The year 270 AD was not a good time for Christians. The Roman Empire was in very bad health, and a lot of the blame was assigned to the Christian faith. A succession of many short-lived Emperors kept Christians in constant danger of imprisonment, torture, and death, while external threats such as the invading Visigoths chipped away at the Empire. Christianity was very fragmented, without a strong core doctrine, and little or no unity between the early churches.
Into this world was born a child destined to be an awesome force for change in the Christian world. In the small Greek town (now part of Turkey) of Patara, a boy was born to wealthy parents, who named him Nicholas. He was raised to be a devout Christian, but both of his parents died in one of the many epidemics that regularly swept the empire, while he was still very young. He had a sizable inheritance, and no idea what to do with it, so he approached the local village priest, confessed his sins, bequeathed all his money to the poor, and expressed his desire to become a priest. Impressed by the youngsters gumption, the priest took him in. He knew, however, that Nicholas lacked the education needed to become a full priest, but prayed for a miracle, just the same. As often happens, their prayers were answered positively.
In the nearby city of Myra, the Bishop passed away, and the authorities were pressed to name a new bishop for the church. Nicholas was well-known in the village, and highly respected. He had done a lot for the town, often at his own peril with the Roman authorities. One of the town elders said they had a vision, where an angel told him that Nicholas had earned the honor of being made a Bishop. The rest of the elders agreed, and Nicolas was made the youngest Bishop the Christian church has ever had, even to this day.
Bishop Nicholas wasted no time in exercising the duties of his office, and undertook them with the zeal, energy, and bravery that only youth could sustain. He became a common thorn-in-the-side to the newly ascended Emperor Constantine (who was not yet a Christian), as he had been to his predecessor Emperor Dioclecian. Due to his outspoken defense of Myra’s populace, both Christian and otherwise, he was a regular guest of the Roman prison system, and endured torture and confinement frequently. He had a reputation for defending the wrongly accused, sailors, and an unbounded love for children.
One of his deeds that eventually earned Bishop Nicholas a permanent ‘attaboy! Involved a poor man who had three daughters. It was the custom of the time that a woman’s father provide a substantial dowry to ensure them a good marriage. This man’s daughter had little hope of any martial possibilities, and the man, as was customary for that time, contemplated selling them into slavery, where at least they would be fed, and clothed. Upon hearing of this, Bishop Nicholas devised a plan that would supply a dowry without embarrassing the father, or his daughters. One night around Christmas (which hadn’t really been officially established, yet) , a mysterious figure appeared on the roof of the mans house and dropped a bag of gold down the chimney, and as luck would have it, it landed right in one the oldest daughters stockings (it was common to hang them on the fireplace to dry after washing them, and since dampers had yet to be invented, the fireplaces were off-set from the chimney, allowing things to go up and down the chimney without landing in the fire….). The mystery caller vanished into the shadows. With this as a dowry, the oldest daughter was quickly married-off to a good man. The event became the talk of the town. “Who was that masked man???” When the next daughter came of age, the event was repeated, and now the town had the worlds first super-hero, complete with a secret identity. The “shadow” even expanded his rounds, since he was out anyway, and began dropping small gifts and goodies down the chimneys of under-privileged children’s homes, and others in need. The father of the daughter was determined to discover the identity of this anonymous benefactor, so when his third daughter came of age, the man hide out on the roof, and caught Nicholas in the act. He invited him in, and gave him refreshments, some food, and his undying gratitude. Word spread like wildfire through the Christian community of Bishop Nicholas, and his unselfish deeds, and even reached the newly converted Emperor Constantine. The Emperor was so impressed that he assigned Bishop Nicholas to the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, which was responsible for creating the New Testament, the Nicene Creed, and the Catholic Church. Bishop Nicholas is also believed to be the author of the Holy Trinity Doctrine.
Nicholas passed away in 343 AD, and was declared a Saint by the new Catholic Church. Miracles continued to be attributed to him (and still are). Although he was originally buried in Myra (now Demne, Turkey), his body was later moved to Bari, Italy. His work lives on with the tradition of the Christmas stockings, and Saint Nicholas on the roof-tops. As Christianity spread to the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, the spelling was slightly changed to Santa. Nikolaus, and eventually shortened by Scandinavian and Dutch immigrants to America to Santa Clause. In the United Kingdom, St. Nicholas was refereed to as St. Nick, or more often “Father Christmas”.
So how did this extremely brave and dedicated Catholic Bishop evolve into a jolly, rotund sled-pilot, and keeper of flying reindeer and elves? You can blame modern commercialism for this one. Clement Clark Moore was born in the Hudson Valley, just outside New York City, in 1779. He graduated Columbia College and was an expert on languages, namely Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French and Italian. He wrote the first lexicon on the Hebrew language (Hebrew-English translator). This resulted in his being appointed a Professor of Oriental and Greek Languages at the Episcopal General Theological Seminary of New York. He continued with many famous translated works, and even authored political pamphlets advocating a negotiated end to the War of 1812.
Sometime around 1822, Clement decided to document the rich Dutch Christmas folklore of the area with a poem, and illustrations. The legend of Sinterklass ( which would translate as Santa Claus) was penned in a fairy-tale style, solely for the purpose of entertaining Moore’s children. To this effect, flying reindeer were added to the legend of Santa Clause bringing toys down the chimney. It was never intended for publication. His model for his version of Santa Claus was his portly, and ever-cheerful Dutch housekeeper, complete with a luxurious full white beard. He titled his poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas, and it was read aloud for the first time on Christmas, 1822. In 1823, a visiting rector’s daughter, Harriet Butler, ran across a copy of the poem and was so enchanted by it that she asked for a copy. She forwarded the copy anonymously (and without permission) to the editor of the Troy Sentinel newspaper, who immediately published it, without an authors credit, and re-named it as The Night Before Christmas. It was an instant hit, so much that other papers across the country also published it. Needless to say, when Moore found out his little poem was a national Best-Seller, he was flabbergasted, and would not even acknowledge authorship until 1838. In 1848, Moore authorized a fully-illustrated version of the poem to be published, with the illustrations done by T.C. Boyd. The red suit and elves were still to come, but when Henry Onderdonk published this version, America got it’s first look at our modern Santa Claus, the jolly, full bearded, fat man.
The next stage in the development of the modern Santa Claus was the red suit. In 1915, Haddon Sundblom was commissioned to do a poster of Santa wearing White Rock Sodas colors of red and white. It was a poster advertising their bottled mineral water. It was so successful that Coca Cola bought the rights to the image, and had Norman Rockwell do a 1930s poster for them. This immortalized the red suit.
Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Mrs. Clause, the elves, and the North Pole were all introduced in the 1939 booklet Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, written by Robert L. May, and published by Montgomery Wards. The song Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer was written by radio producer, and decorated WW-II combat veteran Johnny Marks, in 1949. When beloved Singing-Cowboy-star Gene Autry released his version of the song on Nov. 25th, 1949, it shot to the #1 position on Billboard Charts. Although it has since been recorded by other big-name artists such as Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, the Cadillacs, Red Foley, Spike Jones, and even Alvin and the Chipmunks, Autry’s version is the only one to ever hit #1 on the charts.
There remains one loose end to tie up. Who was Kris Kringle? Actually, the name is an evolution of the Germanic Christkindl, meaning the Christ-Child. In German culture, Christkindle was the symbol of the giving of gifts and charities. In the New World, German immigrants often inter-married with English settlers, and the term Christkindl became intertwined with Saint Nicholas. Eventually, it was anglicized into Kris Kringle. It was made official in the short story Miracle On 34th Street, by Valentine Davies, and made into a movie in 1947. In it, the Santa Claus refers to himself as Kris Kringle.
Now you know the real truth about Santa Claus, so there is no need to tell your children “there ain’t no Santa Claus”, because there really is. Tell them the real story.