Known as Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Saint Nick / Nicholas, Père Noel, Papa Noel, Babbo Natale, Weihnachtsmann, Christkind, and many other names, Santa has been around in various versions and various cultures for roughly 1,300 years, as a character associated with Christmas and gift-giving. As such, it would be impossible to pinpoint exactly when and where the original basis for the legends began. Saint Nicholas was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey). He became the patron saint of sailors, and so it is quite possible that his kindness to the poor inspired sea-faring men to spread the ideals of his charitable acts to other places. As time passed, facts gave way to tall tales and legends, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Christmas stockings have been around for centuries as well; the story goes that a widower with three daughters was worried about them being unable to marry as he had no money for their dowries. Nicholas heard of their plight and, knowing that the father would never accept charity, tossed three bags of gold in through an open window one night; the girls had hung their stockings by the fireplace to dry, and one of the bags landed in a stocking. How much of that is based on historical facts and how much is legend is a balance lost to time.
The modern-day image of Santa, with his rotund belly and his red coat, was popularized by Thomas Nast, an American illustrator for the Harper Weekly, in the 1860s. Nast, being a German immigrant, based his images on the German Weihnachtsmann and Sankt Nicholaus. Before his illustration, Father Christmas was portrayed as wearing any colour coat, from tan and fur-lined, to pink or purple, brown, grey, white, green or blue, and sometimes even red. [It is a myth that a 1933 Coca-Cola advertising campaign is to thank for a red-cloaked Santa.]
I could go on and on about the traditions associated with Christmas – the tree, the ornaments, the yule log, Santa’s helpers, reindeer (or was it a motorcycle, blimp or plane?) and other practices that are spread wherever Christmas is celebrated. It’s a holiday that’s been adopted in countries that have no Christian roots, such as Asian countries; there, it could be seen as an excuse for a holiday, or as a marketing ploy. And maybe that’s what it’s become for many people even in the West; but all of these traditions put people in a contemplative, forgiving, generous spirit, which is perhaps the most important aspect of the holiday.
Just as the nativity scene [please click on the link to read about Christmas from a Christian aspect] was a simplified version of the Gospel, created by St. Francis of Assissi to explain events to a largely illiterate population and to counter what he felt was a growing commercialism associated with the holiday (and that, back in 1223!), so it is that many traditions arise over the centuries, often a grain of truth with things then tacked on over the years and through cultural adaptations. Santa’s legend has grown into what we know today, likely not by leaps and bounds, but by a progressive adaptation to cultural times.
However you celebrate Christmas, whether you’re alone or with too many people for your liking, remember that all of us have the capacity to bless others; as the adage goes, it is more blessed to give than to receive. If you don’t have anyone in your life presently to give gifts to, remember, like Saint Nicholas, the poor and the needy. We can all make a difference, and who knows – maybe in a thousand years, your name will be mentioned alongside his.