I recently received a letter postmarked ‘the North Pole’, and you can imagine my surprise; as usually I send letters to that address instead of receiving them. Fear shot through me as my trembling hand held the letter from the Jolly Old Elf, himself. Had I been so naughty that a personalized memo had been necessitated?
Finally, I could wait no longer and opened the neatly handwritten envelope. I was stunned by the contents: Santa had a conflict and wanted me to take his place for a few hours at an event in Toronto. Me, I thought? Why me? I know I have gained a few pounds over the years, but surely I am not plump? My hair is greying, but nowhere near white. It could only be one thing; my bubbling personality.
What would I tell people who asked pointed questions about my origin? What if they wanted to know my background? Sure, Santa has been around forever and lives at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus… I think. It was time to do a little research so as not to be caught without answers.
The entire tale started around 300 BCE when a young, privileged boy, Nicholas, was born in what is now Turkey. At an early age, his parents passed away during a plague, and Nicholas decided to follow a life of assisting the poor and needy. He gave all of his family's wealth to those in need, and when he was still quite young, he was made Bishop of Myra, the town where he lived.
Nicholas suffered for his faith under Roman rule, and was imprisoned. Finally, after a lengthy sentence, he was released and continued his work. When he died he was buried in the local church, and his remains mysteriously turned to manna, a substance known to have healing powers. Needless to say, people flocked from everywhere to visit the site, and have their ailments cured.
One story told of a poor man with three daughters, none of whom had a dowry. One night, as if by a miracle, three gold balls were tossed through the window and landed in the girls’ stockings, which were hung by the fireplace to dry. This miracle was attributed to St. Nicholas, and children began to hang stockings on their fireplaces in hopes of receiving gifts.
St. Nicholas is well known as a protector of children, a legend which dates back to the night of his death. Townsfolk were gathered around when a band of thieves attacked, looted the church and snatched a young boy to become a slave for their ruler. A year later, to the day, while people were celebrating the life of St. Nicholas, the young boy magically reappeared, unharmed.
Word spread quickly, as did stories of wonderful deeds attributed to the boy from Myra. When still alive, Nicholas had made a pilgrimage to the holy land. Upon return, a raging storm at sea was about to capsize the boat. Nicholas calmly knelt and began to pray, and miraculously the storm subsided. Now, sailors from everywhere pray to St. Nicholas for calm seas and safe voyages.
The tomb of St. Nicholas became a popular pilgrimage; however, people were concerned that its location would not be a safe travel destination. One night, a group of sailors crept into the church, uplifted the remains, and stealthily took them to the eastern coast of Italy, and the town of Bari. A cathedral was built around the relics, and today is considered the resting place of St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas’ feast day, December 6, was kept alive throughout Europe. In Germany and Poland, young boys dressed as bishops and begged alms for the poor. In the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, St. Nicholas arrives by steamship from Spain, and gallops through the villages on his white stallion, offering gifts for children who have been good. Dutch children leave hay and carrots in their shoes, hoping St. Nicholas will replace them with candy and initialed letters made of chocolate.
When the Europeans came to North America, they brought St. Nicholas and all their traditions with them. Christopher Columbus named a Haitian port after the saintly protector, on his first voyage to the New World. The Puritans and Pilgrims who followed, however, were not keen on celebrating the lives of saints, and the legend of St. Nicholas would have faded were it not for the Dutch, when they populated New Amsterdam. They kept the stories alive, and the legend quickly spread throughout the New World.
Unrest broke out when Puritans and Calvinists eliminated Christmas as a holy season. People began to riot and oppose the ‘ban’. Christmas of old was not the images of families gathered cozily around the hearth and tree, exchanging pretty gifts and singing. Rather, it was characterized by raucous, drunken mobs roaming streets, damaging property, threatening and frightening the upper classes.
All of this began to change as a new understanding of family life, and the place of children was emerging. Childhood was coming to be seen as a stage of life in which greater protection, sheltering, training and education were needed. The season came gradually to be tamed, turning toward shops and home. St. Nicholas, too, took on new attributes to fit the changing times. Instead of punishing bad children, he rewarded the good, and the tradition grew.
In 1821, a book entitled the children's friend, was published and referred to ‘Sante Claus’ as a saintly man who arrived by sleigh from the North Pole. The name came from a variation of the Dutch ‘Sinterklaas’, and the German ‘Sankt Niklaus’. The North Pole replaced the steamship, for the weather and geographic location of the New World made it easier for children to understand. The book also notably marked Santa’s arrival as Christmas Eve, not December 6.
The Jolly Old Elf received a big boost in 1823 when Clement Clark Moore wrote ‘The Night Before Christmas’. It was the first time graphic images were associated with Santa Claus, but it wasn't until 1931, when an artist named Haddon Sundblom, solidified the image in advertisements for Coca-Cola.
No matter the appearance, be it fat or thin, horse or reindeer, by sleigh or by steamboat, the tradition of Santa Claus and St. Nicholas is representative of kindness and goodness which is not always found among the hustle, bustle, technology, and materialism of today's world. When I fill in for Santa next week, I will attempt to spread a little harmony and happiness, and respect the age-old tradition, which should be so important to all of us. I would like to wish you all peace, joy, and a very happy Christmas.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. His show, ‘The Jonathan van Bilsen Show,’ on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube, features many of the people included in this column.