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~ ~ ~ The History of Santa Claus ~ ~ ~

Santa Claus , legendary bringer of gifts at Christmas . He is generally depicted as a fat, jolly man with a white beard, dressed in a red suit trimmed with white, and driving a sleigh full of toys drawn through the air by eight reindeer. Santa (also called Saint Nicholas and Saint Nick) is said to visit on Christmas Eve, entering houses through the chimney to leave presents under the Christmas tree and in the stockings of all good children. Although this familiar image of Santa Claus is a North American invention of the 19th century, it has ancient European roots and continues to influence the celebration of Christmas throughout the world.

Origins of the Legend ,The historical Saint Nicholas was venerated in early Christian legend for saving storm-tossed sailors, defending young children, and giving generous gifts to the poor. Although many of the stories about Saint Nicholas are of doubtful authenticity (for example, he is said to have delivered a bag of gold to a poor family by tossing it through a window), his legend spread throughout Europe, emphasizing his role as a traditional bringer of gifts. The Christian figure of Saint Nicholas replaced or incorporated various pagan gift-giving figures such as the Roman Befana and the Germanic Berchta and Knecht Ruprecht. The saint was called Sankt Nikolaus in Germany and Sanct Herr Nicholaas or Sinter Klaas in Holland.

In these countries Nicholas was sometimes said to ride through the sky on a horse. He was depicted wearing a bishop's robes and was said to be accompanied at times by Black Peter, an elf whose job was to whip the naughty children.}The feast day of Nicholas, when presents were received, was traditionally observed on December 6. After the Reformation, German Protestants encouraged veneration of the (Christ child) as a gift giver on his own feast day, December 25. When the Nicholas tradition prevailed, it became attached to Christmas itself. Because the saint's life is so unreliably documented, Pope Paul VI ordered the feast of Saint Nicholas dropped from the official Roman Catholic calendar in 1969. The term Christkindl evolved to Kriss Kringle, another nickname for Santa Claus. Various other European Christmas gift givers were more or less similar to Saint Nicholas: in France, Julenisse in Scandinavia, and Father Christmas in England.

American Origins. The American version of the Santa Claus figure received its inspiration and its name from the Dutch legend of Sinter Klaas, brought by settlers to New York in the 17th century. As early as 1773 the name appeared in the American press as St. A Claus, but it was the popular author Washington Irving who gave Americans their first detailed information about the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas. In his History of New York, published in 1809 under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, Irving described the arrival of the saint on horseback (unaccompanied by Black Peter) each Eve of Saint Nicholas. This Dutch-American Saint Nick achieved his fully Americanized form in 1823 in the poem A Visit From Saint Nicholasmore commonly known as The Night Before Christmas by writer Clement Clarke Moore . Moore included such details as the names of the reindeer; Santa Claus's laughs, winks, and nods; and the method by which Saint Nicholas, referred to as an elf, returns up the chimney. (Moore's phrase lays his finger aside of his nose was drawn directly from Irving's 1809 description.)

The American image of Santa Claus was further elaborated by illustrator Thomas Nast who depicted a rotund Santa for Christmas issues of Harper's magazine from the 1860s to the 1880s. Nast added such details as Santa's workshop at the North Pole and Santa's list of the good and bad children of the world. A human-sized version of Santa Claus, rather than the elf of Moore's poem, was depicted in a series of illustrations for Coca-Cola advertisements introduced in 1931. In modern versions of the Santa Claus legend, only his toy-shop workers are elves. Rudolph, the ninth reindeer, with a red and shiny nose, was invented in 1939 by an advertising writer for the Montgomery Ward Company.

Modern Influences. The fully detailed modern image of Santa Claus plays a part in Christmas celebrations around the world. People are reminded of Santa Claus through advertising, greeting cards, decorations, and the annual appearance of Santas in department stores and shopping malls (in some cases accompanied by Mrs. Claus and Santa's elves). The figure of Santa Claus occurs in motion pictures for example, Miracle on 34th Street 1947) and in songs such as Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, 1932) and Here Comes Santa Claus, 1947). Children write letters to Santa Claus and set out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve as a snack for Santa.

Although most adults view Santa as the embodiment of a spirit of giving, some argue that the modern image of Santa Claus conflicts with the true meaning of Christmas and promotes greed and commercialism. To reconcile the legend of Santa Claus with the religious significance of Christmas, some Christians emphasize that the modern figure is derived from legends about a saint who symbolized love, caring, and generosity. "Santa Claus," Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia. 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

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