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Just Who IS Santa Claus, Anyway?

by Dwayne Eutsey

According to an email I received from the Easton YMCA Tuesday, there will be an opportunity this Friday to indulge in some holiday cheer at the Y from 5 pm to 7 pm.

The event, free for members of the YMCA, will feature crafts, games, hot cocoa, cookies…and, of course, a chance to meet a jolly old man with a long white beard dressed all in red.

No, I don’t mean one of the members of ZZ Top pictured here. I’m talking about the Big Christmas Kahuna himself: Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, St. Nick, Father Christmas, or whatever alias he happens to be using at any given moment.

Santa is everywhere you look lately: holiday TV shows, commercials, movies, music…So pervasive is he in our collective unconsciousness that whenever we see him, no explanation is necessary. We all know he’s the guy who lives in the North Pole with elves and who zooms around the world in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer at the end of the every year. He leaves toys for all the good boys and girls and sticks and coal for the bad ones.

It’s a familiar story, but am I the only one who finds this Christmas myth a bit strange?

Even as a kid, when I eagerly looked forward to Santa’s arrival each year, I found it odd (and even a little creepy) that Santa knew EVERYTHING I did. He knew when I was sleeping, he knew when I was awake. Scarier still, he knew when I was good or bad, for heaven’s sake! As Christmas approached, I grew increasingly paranoid imagining this jelly-bellied guy sneaking around my window day and night, peeking in to see what I was up to.

Just who in the world was this guy, anyway?

The answer to that question depends on whether you’re referring to the religious saint or the secular icon.

According to the St. Nicholas Center, a website dedicated to promoting the history of the real Christian saint who inspired the Santa Claus legend:

“The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to ‘sell what you own and give the money to the poor,’ Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to the those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.”

The site says that the Saint’s feast day, December 6, was widely celebrated in Europe through gift-giving and doing acts of generosity to help “preserve a Christmas-Day focus on the Christ Child.”

http://www.stnicholascenter.org/Brix?pageID=38

The modern, secular image we have in America of the jolly, old chubby guy with a white beard developed from folk stories that immigrants from Holland and Germany in the 19th century told about St. Nicholas (or Sinterklaas in Holland, Kris Kringle in Germany).

The earliest instance of an American version of Santa Claus was apparently in 1841. Inspired by the stories he had heard among immigrants, a Philadelphia merchant named J.W. Parkinson hired someone to dress up as “Crisscringle” and invited parents to bring their children to his store a week before Christmas to see the magical character come down the chimney (and, no doubt, to entice parents into buying Parkinson’s merchandise).

It wasn’t until the Civil War tore American families apart, however, that Santa Claus captured the country’s popular imagination. In 1862, a caricaturist named Thomas Nast included his version of Santa in a widely known drawing he made to spiritually uplift Union Army troops and their families. Over the next few years, Nast went on to build the Santa myth by incorporating elves as Santa’s helpers and portraying Santa as a toy maker whose workshop was in the North Pole.

While Nast’s drawings helped to popularize Santa Claus, the standard image we have of him today didn’t emerge until the 1930s. Coca-Cola hired commercial illustrator Haddon Sundblom to help increase soft drink sales during the winter months. His marketing illustrations of a plump, bearded man clad in red and white (with a bottle of Coke in hand) established what we now commonly think of as Santa Claus.

So, that explains where this guy comes from. But there’s not much on him keeping tabs on whether we’re being naughty or nice.

I guess maybe he doesn’t do that anymore since it’s been taken over by Ho-Ho-Homeland Security.

(For more information on the YMCA event, contact Mary Tolley at mtolley@ymcachesapeake.org)

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