Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Santa's Journey - Darcy Lundeen

Santa's Journey From Viking Myth to Your Rooftop
(The No-Frills, CliffsNotes Version)
Darcy Lundeen

Santa Claus, that beloved icon who symbolizes the joy and bountiful giving of Christmas, has had a long journey to become the figure we now know as a benevolent older gentleman with a bushy white beard, a booming ho-ho-ho laugh, a definitely elevated BMI, and a penchant for sporting fur-trimmed red outfits.

Some experts have traced his roots to Norse mythology and likened him to the powerful, bearded, one-eyed god, Odin, who rode across the winter sky on his swift eight-legged horse as he brought gifts to children.

But most scholars agree that his more immediate predecessor was St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop of Myra, Turkey. Known as a generous man, who gave his entire inheritance away to ease the burdens of those in need, he has been credited with guiding ships lost in stormy seas to safe harbors, bringing murdered children back to life, and giving bags full of gold to three sisters so that they’d have dowries and be able to wed rather than being sold into prostitution or slavery by their destitute father.

Even if some, or all, of these incidents never happened but are strictly apocryphal, they still succeeded in making him one of the world’s most revered saints and in earning him the title of both Miracle Worker and Gift Giver. It was this second attribute—his selfless habit of giving gifts to the needy—that ultimately tied him to the Santa Claus of today.

As his fame spread from one country to another, the traditions that arose to celebrate him understandably varied to reflect local customs.

In twelfth-century France and Belgium, nuns distributed gifts to poor children to duplicate his generosity.

In thirteenth-century Germany and Poland, boys who had been chosen to play the part of St. Nicholas both officiated at religious services and wandered the town begging for alms to help the poor.

In sixteenth-century England, each parish sent a man dressed in hooded robes to leave a small gift at every home in imitation of his charity.

In seventeenth-century Holland, as December 6th (St. Nicholas’s feast day) approached, markets were set up to sell the food and toys that parents put in their children’s shoes. Because the shoes were always placed beside the fireplace, children soon came to believe that Sinterklaas (Dutch for St. Nicholas) had ridden over the rooftops on his white horse as he dropped the gifts down the chimney.

When the Dutch came to the New World, of course they brought their traditions with them, just as other Europeans did. But it was only years later, after the Revolutionary War, that their Sinterklaas celebration gained such prominence that important elements of it were used to send St. Nick on the part of his journey that would eventually transform him from St. Nicholas, a rather austere, if gentle, religious figure, into Santa Claus, a cuddly secular icon.

Author Washington Irving was a major force in aiding this change. His satiric novel, “A History of New York,” written under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, went a long way toward advancing this separation by presenting Sinterklaas not as a tall, thin, saintly individual but as a short, plump, worldly person who smoked a pipe, wore a green coat, and rode over treetops in a flying wagon as he tossed presents down the chimneys.

But the thing that ultimately changed the guy in the red suit into the magical presence we all know and love was the poem “The Night before Christmas,” written by an erudite biblical scholar, Clement Clarke Moore. (Unless, as some have claimed, the author was actually Henry Livingston Jr., a genial farmer, who composed bright and breezy poetry for his children. But that’s a subject for another day.)

The poem moves the occasion of St. Nick’s gift giving from the eve of his December 6th feast day to Christmas Eve. It also envisions him as being small—in other words, “a right jolly old elf.” But within a few decades, the popular nineteenth-century cartoonist, Thomas Nast, had changed that image. Not only was Nast depicting him as a regulation size human, he had also provided Santa with a home at the North Pole and a workshop where he could build the toys he so lavishly dispenses to children around the world.

Eventually a cadre of happy, hard-working elves also appeared to aid him in his work, and finally even a Mrs. Claus arrived to keep him company on those long northern nights.

Once Santa had his own unique appearance, his own home, workplace, elfin helpers, and wife, his separation from St. Nicholas was at last complete, and so was his journey.

All in all, it’s been a long journey for him too, one that lasted many centuries and covered thousands of miles as it turned him from Viking god into Christian saint and then into our current secular symbol of Christmas generosity and good cheer.

And, as it always does, that journey reaches its annual zenith this year on Christmas Eve, when the beloved man in the bright red suit will once again find his way to your rooftop with his bottomless sack of goodies.

Want to know what St. Nicholas might really have looked like? Remains buried in the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy are reputed to belong to him, and in 2004, a facial reconstruction was performed on the bones.

The following links will take you to pages that show the result.

So if you’re interested in knowing how the renowned fourth-century bishop and saint looked, check them out and see if you think St. Nicholas’s face bears a resemblance to the religious depictions of him that are also included.

http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/real-face and http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/how-he-may-have-looked a Rafflecopter giveaway


Karen Michelle Nutt said...

I just love tidbits of history and legends. Enjoyed the post!

Unknown said...

thank you for teh book first and then thank for the sites

Carol Henry said...

Darcy, loved the rundown on Santa. It's always interesting to learn the background.

Darcy said...

Thanks for visiting, Karen Michelle. As a professional researcher, I sometimes run away with information, so I hope my post didn't go on for too long. But I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

Darcy said...

Hi, Desiree. My pleasure for providing the links to those two sites. I found them to be the most fascinating tidbits I came upon in putting the post together. If the bones in the basilica in Bari, Italy really do belong to St. Nicholas, then it's incredible to be able to see what he looked like this many centuries later. Thank you so much for stopping by.

Darcy said...

Hi, Carol. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. With all I learned in writing it, I don't think I'll ever look at the guy in the red suit in quite the same way. Thanks for taking the time to read it and comment.

Maria said...

Thanks for the background info on our "current" chubby Santa...lol...

Debra St. John said...

Hmn? A tie to Oden...I am learning all sorts of fabulous Christmas trivia.

Thanks for the informative post. I just might print it out to put in my research file!

Lilly Gayle said...

Love this abridged history lesson, lol! We're never too old to learn new tidbits of knowledge.

J C. McKenzie said...

I loved that flash history lesson. Thank you!