Santa Claus and St. Nicholas continue to ignite the imaginations of children in December. Around the world in a history since 280 A.D., St. Nicholas has inspired the giving of food and presents. Stories of both Santa Claus and St. Nicholas have continued to be associated with both Christmas and Christianity. Santa Claus slowly evolved from an interesting thread woven throughout the world’s cultures.
The stories of Santa Claus developed both from poetry and other literary works. St. Nicholas was the true inspiration of Santa Claus and traditions that are sometimes thought to contradict the Christian values and beliefs behind Christmas.
The awe of snowflakes also contributed to this rich history. Names such as King Frost, Jack Frost, and Lord Snow had been used to explain winter weather. The beauty of a landscape freshly blanketed in white inspired the application of human characteristics to weather’s power.
The stories that inspired Santa Claus are based upon the sharing of blessings. St. Nicholas was a kind young bishop who loved children and was told to leave gifts of money, clothing, or food at windows of impoverished, sick and suffering children and their families.
St. Nicholas was said to wear a hooded robe in the night and carry a satchel of gifts to be left for the Greek people. When his wealthy parents died their son had held true to the Christian values they had taught him. He used his inheritance to spread good fortune and faith throughout the land.
Saint Nicholas is celebrated on the anniversary of his death in 343 A.D. with stockings hung to be filled the morning of Dec. 6. His story originated in the town of Patara, in what is now Turkey.
The story of St. Nicholas has survived the imprisonment of Christians and travels to distant lands. He was the patron saint of sailors and many others who helped to spread his December tradition. The story of his life, which gave rise to the story of Santa Claus, was written by a monk, repeated through poems, stories and songs, and largely spread by sailors and nuns.
Voyagers may have been most responsible for the spread of the St. Nicholas tradition around the world. Returning from a visit to the Holy Land, a severe storm threatened to destroy a ship on which he was a passenger. He prayed as soldiers observed in amazement the calming of the sea. Having returned safely, the soldiers credited him with helping to prevent the wreckage.
St. Nicholas eventually suffered for his beliefs. He and many Christians were persecuted and imprisoned by Diocletian, a Roman Emperor. When St. Nicholas died he was placed in a tomb over which a Basilica was built.
Stories of St. Nicholas were very popular in Europe. Many songs have been written about him as well as churches built to honor him. Stories, traditions, gift-giving, and togetherness are common to Christianity, St. Nicholas and Santa Claus.
St. Nicholas’s life has been honored by Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox. His long robe, satchel and Bible in hand has transformed into that of a heavy man with a white beard and hair, sack of toys, and a sleigh.
Long after St. Nicholas’s death, the belief of Vikings in the god Odin helped to provide some of the characteristics associated with Santa Claus. God Odin came to earth dressed in a cloak to sit and listen to his people. He was described as having a long white beard and hair. Odin was also believed to fly through the sky pulled by an eight legged white horse.
Santa Claus fully developed in the United States where he, just like St. Nicholas, gives gifts under the cover of nightfall. Parents who continue to encourage the belief in Santa Claus but give gifts in secret are doing justice to Christmas. The main difference between the two is an element of favoritism involved.
The true spirit of the Christmas holiday is that of selflessly given gifts. Spending time helping the poor and donating gifts to those less fortunate rather than just giving to family does excellent justice to all of these December traditions. The gift to man that was the life of Christ, remembrance of the devout Christian follower and patron St. Nicholas and the whimsical, cheery character of Santa Claus with his reindeer and elves all contribute to joyous celebrations around the world.
By Lara Stielow