Monday, December 25, 2006

Remembering St. Nicholas & Wishing Everyone a Happy Holiday

A few days ago I blogged about the evils of Santa Claus. In my essay, he was basically Satan Claus, a combination of Adolph Hitler, Cruella DeVil, and the Gremlins. But the evolution of Santa Claus is actually pretty fascinating and offers some food for reflection. If I remember the unfolding of events correctly, it goes something like the following.

The inspiration of Claus comes from a 4th century Turkish Bishop, St. Nicholas. Nicholas was known for his generosity and as a saint came to be known as the protector of sea travelers. Legends developed in Europe about St. Nicholas bringing toys to children on his feast day, Dec. 6.

In time St. Nicholas was more popular with children than Jesus and there were more European churches named for Nicholas than were named for all the apostles combined. After the Protestant reformation, this "problem" was addressed in Germany by changing Santa to Kris Kringle who would bring toys on Jesus' feast day, Christmas. In England he came to be known as Father Christmas. In the Netherlands, he was Santa Claus.

In each manifestation the legend would expand. And so over time, Santa became a rewarder of the good, a watcher of children, a sort of magical elf, a driver of flying reindeer, etc. The Dutch brought Claus to America and in the 1800s and early 1900s poets and advertising agencies continued to expand the legend and make Santa a very American sort of character. Much of Santa's characteristics were outlined (and almost canonized) in the poem "The Night Before Christmas" and Rudolph was added to the story in 30's in an advertising campaign for Montgomery Ward.

The way Santa is used to promote commercialism and even deception continues to disturb me. But the history of a bishop who was so kind and generous that his spirit lives on in an ever evolving legend does offer a bit of inspiration. So, even if 21st century Santa gets on my nerves, 4th century Nicholas does remind me that humans are capable of great kindness and warmth and that does stir a bit of hope in me on Christmas Day.

Here's wishing every reader a Happy Holiday followed by a prosperous, healthy, and happy New Year.

No comments: