic church, a saint is a person who’s lived such a holy life that even after death and their ascent to heaven they are still able to help the earth bound souls.
It was believed that the white bearded St Nicholas clad in his red bishop’s robes continued to help the less fortunate through his gift giving.
So In the years following his death the St Nicholas legend grew.
As Christianity flourished within the Holy Roman Empire so did St Nicholas and by the year 450 many churches in the Eastern provinces of the empire in Asia Minor and Greece were being named to honour him and by the year 800 he was the most popular saint in the Eastern Catholic Church.
Such was his growing popularity as a Saint and his high regard amongst Christians that his mortal remains, which had been held in his church in Myra since his death, were stolen by a band of Italian sailors in 1087 A.D. and taken to Italy where they remain to this day, housed in the Basilica de St. Nicola in Bari.
The St Nicholas legend spread ever wider around the world and in 13th century France December sixth became the feast of St Nicholas or Bishop Nicholas Day
And as the his fame spread north his red bishops robe was replaced by more practical suit of clothes, still red, but trimmed with white fur and his bishops mitre was replaced by red fur trimmed hat.
Then By the end of the 15th century, St Nicholas was with the exception of Jesus and Mary the most popular religious figure in the Christian world.
Even after the protestant reformation when the worship of saints and relics was discouraged the people kept faith with Nicholas.
When in the 17th century the puritan Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England he banned anything about Christmas the might be construed as enjoyable.
He banned any kind of feasting, drinking or dancing he even banned the hanging of holly.
In America the puritans went further by banning even the mention of St. Nicholas as well as gift-giving, candle-lighting and carol-singing.
But this only served to make people believe in St Nicholas even more
Part three – The literal St Nicholas
After the demise of the puritans in Europe and America the St Nicholas legend went from strength to strength.
He has over recent centuries become known by different names for example in Holland he is known as Sinter Klaas and when the Dutch arrived in New York or New Amsterdam as it was then the red suited Sinter Klaas arrived with them but the name has since become Americanized into Santa Claus.
The first time the Name Santa Claus appeared in print was in 1773 but the first description of the most traditional image of Santa Claus was by popular author Washington Irving In his History of New York, published in 1809.
But he was finally immortalized along with his eight reindeer in 1823 in the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” more commonly known to all of us as “The Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clarke Moore an Episcopal minister.
Moore, who wrote the poem for his three daughters, depicted Santa Claus as a "right jolly old elf" with a supernatural ability to ascend up a chimney with a simple nod of his head.
The familiar round jolly white bearded image of Santa Claus was definitively illustrated by the political cartoonist Thomas Nast for Christmas issues of Harper's Weekly magazine in 1881.
It was Nast who revealed the details of Santa's workshop at the North Pole and alerted the world to the existence of what have become known as the naughty and nice lists.
Haddon Sundblom further reinforced Santa’s image when, in 1931, he drew a representation of the jolly red faced Saint for the Coca-Cola Company as part of their advertising campaign which was so successful that he has been used every year since.
Through literary references and descriptions of Christmas the legend of St Nicholas spread and became ingrained in all of us and Along the way the legend of the gift giver became intertwined with other country’s myths and folk lore figures and St Nicholas became known by a wide variety of names.
As well as Santa Claus or Sinter Klaas he is named Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Père Noël, der Weinachtsmann and Papa Noel to name but a few.
So I can say to you all with hand on heart to young and old wherever you might live there is most definitely a Santa Claus.