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The journey from being Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus was an evolutionary process that took sixteen centuries with additions from many customs and cultures. Clement Clark Moore’s Santa in ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas was not an established character. Moore created an entirely new character of Santa for his poem which was originally published in the Troy, New York Sentinel in 1823. Before this, Santa was a tall, thin man in a long red robe without a sleigh or reindeer.
The famous cartoonist, Thomas Nast, created the current image by a series of drawings published in Harper’s Weekly Magazine from 1863 to 1886. In the drawings Santa is a stout fellow in a sooty red suit with fur and, for the first time a white beard. He is pictured working in his toy shop with elves, driving a sleigh with reindeer and putting toys in stockings.
It all started with Saint Nicholas, a priest, born in Patara, Turkey in the 4th century A.D. The legend says that he was a generous, gift giving man who once threw three bags of gold through the window of an impoverished nobleman whose daughters needed dowries in order to marry.
Gift giving during mid winter celebrations was practiced in Rome before Christianity. After Christianity became established, St. Nicholas became the symbol of gift giving among Christians on the eve of December 5th his Feast Day on December 6th.
During the Reformation in the 1500s, the Protestants established a non-religious character for St. Nicholas. In England, he became Father Christmas, in France Pere Noel, and the Weihnachismann in Germany. People in the Netherlands were especially fond of St. Nicholas. The first Dutch settlers in America had his figure on the prow of their ship. They kept the custom of celebrating his feast day on December 6th. Children were told he had visited their homes on the eve of his day and left them gifts. In time, English settlers adopted the legends and festivities associated with St. Nicholas. English children pronounced the Dutch name for the Saint, “Sintereclass” as “Sinti Claus” and eventually as “Santa Claus”.
Until the 1800s, people pictured Santa Claus as a tall, thin man wearing a bishop’s robes and riding a white horse. In 1809, American author Washington Irving published “Knickerbocker’s History of New York” in which he presented a new version of Santa. He described him as a stout, jolly man, who wore a broad brimmed hat, huge breeches and smoked a long clay pipe. He rode over tree tops in a wagon and filled kid’s stockings with presents. Moore took it from there and created the Santa we all know and love. Other countries adopted the imagery.
Whether practiced on St. Nicholas Eve or Christmas Eve the action remains the same. No matter how the name is spelled or pronounced the dear old fellow is loved by children everywhere.
Now, I’d like to turn your attention to the other part of Christmas, to Him whose birthday is celebrated by many on December 25th. I have always thought the following one of the most beautiful pieces of writing ever and I wished the author were not unknown so I could thank him. I think of this as my Christmas card to all my dear friends, readers and family:
ONE SOLITARY LIFE
Here is a young man who was born in an obscure village, the son of a peasant woman. He was raised in another village working as a carpenter until the age of thirty when He became an itinerant preacher.
In all His life He never wrote a book. Held public office or attended a college. He had no home or family of His own. Large cities were unknown to Him and He was never more than 200 miles from the place of His birth. He did none of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself.
After three years as a preacher public opinion turned against him. His friends deserted him leaving Him to suffer the mockery of a trial at the hands of His enemies. He was sentenced to death and was nailed to a cross between two thieves. As He was dying his executioners gambled for his robe, His only possession on earth.
Twenty centuries have passed since His death and today He is a central figure of the human race and a leader of the column of progress. All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the kings that ever reigned and all the generations that ever ruled, combined, have not influenced the life of man upon this earth nearly as much as that one solitary life.
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