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The Myth and the Man: Santa Claus

December 21, 2016

With the holiday season in full swing and Christmas only a few days away, it seemed only fitting to talk about some of the traditions and legends that enhance this special time of year. This year we chose to talk about a man everyone knows, a man who, while some feel has taken away what the season represents, still brings a message all his own. It is a message that is special, loving, and above all, fun. Yes, we're going to talk about that jolly old elf we've all come to know as Santa Claus.

 

The history of Santa is one that stretches through the centuries and his legend is far reaching. The image we have etched in our minds of a rotund man dressed all in red and white fur, with dimpled cheeks, small spectacles that rest just at the tip of his nose, a long beard white as snow, flying around in a sleigh with eight magical reindeer, delivering gifts to all the children of the world in one night; well, unlike Santa's ability to deliver those presents in only one night, this image didn't just take shape in one fell swoop of a pen. This image formulated over centuries and we have two men from New York we can thank for the final development of Santa, but first, lets talk about Santa's earliest beginnings.

 

Norse myth tells us that after the end of the yule feast, children would fill boots with straw and place them next to their hearth. These boots were gifts for the God Odin's mighty white, 8-legged horse Sleipnir, and in exchange for these boots filled with straw, Odin would leave gifts. Sound just a tiny bit familiar? (Bare in mind, these are not the only traditions passed down from the Vikings. Christmas Trees, wreaths, and our "12 days of Christmas" also have very firm roots here!)

 

 Fast forward to sometime roughly in the 3rd century and you have St. Nicholas of Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. St. Nicholas was much admired for his piety and kindness, and he has become the subject of many legends. It was said that he had paid the dowry's of 3 poor girls to save them from slavery, and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. Even after the Protestant Reformation, when the veneration of saints began to be discouraged, St. Nicholas maintained a positive reputation, especially in Holland. His feast day is still celebrated on December 6th every year! 

 

Holland you say? Enter Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is a stately man, dressed in a long red cape, or chasuble,  over a traditional white bishop's alb and sometimes red stolal. He dons a red mitre and ruby ring, and holds a gold-coloured crosier, a long ceremonial shepherd's staff with a fancy curled top. Sinterklaas also rides a white horse, though 4-legged, a clear merging with Norse mythology. Sinterklaas also carries a big, red book, called The Book of Sinterklaas, in which is written whether each child has been good or naughty in the past year. Hmmm...familiar?

 

So what about 'our' Santa?  Our image of Santa Claus is all of these wrapped up into one, but our version was Americanized by two special men, both hailing from New York. They were Clement Moore, who brought us a beloved poem he wrote for his daughters in 1822 titled "A Visit from St. Nicholas", now more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas", and Thomas Nast, an illustrator for Harpars Weekly.

 

Moore gave us a Santa with a droll little mouth clenching firmly to a pipe, a fur coat and hat, and made him an elf. He also exchanged that white, 8-legged horse, for something a little less frightening, like 8 magical reindeer pulling a miniature sleigh. Thomas Nast, in 1862 transformed Santa into someone even more grand, someone taller, jollier. A man who lived at the North Pole commanding a tremendous task force of elves creating toys, the naughty and nice list, and a postal service that would deliver the letters children would come to write him.This would be Santa's final transformation and the one we have adopted and cherished ever since (though the addition of Rudolph came shortly after, but that's another story. :) )

 

The magic of Santa Claus, though he may have many nay-sayers, seems to be never-ending. He is well-rooted in history, commanding the holidays with love and kindness, showing us that anyone can be Santa.  His story lets us believe in something without total proof, allowing us to believe in things we can't see or touch. He sparks imagination and creativity. He embraces the mortal spirit of giving, compassion, and of human decency. He teaches us that there are things worthwhile that are bigger than ourselves. Santa shows us that it's possible to be more for those around us and we need only to open up ourselves; not gifts or cards, just our hearts and our minds. The impossibilities of Santa are not as impossible as we believe them to be, and I think, in today's world, that is a thought we should keep close to our hearts and do well to remember. 

 

We hope you all have a Happy Holiday and Merry Christmas! (And perhaps,

if you believe, you'll be lucky enough to hear the faint sound of sleigh bells jingling overhead as they pass softly over Borderland on Christmas Eve.)

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