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So let's take a small break from all of the hustle and bustle and find out why this big guy we call Santa is such an important figure not only in the US but also worldwide.
Santa Claus hasn't always looked like the jolly old fellow we know today. Like so many other American traditions, he's a product of the great American melting pot - a blend of many different cultures and customs.
But the most influential figure in the shaping of today's generous as loving Santa Claus was a real man. St. Nicholas of Myra (now Turkey), a fourth century bishop. As a champion of children and the needy, he was legendary for his kindness and generosity.
GOODWILL AND FORTUNE
St, Nicholas' goodwill illustrated in two of the basic principles of the holiday spirit - giving to others and helping the less fortunate.
According to this legend, there were three Italian maidens whose families had fallen on hard times. Because their father could not afford the dowries necessary for them to marry, he was considering selling one of his daughters into slavery to get dowries for the other two. When the good saint heard of the family's plight, he went to their home late one night and anonymously tossed three bags of gold down the chimney. Miraculously, a bag fell into each of the sisters stockings, were hanging by the fire to dry. His kindhearted gift made it possible for all three sisters to marry.
SANTA IN THE OLD WORLD
After the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, people had become accustomed to the annual visit from their gift-giving saint and didn't want to forget the purpose of the holiday. So in some countries, the festivities of St. Nicholas' Day were merged with Christmas celebrations, and although the gift-bearer took on new, non-religious forms, he still reflected the saint’s generous spirit.
SANTA CLAUS IN AMERICA
Immigrants to the New World brought along their various beliefs when they crossed the Atlantic. The Scandinavians introduced gift-giving elves, the Germans brought not only their Belsnickle and Chistkindle but also their decorated trees and the Irish contributed the ancient Gaelic custom of placing a lighted candle in the window.
In the 1600's, the Dutch presented Sinterklaas (meaning St. Nicholas) to the colonies. In their excitement, many English-speaking children uttered the name so quickly that Sinterklaas sounded like Santy Claus. After years of mispronunciation, the name evolved into Santa Claus.
In 1808, American author Washington Irving created a new version of old St. Nick. This one rode over the treetops in a horse drawn wagon "dropping gifts down the chimneys of his favorites." In his satire, Diedrich Knickerbocker's History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, Irving described Santa as a jolly Dutchman who smoked a long stemmed clay pipe and wore baggy breeches and a broad brimmed hat. Also, the familiar phrase, "...laying his finger beside his nose...," first appeared in Irving's story.
Dr. Clement Clarke Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” used that phrase again in 1822 in the now-classic poem more commonly know as "The Night Before Christmas." His verse gave an Arctic flavor to Santa's image when he substituted eight tiny reindeer and a sleigh for Irving's horse and wagon. It is Moore's description of Santa that we most often think of today: "He had a broad face, and a little round belly, that shook, when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly."
Up to this point, Santa's physical appearance and the color of his suit were open to individual interpretation.
Then in 1863, Thomas Nast, a German immigrant, gave us a visual image of the cheerful giver that was to later become widely accepted. When Nast was asked to illustrate Moore's charming verse for a book of children's poems, he gave us a softer, kinder Santa who was still old but appeared less stern than the ecclesiastical St. Nicholas. He dressed his elfin figure in red and endowed him with human characteristics. Most important of all, Nast gave Santa a home at the North Pole. For twenty-three years, his annual drawings in Harpers Weekly magazine allowed Americans to peek into the magical world of Santa Claus and set the stage for the shaping of today's merry gentleman.
Artist Haddon Sundblom added the final touches to Santa's modern image. Beginning in 1931, his billboard and other advertisements for Coca Cola-Cola featured a portly, grandfatherly Santa with human proportions and a ruddy complexion. Sunblom's exuberant, twinkle-eyed Santa firmly fixed the gift-giver's image in the public mind.
St. Nicholas' evolution into today's happy, larger-than-life Santa Claus is a wonderful example of the blending of countless beliefs and practices from around the world. This benevolent figure encompasses all the goodness and innocence of childhood. And because goodness is his very essence, in every kindness we do, Santa will always be remembered.
Happy Holiday and Cheers!
-edited from "The History of Santa Claus" www.northpolesantaclaus.com