When I was a little girl, I loved best of all, the magic of Christmastime. It was a strange time of year because my birthday is a week before Christmas. I was just fascinated by the many stories of the time. It was the 1970s, so there were a lot of Christmas specials on TV; Rudolph, Jack Frost, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.
As I got older, I wondered more and more about this mysterious old man who came down the chimney each Christmas Eve. Why did he do that each year. Was he really an elf? Was there a Mrs. Claus? Did he get lonely sometimes? Yes, I know, so many questions. I was an inquisitive child (or precocious as my family called me).
It was sometime around here that I saw Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town for the very first time. I remember being so very excited to see a story about WHO Santa was: an orphan raised by elves who chose to bring gifts to children and along the way fell in love. There was, for me, even more magic because he might have been a real person with a real family, and real hopes and dreams. Obviously, the movie was still a story, but it filled a wonderful bit of need for my imagination.
So who was Santa Claus? Why is he sometimes called St. Nick, or Kris Kringle? Was he a real person?
In fact, St.Nicholas was indeed a real person, although there are so many variations of the myth and legend that came from him, it can be hard to separate out the kernels of actuality in the story.
St. Nicholas of Myra, originally known as Nicholas of Bari, was a Christian Bishop in the Greek city of Myra (now known as Demre, Turkey). He lived during the Roman Empire, approximately from 15 March 270 C. E. to 6 December 343 C. E. . Born in the small village of Patara, Lycia to wealthy parents, Nicholas was raised Christian and with the ideals that you give to those who are suffering or in need. Still young, he lost his parents to illness. While very little is known about his life, is best known for his generosity to those in need. Believing that Jesus wanted him to give his wealth to the poor, he used his inheritance to help the poor, the ill, and those who were suffering.
As a young man, it is thought that he went on a pilgrimage to Egypts and Palestine, returning to Myra and shortly thereafter being named the Bishop of Myra. During the Persecution of Diocletian, the last and most brutal persecution of the Christians by the Romans, he was arrested and imprisoned, but later released when Emperor Constantine came into power.
One of my favorites and one of the earliest recorded is that he is said to have saved three girls from potential slavery or a life of prostitution by dropping a sack of gold in their house every night for three nights. They risked this life because their family was poor and their father unable to provide a dowry for them.
The money that Nicholas dropped down enabled their father to provide dowers for them, which meant they could marry. The sacks of gold were said to have been thrown in through the window and either landed in stockings or shoes that had been left by the fire to dry, which is why children today put out shoes or hang up stockings for St. Nicholas to fill.
In another instance, legend proclaims that he calmed a stormy sea by praying. His good deeds continued from saving three soldiers from an unjust execution and to having resurrected three children who had been murdered by a butcher who intended to sell their bodies as pork during a time of famine.
Saint Nicholas Today
Today, St. Nicholas’ Day, or the Feast of Saint Nicholas is celebrated most often on the 6th of December, although in the Netherlands it is the 5th, and for Eastern Christian countries the 19th.
The American Santa Claus and the British Father Christmas are both associated with St. Nicholas; the name “Santa Claus” comes from the Dutch name for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas. However, in both the United States and Britain, the tradition of gift giving is done on Christmas Day rather than St. Nicholas Day.
St. Nicholas traditions around the world.
The traditions for St. Nicholas Day vary from country to country. In Germany and Poland, boys dress up as Bishops and go about town begging alms for the poor. He is thought to put gifts under the pillows of good Ukrainian children; if you were bad however you may find a twig or a piece of coal instead. Sinterklaas, the legendary Dutch version of St. Nicholas, between the 5th and Christmas Eve, children would put their shoes out near the fireplace or just outside their doors and leave food for Sinterklaas’ hours. Sinterklaas would replace the hay and carrots with candy or small presents to be found when the children woke up the next day.
In the United States, some children leave their shoes near the front door in hopes that he will leave them coins. Unmarried Italian women also receive gifts from St. Nicholas to help them find a husband. In addition, they may attend a special mass to participate in the Rito delle nubile, where they turn a column 7 times to better their luck of getting married.
As time continued forward from the ancient days of the Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas, so too have many cultures adapted their own version of St. Nick. Is he the AllFather, the Norse Oden, who left gifts in stockings for children during Yule? Was he a young orphan whisked off to live with elves, who brought gifts to the children of a troubled town, fell in love and decided upon one night a year, that of Christmas Eve, to spread his joy, love, faith and hope to children everywhere?
All I know is that it’s almost Christmas, and the magic still lives in all of us. The true gift of St. Nicholas is the gift of possibility, the gift of faith and love, and generosity to all. So, in some ways, because of one generous man more than 1700 years ago, parents and children give a little Christmas magic around the world and bring joy and compassion to those around them.
I think I’ll believe in the Spirit of Santa Claus for a while longer, won’t you?
at The Researcher’s Gateway
Check our some of our other Holiday Posts
- A Brief History of Hanukkah
- The Legend of the Christmas Spider: Christmas Tinsel
- St. Lucia’s Day