Posted by: jefriesen | December 23, 2010

Will the Real St. Nick Please Stand Up?

I’ve recently become an expert on the search for the ‘real meaning of Christmas.’ This is a result not of years of theological training, but from watching approximately 234 1/3 sappy movies on the Hallmark channel describing the search for said meaning of Christmas, along with three different renditions of Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol.” These, along with the merciless Christmas ads that now begin sometime in May, can leave us with many questions about how Christmas came to be this way. Part of the answer is that what we celebrate collectively as “Christmas” is a conflation of many different cultural celebrations, from many different countries and from various religious traditions. So where did these traditions come from? Who is the real Santa Claus?

Many elements of our Christmas celebration, such as mistletoe and holly, have roots in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. According to Norse mythology, mistletoe was connected with the goddess Frigga, whose son, Baldur was killed by an arrow tipped with mistletoe. Afterwards, Frigga declared that mistletoe should only bring love and peace, and thus kissing underneath the mistletoe came to be a symbol of both.

The Christmas tree first became popular in 16th century Germany. Evergreen boughs had long been used as winter solstice decorations, because they remain green all winter. However, Martin Luther encouraged the use of trees as Christmas decorations, describing the tree as a symbol of the trees in the garden of Eden. The trees were decorated with apples (symbolic of the fruit of the tree in Eden), nuts and paper flowers of all colors. According to legend, Martin Luther was also the first to decorate a fir tree with candles, as they reminded him of the stars shining through the evergreen boughs outdoors.

But what about Santa Claus himself? To be sure, the Saint Nicholas of history bears little resemblance to the man described by Clement Clark Moore as a “jolly old elf” in the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” In fact, so many legends related to Saint Nicholas have arisen that it is difficult to discern truth from error. What we do know is this: Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, a seaport located on the southern shores of modern day Turkey. He was born around the year 280 AD and died on December 6th, 343 AD. By many accounts, he was the heir to a large fortune, but decided to follow the teaching of Christ in giving his wealth to the poor and enter into a life of ministry. He was, by all accounts, a man of piety and generosity.

From here, the history becomes fuzzy. Legend has it that Nicholas heard of a poor man who had three daughters and no way to provide a dowry so that they could be married. Nicholas decided to help the poor man by tossing a bag of gold coins through his window by night, providing a dowry for the man’s oldest daughter. When it came time for the other daughters to be married, Nicholas repeated the gift. Some accounts say that Nicholas dropped the bags of coins through the chimney, and that they landed in the girls’ stockings that had been hung to dry over the fireplace, giving rise to the tradition of hanging stockings above the fireplace on Christmas eve.

Through the years, various miracles were attributed to Nicholas and he was widely revered as a “Saint.” In Italy, he became the patron saint of sailors; in France, the patron saint of lawyers (a group that needs a patron saint); in Russia, Nicholas became a prominent Saint, often depicted wearing a red cape and bishop’s mitre. In the Netherlands, the name “Saint Nicholas” was shortened to Sinterklaas. On December 5th, the eve of his feast day, boys and girls would set their shoes outside. Sometime after the sun set, Sinterklaas would come through town putting gifts in the children’s shoes. In Germany Saint Nicholas, called “Father Christmas,” would do the same, rewarding children with gifts in their shoes on the eve of December 6th If they had been good during the year. If not, they awoke to a pine bough stuck in their shoe instead.

During the middle of the 19th century, these traditions coalesced in America, the great melting pot. The feast of Saint Nicholas was combined with the church’s celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25th. The representation of the historical Saint Nicholas was replaced with Moore’s depiction of a chubby man wearing the red of Russia’s saint, but now a suit, instead of merely a cape. He traveled from house to house on Christmas eve, distributing gifts down chimneys.

The modern image of Santa Claus was made complete in the 20th century, coincidentally enough, by advertising: first with Coca-Cola’s 1931 Christmas ad campaign that gave him the now familiar look and followed by the modern legend of Rudolph the Red-nosed reindeer, which began as a Christmas advertising campaign for Montgomery Ward. The rest, as they say, is history – or not. And as far as the real meaning of Christmas? Stay tuned.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: