Pardon the interruption while we jump into the story of Santa Claus, or more properly, Saint Nicholas. The American tradition of a bearded man in a red suit distributing gifts is a custom borrowed from the Feast of Saint Nicholas, celebrated since medieval times in the low countries of Belgium and Holland.
In these countries, the tradition was to exchange gifts not on the 25th of December, but three weeks before hand. Still in Advent, the feast of Saint Nicholas is celebrated on the anniversary of his natural death, traditionally dated to December 6, 352.
Nicholas was bishop of Myra. That ancient city is now Demre, on the southern coast of Turkey, 275 miles south east of Ephesus. Nicholas became an archibishop of Myra, and he was imprisoned during the persecutions of Diocletian. He was released after Constantine came to power.
Most of the traditions about his legendary generosity were handed down orally for centuries. Allegedly born into a wealthy family, Nicholas shared his wealth with those in need. Upon learning that a destitute man intended to sell his daughters as house slaves, Saint Nicholas threw a sack of gold coins through a window and into the man’s house in order to avert disaster. Saved from a horrific fate as a result of the charity of Nicholas, the daughters found husbands instead.
Nicholas the Archbishop is also said to have saved three men from being executed for crimes they did not commit. Upon hearing of the mens’ circumstances, Nicholas personally intervened and stayed the executioner from raising a sword against the three men.
Saint Nicholas is revered by Orthodox Christians throughout the Mediterranean and the east. He is the patron saint of Greece. Dozens of cathedrals and churches in Russia are dedicated to Nicholas. He is regarded as a protector of fisherman and sea-farers. Icons and paintings of him abound among the coastal towns of the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean.
When orthodox Asia Minor was over-run by invaders in 1087, Italian sea-farers from Bari took his body from its original burial place in southern Turkey and moved it to Bari, a city on Italy’s Adriatic coast. His body remains there to this day. Venerated not just by Italians, the Cathedral in which Saint Nicholas remains buried is visited by pilgrims from Greece, Russia and other parts of the Orthodox world.
Popular devotion to Saint Nicholas arose in two other countries heavily dependent on oceanic trade: the Netherlands and Belgium. He is the patron of the City of Amsterdam. Sadly, the original 14th century cathedral dedicated to Saint Nicholas in Amsterdam was taken over by the city during the Reformation. While it is now a museum, the Catholic church rebuilt another cathedral dedicated to him in the late 19th century.
The Sinter Claes tradition was brought to the Hudson Valley in New York in the 17th century by immigrants from the Netherlands. Parenthetically, “Klaas” and “Claus” are Dutch and Danish contractions for Nicholas. The tradition was likely also brought to Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Western New York by immigrants from the Alsace-Lorrain and Denmark.
In 1809, Washington Irving satirized the Sinter Claes tradition, deliberately changing the Dutch Sinter Claes to the more euphonic Santa Claus. It was Irving who also added the sleigh and the reindeer, with the overtly German-Dutch name “Rudolph,” to the St. Nicholas story. In 1823, the poet Clement Clarke Moore immortalized this Americanized version of Santa Claus when he published Twas The Night Before Christmas in a newspaper in Troy, New York.
By the mid 19th century, most Americans associated Santa Claus with exchanging gifts on Christmas day. Newspapers and popular writers rapidly embraced this ecumenical and pointedly non-religious symbol of the winter season. Any memory of the connection with the religious figure Saint Nicholas, or the Dutch origin of exchanging gifts on the 6th of December, was set aside.
During the Reformation, the celebration of the feast of Saint Nicholas, as a religious holiday, was suppressed in Germany and England. It survived in the Netherlands, as popular devotion to him was so great that the Calvinists were unable to stamp out the tradition, even among their own. In England, the term Father Christmas is used in connection with exchanging gifts on the 24th, usually Christmas eve. In France, the bringer of gifts for Christmas is Pere Noel. From Lutheran Germany we have the origin of the term Kris Kringle, a slightly comic corruption of Christ kind – the baby Jesus. Russia gives us Grandfather Frost, and the Finns have their own Santa Klaus, known as Joulopukki, or Yule Puck. Italy has also borrowed Babbo Natale (“Father Christmas”), a slightly less de-christianized figure than Santa, from Northern Europe.
Ironically, the Eastern Orthodox countries do not exchange gifts on the Feast of Saint Nicholas. Remember, that’s a Dutch tradition. Instead, the Orthodox exchange gifts on the Epiphany – the Feast of the Wise Men. In addition, Latin countries have less enthusiastically embraced the Santa tradition. Gift giving on Christmas is associated with the baby Jesus himself.