DAILY CATHOLIC CHRISTMAS-NEW YEAR'S ISSUE December 24, 1999 - January 2, 2000 vol. 10, no. 245
NEWS & VIEWS
WHO WAS SANTA CLAUS?
Fourth-Century Bishop Becomes "Right Jolly Old Elf"
ROME (ZENIT).- At Christmas children everywhere are eagerly awaiting their Christmas gifts. In most of the English-speaking world, these will be brought on Christmas Eve by a grandfatherly figure in a red suit and a penchant for milk and cookies. Yet "Santa Claus" comes from the Dutch "Sinter Klass," which in turn means "St. Nicholas."
Saint Nicholas, whose feast day is December 6, lived from 280-343. He was a priest and later the Bishop of Myra, in modern Turkey. Unfortunately for the historian, he has been such a popular saint that many legends have sprung up, and it is difficult to separate myth from reality.
The legends say that Nicholas was a very holy child, some going so far as to say that he refused his mother's milk on Fridays to keep the Church discipline of abstinence. Apparently he came from a rich family and was known for his generosity. He gave gifts to the peasants of Myra, trying to do so in secret by night, out of humility.
The most famous story about Nicholas comes from his time as a Bishop. It seems a poor man had no money to provide a dowry for his three daughters. Bishop Nicholas climbed onto the roof of the house and dropped three bags of gold down the chimney. These landed in the socks that were hanging by the fire to dry, explaining today's tradition of Christmas stockings. The three bags of gold, incidentally are the origin of the pawnbrokers' symbol of three golden balls, as St. Nicholas is also their patron saint.
While much of the foregoing is undoubtedly legendary, or at least embellished by the ages, it is a fact that in 303, the Roman Emporer Diocletian demanded that all the citizens of the empire worship him as a god. This order applied to the territories of Asia Minor as well. Many Christians were imprisoned or killed for their refusal to worship the emporer. When he too refused to submit, the Bishop was arrested and held in a small cell for more than 5 years.
In 313, Constantine came to power and Nicholas was released. Christianity was no longer oppressed, and Nicholas returned to serve Myra as Bishop. He remained in that post until his death, on December 6, 343.
His fame for sanctity spread rapidly, with the first churches in his name being built around 450. By 800, he was recognized as a saint in the Eastern Church, and by 1200, St. Nicholas' Day was celebrated in Paris. By the 1400s, St. Nicholas was the most popular religious figure, apart from Jesus and Mary, with more than 2,000 chapels built in his honor.
The Origin of Santa
When Dutch settlers came to New Amsterdam in the 1500s, they brought with them their tradition of St. Nicholas ("Sinter Klass"), and this tradition spread more generally, the name being converted in the process to Santa Claus.
The image of St. Nicholas gradually changed to that "right jolly old elf" described by Clement Clarke Moore in his "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known as " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas." He traded in his mitre and crozier to dress "all in fur, from his head to his foot." The illustrations for a series of advertisements for Coca-Cola gave Santa his current "look," whose red cap and suit are known the world over.
Still, behind the figure most embodying the commercial nature of
Christmas in the minds of the public, we find a humble and saintly
Bishop, and a clear Christian message for our times: the need for
generosity both towards our neighbors, and towards God.
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NEWS & VIEWS