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History Corner: Let’s See, What Holiday is it Now?

History Corner: Let’s See, What Holiday is it Now?

The turkey is almost finished except for a wing or two here and there.  The soup is all but gone and Friday has been “black” for a few weeks now with the ever so tempting low prices for things you don’t really need.  Santa Claus is offering his lap to the little ones who believe in him, asking for things the “real” Santa never thought to make in his workshop and snow is on the way. Now don’t go thinking I have lost my mind.  Didn’t YOU think there was a “real” Santa Claus?  Of course you did.  Religion has nothing to do with Santa Claus, he’s apart from all religions as an entity unto himself.

I don’t remember the day I found out that it was my mother and father who bought my presents. I guess youth just adjusts to what they already suspect and then just slide into the truth, the awful truth that there is NO Santa Claus.  But there was, wasn’t there?

With his red suit all in place, a hearty Ho, Ho, Ho and the help of eight reindeer, the image of hope and love flies through the sky delivering gifts and good cheer.  So who notices the label “Made in China?”  Kids watch TV with its hype and glitz and when “it” arrives, under the tree, that jolly red-suited man in the mall knew just what they wanted.  Yipes, how gullible can we be?  Well, gullible for a few years of faith didn’t seem to scar me into faithlessness.  I have just put my faith elsewhere with an adult spin.

Actually, dear readers, there WAS a St. Nicholas, a favorite in many lands, an actual person born in the 4th century in Lycia in Asia Minor.  He was born to parents of wealth and position and while in his teens became a priest and then a Bishop of Myra in Turkey.  He touched many lives through his courage and generosity.  Soon after his parents died, leaving him a vast fortune, he spent his legacy in charitable ways.  One of the more famous stories told is about three young daughters of an impoverished nobleman, unable to support them and give them a proper dowry.  The father had no choice but to sell them into slavery.  Hearing of this, Bishop Nicholas rode to their home and tossed a bag of gold through an open window, followed by two more on two consecutive days.  This is also interpreted as the bags landed in their stockings as they hung by the window to dry and another was the bags landed in their wooden shoes by the fire.

Not long after Nicholas’ generosity was discovered, he became known as the gift giver.  If you can find a pawnshop that knows of this story you will find the sign, over the door with gold balls to represent those gifts.  St. Nicholas became the patron saint for pawnshops.  Another tale of his work took place on a stormy night where a ship was being tossed about and Nicholas prayed for the seas to calm. And calm they did allowing the ship to return to port.  For this, St. Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors and in the 19th Century, there were more churches named for him than any other saint.

It is not quite clear when St. Nicholas became associated with our custom of Santa Claus and our present day customs, as he differs in many countries. In Europe, as a bearer of gifts, he wears bishop’s robes and is accompanied by a servant.  In Holland he rides a horse and at one point in history, the wooden shoes were left on the hearth, filled with hay and sugar for the horse and hope for candy and some shiny coins.  (You know, those candy coins wrapped in gold foil in a mesh bag)  and you thought some candy manufacturer came up with that one.  In Austria circa 1894, St. Nicholas wore a gold robe trimmed in fur carrying a backpack while in Czechoslovakia he was clad in a multi-colored Byzantine garment wearing a crown.

In Germany by 1901, his robe was red and trimmed in fur and at times a green robe symbolizing that evergreens possess magical powers.  Another figure would visit the children a few weeks before Christmas known as Belsnickle.  He held a switch in his hand to deal with those who were naughty and candy in his pocket for good little boys and girls.  This tradition came to America with the Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsche).  In many countries, December 6th is celebrated as St. Nicholas Day, celebrating the day he died, honoring the memory of a benevolent man but in New England, for the first two centuries of colonial settlement, most people did not celebrate Christmas to say nothing of being a religious symbol.  It was suppressed by the Puritans between 1659 and 1681, and was illegal to celebrate Christmas.  To do so resulted in a fine of 5 shillings, it being a criminal offense.  They believed that the day only resulted in public displays of excessive eating, drinking, mockery of authority and aggressive begging involving a threat of bodily harm!

There was a reason for this or so it seems.  In the northern agricultural societies, December marked the end of the growing season and celebrations involving recently fermented beer and spirits.   Other cultures have marked the season with light and greenery to help them plow through the dark days of December and the return of the sun.   Between 1500 and 1800 in Europe when meat became plentiful, reveling could easily become rowdiness and the season had become one of misrule.  Some carols were even sung with disparaging lyrics and in some cases requiring the house owner to provide pear wine lest he receive a few rocks through his windows.

Eventually the war on Christmas subsided in New England as more and more people embraced the feeling of hearth and home, sugar plums and being snug in their bed. It was Clement Moore who penned his poem of the “little old driver, so lively and quick.”  It was in 1823 that his poem entitled “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was anonymously written to help quell the antagonism and the pervasive anger associated with Christmas with its 17th century origins.  By 1842 Santa appeared, as he is today, stout, bearded, smiling with a red suit and white fur trim with a bag full of toys for all the good girls and boys.  Did any of you get a lump of coal from Santa when you were naughty?

Christmas for children is Santa Claus, reindeer and elves. (I don’t like the elf on the shelf though). Thomas Nast’s caricatures are often seen in today’s advertising which helps to standardize todays Santa. What is a cherished holiday for some is a history lesson for others, “I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight, Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night.”


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