Long, long before Santa

Lubna Abdel-Aziz, Tuesday 3 Dec 2019


Come December, a warm glow of serenity prevails for a brief moment in time. A sense of peace descends on all mankind as we await the close of the year and the birth of a new one.

Once only a Christian holiday, its joyous spirit has with time extended to the four corners of the globe. Its message of peace and goodwill is human and touches every heart, regardless of faith, colour or creed.

Traditionally, the Western world adopted 25 December as the birthdate of Jesus, but there are several dates observed as no one is certain when Jesus was born. Christians in Egypt celebrate on 7 January, others 6 January, however 6 December is the true launching of Christmas.

Several Eastern Orthodox countries distribute gifts to the children and attend church services to commemorate the death of their patron saint on 6 December 342 AD.

Long before there ever was a Santa Claus, or even a Christmas, there was Saint Nicholas, who started this cherished tradition.

While the image is dissimilar to the Santa we created throughout the last few centuries, he remains the fact and the legend of the Christmas spirit.

Born to Christian parents, in the ancient southeastern town of Lycia, early in the fourth century, he was unusually pious, adopting a self-imposed fast every Wednesday and Friday. Upon the early death of his parents, he fully dedicated himself to his religion and entered a Lycian seminary.

Legend has it that as a boy he made a pilgrimage to Palestine and Egypt by boat. He is supposed to have extended his arms and calmed a violent sea that allowed them a safe journey. That was the first miracle of many more credited to him.

It was not long before the Church noticed his devotion and appointed him bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor at a young age. So kind and generous was he that converts to the Roman Catholic Church came by droves. That angered the despotic Roman emperor Gaius Diocletianus who was conducting a great Christian persecution at the time. Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured daily, mercilessly.

When Diocletianus abdicated, the new emperor Constantine freed the bishop and later he converted to Christianity.

Constantine convened the first Church Council at Nicaea in 325 and Saint Nicholas was invited to attend as a prominent member. He is believed to have died on 6 December 342.

Much of Europe still observes 6 December as a special holiday.

In Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium men in bishop’s robes pose as Saint Nicholas and distribute gifts to children.

He is the patron saint of Russia, Greece and Sicily as well as of travellers, bakers, merchants but most especially of children.

Saint Nicholas had a cascading white beard and made his rounds in full red and white bishop’s robes but instead of reindeer, he was accompanied by an “indolent donkey”.

The gifts he left by the hearth were fruits, nuts, hard candies, clay or wooden figurines, which delighted the children then but are probably disappointing by today’s standards. He does not come late in the night on Christmas Eve, but on his feast day, 6 December.

It is said that he left gold in the hanging stockings of the three daughters of a poor man who did not have dowries so they could get married.

The idea of gift-giving was inspired by this generous saint who was revered throughout the Middle Ages and well beyond.

During the Protestant Reformation Saint Nicholas was replaced by more secular figures in some countries, like Father Christmas or Papa Noel, so where did Santa Claus come from?

It was the Dutch who kept the tradition alive.

As the protector of sailors Saint Nicholas graced the prow of the first Dutch ship that landed in America, and they named the first church they built in New York City after him.

It took little time for the Americanisation of certain old world customs.

In 16th century Holland, Dutch children would place their wooden clogs by the hearth before the arrival of Saint Nicholas. They filled their clogs with straw so his tired old donkey would have a snack, after carrying all those gifts. In return Nicholas would insert a small treat into each clog. The clog became the stocking hung by the chimney by 1822.

Another Dutch contribution was the name “Sint Nikolass” which in the New World was abbreviated to “Sinterklass”.

When the Dutch lost control of New Amsterdam to the British in the 17th century, guess what happened to Sinterlkass. He was Anglicised to Santa Claus.

Much of today’s most recognised image in the world, that of Santa Claus, was changed, designed and refined to look like he does now.

In the US, Santa of course put on weight and grew a belly, while the original Saint Nicholas was tall, slender and elegant.

Several writers, poets and cartoonists contributed to Santa’s image throughout the years, making him the most famous, most generous, and most beloved person to children of all ages around the world.

How would Saint Nicholas react to this new impersonation? Only he could tell.

It would please him to know that he is by no means forgotten, that 6 December is the very special day for millions of children, that his generosity is the season’s greatest gift of giving.

Above all, if it were not for him, would there be a Santa Claus?

“No Santa Claus. Thank God he lives forever, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

 Francis P Church (1899-1906)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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