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Few things in this world capture the magic of childhood like Santa Claus. Nicknamed “Santa Claus”, he is the cheerful old elf who watches over the children throughout the year and, in return for good behavior, shower them with gifts on Christmas Eve. For most of us, this holiday tradition captivated our childhoods and nurtured a sense of youthful innocence like nothing else. One question that arises, however, is where this annual ritual takes root and how much has it changed to evolve into the holiday season tradition we know so well.
Long ago, in the 4th century AD, there was a renowned Christian bishop in the Roman Empire. His name was Saint Nicholas and he was famous for his generosity, including giving gifts to the poor, going so far as to give dowries to three impoverished girls so that they did not have to prostitute themselves.
A faithful Christian, Nicolas dedicated his life to God and did so from an early age. His exploits and deeds earned him a calendar day, Saint Nicholas Day, December 6. From the Middle Ages, it was said that children received a visit from Saint Nicholas and received gifts the day before his vacation. For many, St. Nicholas did not come into the house, but rather dropped toys into the fireplace. In the Netherlands, people called Saint Nicholas “Sinterklaas”.
In England, around the 16th century, there was a legendary donor called “Santa Claus”. He was said to be a tall, bearded man dressed in fur-lined green robes and personified the season with joy, peace, wine and celebration. Those familiar with “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens may note that the ghost in Christmas Present is modeled after Santa Claus.
In the 18th century, the tradition of giving an annual Christmas present began to gain popularity. European culture began to merge Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus into a single holiday figure that became known as Santa Claus, a phonetic deviation from “Sinterklaas”. He was first represented as a sturdy little man in a sailor’s outfit with a pipe between his teeth.
A more modern version of Santa Claus was born in 1823 in the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”, known today as “The Night Before Christmas”. In this poem, St. Nick is portrayed as a plump, chubby, and “cheerful old elf”. It was here that Santa Claus began to ride at night in a flying sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, their names being published for the first time. The poem made Santa Claus one of the most famous figures of the Christmas season, sparking many sketches and other works of art that depicted man. The most important drawing was made by cartoonist Thomas Nast, who not only provided a more modern version of Santa Claus, but also the story of Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus living in the North Pole.
As you know, there are several Christmas Eve rituals associated with Santa Claus, such as baking cookies and milk. In Britain and Australia it was common to leave out beer, sherry or chopped pies. In Scandinavian traditions, children often left rice porridge. In Ireland it was common to have milk and a plate of chopped pies.
In the 1930s, Santa Claus would undergo a modern makeover to resemble the figure we know so well today. He was adopted by The Coca-Cola Company as a holiday mascot. Further strengthening Santa’s association with charitable work, Salvation Army volunteers began dressing as Saint Nick and participated in a fundraising campaign for families in need, a campaign that still continues in the 21st century.
For most of history, it was presumed that Santa Claus made toys himself. At the beginning of the 20th century, an idea emerged that the elves made the toys in a workshop. Interestingly, elves have also evolved from DIY builders to assembly line workers in 21st century depictions in movies such as “Elf.”
There is no doubt that Santa Claus made some major changes throughout history. One thing that has always remained unchanged, however, is the innocence and generous nature that this centuries-old Christmas tradition represents. Today, in a world shaken by social unrest, old Saint-Nicolas remains a shining symbol of purity and generosity.
By the way, Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus will be at the museum on Thursday, December 2, as part of our Christmas Magic event. He will be available from 6.30pm to 8pm and accompanied by a photographer to capture precious moments with St. Nick and the kiddos who come to see him. This event is free and the public is welcome.
– Brian Haines is Executive Director of the McLeod County Historical Society and Museum, 380 School Road NW, Hutchinson. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and by appointment. Free entry. For more information, call the museum at 320-587-2109.