Santa Claus as we know him today may be a bit different than historical versions, but the sentiment is much the same as it was back in the third century. St. Nicholas was born in 280 A.D. in what would be modern-day Turkey, and was known for his kindness to others, giving away his inherited wealth to help the sick and poor. Such acts of generosity made him very much admired and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day was celebrated on December 6th, the day of his death, and by the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe.
St. Nicholas’ Dutch nickname was Sinter Klaas and eventually evolved into Santa Claus as we know him here in America today. But the 18th century inspired American Santa wasn’t the only St. Nicholas-like character to make an appearance at Christmastime.
Swiss and German children have been visited by Kris Kringle (Christkind), a sort-of angelic side-kick who assisted St. Nicholas on his Christmas journey. Jultomten, a Scandinavian elf, delivered his gifts in a goat-driven sleigh. Father Christmas takes care of English children, filling their stockings with treats, while Pere Noel prefers French children’s shoes to fill.
Babouschka, an aging Russian woman, gave the wrong directions to the wise men as they journeyed to Bethlehem. Unable to find Jesus, she felt remorse for what she had done but it was too late to undo the damage. It is said she still seeks forgiveness and annually visits Russian children on January 5th, leaving gifts at their beds while they sleep, hoping that one of them may be the baby Jesus. In Italy, it is La Befana, a kind witch who rides upon a broomstick to deliver toys to the children, whisking down chimneys much like our own jolly Saint Nick.
It was Clement Clarke Moore who wrote a poem for his three daughters called, An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas, known to us today as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. That was in 1822, and in 1881 a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast, drew inspiration from this poem to create the first version of how we think of Santa Claus today. This “right jolly old elf” appeared in Harper’s Weekly many times, complete with his suit of red, his workshop run by elves in the North Pole, and the Mrs. of course.
Another beloved character synonymous with Santa Claus is Rudolph, “the most famous reindeer of all.” But Rudolph was a late addition, over a hundred years later, to the traditional eight flying reindeer that pulled Santa’s sleigh around the world to make his deliveries. Robert L. May, a copywriter at Montgomery Ward, wrote the story-poem in 1939, telling children about young Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer.
The Christmas tree itself was a late arrival on the American scene, with a historyof its own. It wasn’t until Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were sketched with their family around a Christmas tree for the Illustrated London News in 1846 that it became fashionable to have a tree, both in England and in the US. By the 1890s its popularity grew, with families placing floor to ceiling trees in their homes, starting the American tradition.
Once electricity brought Christmas lights, trees popped up in town squares all across our country, with famous trees like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree dating back to the Depression Era, the tallest on record at 100 feet tall in 1948.
However you choose to celebrate, whether you’ve been naughty or nice, Wevorce wishes you peace and joy in the coming holiday season.