Santa Claus – Real Story Telling
Santa Claus is from the North Pole, as any child will tell you. His historical trip, however, is much longer and more fantastic than his annual one-night globe circumnavigation.
The forerunner of today’s American Santa Claus was born in the Mediterranean during the Roman Empire, his legend spread throughout northern Europe, and he eventually took on his now-famous form on the shores of the New World.
Every year on December 6, the faithful around the world commemorate St. Nicholas Day, with the largest celebrations taking place in Europe. St. Nicholas is depicted in a variety of ways, but none of them resemble the red-cheeked, white-bearded old man seen today. Not ancient history, but modern art created one of the most convincing views of the real St. Nick, who lived in the third and fourth centuries.
Scholarly debate continues to this day over where the remains of the Greek bishop reside, but it was once thought that the bones of St. Nicholas were stolen by Italian sailors in the 11th century and brought to the crypt of the Basilica di San Nicola on Italy’s southeast coast. When the crypt was restored in the 1950s, x-ray images of the saint’s skull and bones were taken.
Caroline Wilkinson, a facial anthropologist at the University of Manchester (England), created a modern reconstruction of the long-dead man using these data and modern software simulations. Wilkinson gave Santa’s original nameake a human face, one with a badly damaged nose, probably as a result of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians.
Most of her work has to be interpreted in some way. Nicholas’s facial muscles had to be inferred in size and form, and the shape of his skull had to be recreated from two-dimensional data.
How did this St. Nicholas become the Christmas gift-bearer from the North Pole? The first saint was a Greek who lived around 280 A.D. in the late third century. He was appointed bishop of Myra, a small Roman city in modern-day Turkey. Nicholas was neither fat nor jolly, but during the Great Persecution in 303, when Bibles were burned, he earned a reputation as a fiery, wiry, and defiant defender of church doctrine.
Nicholas defied these edicts and spent years in prison until the Edict of Milan, issued by the Roman emperor Constantine in 313, put an end to Christian persecution. Since he was credited with many miracles, Nicholas’ reputation lasted long after his death (on December 6 in the mid-fourth century, around 343), and veneration for him continues to this day, even though he is not associated with Christmas. He is the guardian.
Three young girls are rescued from a life of prostitution in the more well-known version of the storey when young Bishop Nicholas secretly presents three bags of gold to their indebted father, which can be used for their dowries.
“The other storey isn’t as well-known today as it was in the Middle Ages,” Bowler said. Nicholas walked into an inn whose proprietor had just murdered three young boys and stored their dismembered bodies in basement barrels. Not only did the bishop detect the murder, but he also resurrected the victims. “This is one of the reasons he is known as the patron saint of children.”
St. Nicholas was the undisputed bringer of gifts and toast of festivities based around his feast day, December 6, for several hundred years, from around 1200 to 1500. The strict saint resembled earlier European deities such as the Roman Saturn or the Norse Odin, all of whom appeared as white-bearded men with supernatural abilities such as flight.
Saints like Nicholas, however, fell out of fashion in most of northern Europe after the Protestant Reformation began in the 1500s. “That was a challenge,” Bowler admitted. “You still love your children, but who will get them the presents now?”
Children and families in the Netherlands absolutely refused to give up St. Nicholas as a gift giver. They took Sinterklaas with them to the New World colonies, where the stories of the shaggy and frightening Germanic gift-givers persisted.
However, Christmas in early America was not at all like the current holiday. In New England, the holiday was frowned upon, and elsewhere, it had taken on the appearance of the pagan Saturnalia that had previously occupied its place on the calendar. “It was sort of like an outdoor, alcohol-fueled, rowdy neighbourhood blowout,” Bowler said.
A pipe-smoking Nicholas soaring over the rooftops in a flying carriage, carrying gifts to good girls and boys and switching to poor ones, was first depicted in Washington Irving’s 1809 book Knickerbocker’s History of New York.
The figure gave gifts to good girls and boys, but he also wore a birch rod, which “directs a Parent’s hand to use when virtue’s direction his sons reject,” according to the poem. Santa’s rickety waggon was pulled by a single reindeer, but both the driver and the squad would be overhauled the following year.
With no intention of contributing to the fledgling Santa Claus phenomenon, Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” best known today as “The Night Before Christmas,” for his six children in 1822. The following year, it was anonymously written, and the plump, jolly Santa portrayed therein still rides a sleigh drawn by eight familiar reindeer.
Bowler said, “It went viral.” Despite how well-known the poem is, it still leaves a lot to the imagination, and Santa appeared in a range of colours, sizes ranging from miniature to huge, and disguises in the nineteenth century. “I have a beautiful image of him riding a broomstick that looks just like George Washington,” Bowler said.
The picture of Santa as a full-size adult, dressed in red with white fur trim, venturing out from the North Pole in a reindeer-driven sleigh and keeping an eye on children’s activity didn’t become standardised until the late 19th century, he added.
Thomas Nast, the great political cartoonist in an age when there were many, formed the jolly, chubby, grandfatherly face of this Santa. “However, Nast did leave him half-sized, and in what I believe are very lewd long johns,” Bowler added.
After establishing himself in North America, Santa made a kind of reverse migration to Europe, replacing the scary gift bearers and adopting local names such as Père Noel (France) or Father Christmas (England) (Great Britain). “What he’s done is basically tame these late mediaeval Grimm’s Fairy Tales-type characters,” Bowler said.
Santa has definitely caused, and continues to cause, more than his fair share of controversy, despite his good intentions.
“Then, in the 1930s, when Stalin wanted to gain support, he allowed Grandfather Frost to reappear as a New Year’s gift giver, rather than a Christmas gift giver,” Bowler continued. Attempts to replace Christmas in Russia, as well as Soviet attempts to spread a secular version of Grandfather Frost throughout Europe, complete with a blue coat to prevent Santa confusion, were eventually ineffective.
“In places like Poland and Bulgaria, the Soviets tried to replace the native gift bringers wherever they went after WWII,” Bowler said. “However, until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, local people just kind of kept their noses and went back to their old ways.”
Santa Claus is still a highly politicised figure in many parts of the world. In the years after World War II, American troops distributed their version of the jolly man around the world, and he was widely welcomed as a sign of American generosity in restoring war-torn lands, according to Bowler.
Since Santa is not a local, he is often turned down. “There are very powerful anti-Santa movements in places like the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Austria, and Latin America because they are all trying to maintain their native Christmas gift givers and traditions and protect them from the North American Santa,” he said.