German Christmas Legend of Santa Claus
German Christmas Legend of Santa Claus
Today the celebration of Christmas includes a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments and lights, the gathering of loved ones, and of course, Santa Claus with lots of brightly wrapped gifts. The personification of Santa Claus is modernly known as a merry old fellow with a bushy white beard proceeded by seven reindeer. He is eagerly anticipated as a gift giver who deposits gifts under Christmas trees to children of all ages; and like all legends, the story of Santa Claus does have a grain of truth. Santa Claus was born "Nicholas" to Christian parents, in the third century (a time when Christians were persecuted by Rome) in a coastal town in western Turkey, which was part of the Roman Empire. He was known as a generous man, rumored to have given away his family inheritance to the poor. Being admired as a leader and an upright, moral man, Nicholas was appointed as Bishop of the church in that region at an unusually young age.
Today, we pay homage to Saint Nicholas by dressing "Santa Claus" in the red robes traditionally worn by bishops. Some hypothesize that it is due to his becoming a bishop in his youth that Nicholas had a heart for schoolchildren. Later, legend has it that Nicholas resurrected three children who had been killed by the town butcher. Another account tells the story of how he rescued three destitute girls from a life of slavery, as they could not afford dowries to find husbands. Nicholas was too shy to help them directly, and instead hid gifts of gold balls for them in stockings hung near the chimney and in their shoes. It was due to these and other tales that Nicholas became the patron saint of children and of Christmas.
How did the history of Nicholas of Myra transform itself into the person we now know as "Santa Claus"?
This red-coated, bushy bearded, jolly man with a laden sleigh and seven reindeer was the exaggeration of several imaginations. The modern "American" Santa Claus is most closely associated with a Germanic version of Saint Nicholas. While today Santa comes riding on a sleigh with seven reindeer, the original version has him arriving with gifts riding with a white horse and followed by "Black Peter" or Zwarte Piet, an impish "helper" who would punish children who were undeserving of gifts. Washington Irving helped "Americanize" Saint Nicholas with an early-fictionalized version of Santa Claus in, A History of New York. Irving intended to make fun of Europe’s Christmas traditions. Little did he know that he was inspiring the spirit of generosity in the American people. Irving depicted a Santa who rode in a sleigh above treetops, depositing gifts to the chimneys - he left "Zwarte Piet" out of the story, subsequent writers adapted Zwarte Piet and added elf helpers for Santa. Later, Clement Clarke Moore embellished on Irving’s "St. A. Claus" with the poem known today as The Night Before Christmas, he added the seven reindeer.
Ironically, both Irving and Moore differed from the Germanic version of Saint Nicholas, which had described Saint Nick as a tall willowy figure, but Moore described him as a short, elfish little man. In reality, Nicholas of Myra was barely five feet tall. How did the image of "Santa" as a rotund, big man, with the big smile and beard evolve? On advertisements from Coca-Cola, dating from the 1920’s attempted to make Coke soda into the new "holiday beverage" by displaying a Santa drinking cola on the covers of magazines and on billboards across the country. Regardless of which image of Santa you prescribe to, all agree that he is a generous giver of gifts to children of all ages Unlike the American version of "Saint Nick", Germany and the Netherlands’ Santa Claus does not visit children on the "night before Christmas" but rather gifts are given on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ feast day, a day that is also rumored to be his birthday. As Saint Nicholas is such a generous individual, he gives small gifts to others rather than receive them himself. Saint Nicholas’ feast day is celebrated on December 6th. These traditions have faded in recent years as marketing ploys have encouraged a shift in holidays from the feast day to Christmas day. Yet we continue to remember the original Saint Nicholas with ornaments, reminiscent of the gold balls, by hanging stockings near the chimney, and by setting food out for Santa to eat.