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EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT ST. NICHOLAS
The story of St. Nicholas begins around the year 270, in Patras in the province of Lycia. In that ancient city in Asia Minor, there lived two devout and prosperous Christians, Epiphanes and his wife Johane. In a miraculous answer to their prayers, the elderly and hitherto childless couple were granted a son, whom they named Nicholas ("victorious people"). This extraordinary child, it was told, stood up in the basin when he was given his first bath, and raised his arms as though in prayer. It was also said that little Nicholas refused his mother's milk on Wednesday and Friday evenings, times of the fast for early Christians.
When still a youth, Nicholas learned of three young sisters in his city whose father, having declined from wealth into direst poverty, could not afford to provide them with doweries. Lest the girls be forced into prostitution, Nicholas, under cover of darkness, left their father enough gold to enable them all to marry comfortably. According to one version of the story, Nicholas dropped three gold coins in at a window. The coins happened to fall into a stocking belonging to one of the girls, and thence originating our custom of hanging up a stocking on Christmas Eve. Nicholas' parents died when he was quiate young, and his uncle encouraged him to journey to the Holy Land. He traveled by grain ship, and during the voyage a great storm arose threatening the lives of the sailors and all others on board. Nicholas prayed fervently, the storm abated, and everyone was saved. For this act, Nicholas earned the gratitude not only of the sailors but also of the people of the town to which the ship was bound, who narrowly escaped starvation when the grain aboard the ship was saved. St. Nicholas' efforts were not forgotten, and he eventually became the patron saint of sailors, farmers, and bakers.
When he returned from the Holy Land, Nicholas chose to dwell in the city of Myra, only a few miles from his birthplace in Lycia. After he had resided there for some time in piety and humility, the bishop of that great city died. Now, the elders of the church, uncertain whom to choose as the new bishop, decided to leave the matter in the hands of God. And that night the eldest had a dream in which he was enjoined to appoint as the new bishop the first man to enter the church the following morning. Nicholas was accustomed to rise early for prayer, and when he appeared at church that morning at his usual time, he was astonished to find himself appointed the new bishop of Myra--the youngest bishop the church had yet had. The story of how St. Nichoas became the patron saint of children is a gruesome and fantasic one. On his travels, Nicholas stopped to pass the night at the care of the innkeeper. Since the land was undergoing severe famine, the cruel and inhuman innnkeeper, at a loss how to provide for his guests, went to the length of murdering the tree brothers, intending to serve them to his lodgers as food. Nicholas, realizing that something was sorely amiss, searched the inn and discovered the remains of the slaughtered boys. Praying, he made the sign of the cross over them and, miraculously, they rose up whole and restored to life--the most celebrated of all the miracles attributed to the saint. By the Renaissance he was often portrayed as a gray-beareded, benevolent-looking old man.
St, Nicholas became the patron saint of Russia when Duke Vladimir, having visited Constantinople in the year 987, returned with a wife, Princess Anna, adopted her religion as that of the Russian people, and brought back to Russia wonderful tales of the saint and a fine icon portait of him. Already by this time, St. Nicholas was being depicted as a majestic old man. In the middle ages, St. Nicholas was often portrayed as a bestower of gifts, anticipating an important social function of our modern Santa Claus. In the thirteenth century, the English represented him as riding a goat and bearing gifts of bread and wine.
In Germany, as elsewhere, Christian traditions regarding the saint were mingled with pagan folklore. An old woodcut from this region depicted him as an itinerant eccentric who traved on a donkey and carried strange gifts in his hat. The whip was a reminder that at certain times, St. Nicholas was assigned the role of chastiser of naughty children, as well as that of bestower of gifts upon good ones.
During the Protestant Reformation in Germany, the importnat part that had been played by the saint in Christmas-season festivities was severely criticized, and the bearer of gifts at Christmas became the Christchild (Christkindl, corrupted in English to "Kriss Kringle"). In later years the name Kriss Kringle became associated with Santa Claus, but at that time, oddly enough, Kriss Kringle was often symbolized by a fairy, a little girl, or as St. Lucy wearing a crown of candles. St. Nicholas himself was sometimes metamorphosed into a demonic blackamoor with horns, carrying a switch to whip naughty children.
Some of the most important traits of the Santa Claus we know, including his name, derive from the figure imported by the Dutch to America in the seventeenth century. (The old Dutch name for St. Nicholas, "Sint Niklass," and in early eighteenth century America. "Santa Claus".) One figure associated with Sinterklass in the seventeenth century, a blackmoor assistant, often depicted with switches for naughty children, has long since disappeared in America (though he survives in Holland), as have the saint's white horse and episcopal accoutrements. The full white beard and the sacks overflowing with gifts for children, however, have remained as attributes of Santa Claus.
In the eighteenth century, the Sante Klaas familiar to the children of New York became a Dutch-American "knickerbocker" figure, entirely divested of religious trappings. The following poem, The "Children's Friend", a tiny book published in New York in 1821 begins: "Old Santerclaus was much delight / His reindeer drives the frosty night / O'er chimney tops, and track of snow, / To bring his yearly gifts to you." A year later, Dr. Clement Clarke Moore wrote "A Visit form St. Nichoas ("Twas the Night Before Christmas"). It made its first appearance in book form in 1848 (it had been composed in 1822 and first appeared in print--anonymously-in the Troy, New York, Sentiniel on December 23, 1823). It was illustrated with seven wood engravings by T. C. Boyd, showing St. Nick still very much a Dutch-American, with knickers, a fur-trimmed frock coat with vest, a fur trapper's hat, hair tied in a queue, and a quaint old pipe. Also based on Dutch tradition is Santa's mode of entering a house-through a snow-covered chimney.
"The Night Before Christmas" (A Visit from St. Nicholas) was published in the "New Mirror" magazine in 1844. "Kriss Kringle's Christmas Tree" was an important American children's book published in 1845.
Just as the American Santa Claus derives from Dutch tradition, the English Santa--"Father Christmas" is, like the Christmas tree, fundamentally German in origin. Father Christmas was depicted with the characteristic crown of holly. The renowned and enormously influential political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was also responsible, more than any other artist, for the American visual conception of Santa Claus. An early Nast Santa, shown in patriotic garb, was entertaining the Union troops during the Civil War (at the request of President Abraham Lincoln) and published in Haper's Weekly, 1863. Nast even illustrated Santa (for his own children) dressed up in a tuxedo, full length white fur coat and top hat. In one illustration, Nast has Santa enjoying his ale and his pipe, and bears no traces to his saintly origins. Although dressed in brown, this Santa is otherwise much like the one we know today.
Based closely on "Father Christmas, Up-to-Date", John Tenniel's engraving of Santa is dressed in long red robe, trimmed in white fur, with a hood and holly around the crown. What makes this Santa up-to-date is that he is riding on top of a home-made car. This illustration was published December 26, 1896 in "Punch" an English publication. Tenniel's Father Christmas was for some thwenty-five years as much an English Christmas institution as Nast's Santa Claus was, in roughly the same time period, an American one.
Louis Prang, the man that introduced Christmas cards to the United States in 1875, also gave America the version of Santa Claus that was to become standard in the twentieth century. To Nast's jovical, white-bearded, fur-trimmed old man carrying a big cloth sack were added precisely the kind of belt, boots, cap and bright red cloth that are so familiar to us today. In the 1920's, when Madison Avenue had appripriate Santa as it own, it created for him a jovial, granmotherly feminine conterpart--a Mrs. Claus to supervise the elves at Santa's toy waorkshop. (Actually, a Mrs. Claus had appeared in an 1889 children's book.)
In the 1920's, The Coca-Cola Company began to adopt Santa Claus as a salesman for the idea that "thirst knows no season" and thus, that winter-time is as good a time as summer for drinking Coca-cola. Several artists tried their hand at illustrating Santa, but non quite captured his spirit until 1931 when American illustrator Haddon Sundblom put his brush to canvas and painted a new rendition. The "jolly old elf" must have liked what he saw because he came back year after year. Worldwide, the public embraced what they saw, and Haddon Sundblom's vision became everybody's vision. What started as an advertising campaign soon became a tradition.
Haddon Sundblom created hundreds of enduring advertising images for The Coca-Cola Company, but none has had the impact of his Santa Claus series. For over three decades, Sundblom's interpretaions became etched in the American mind as the definitive characterization of Santa Claus. Sundblom's original oil paintings represent a legacy that goes far beyond that of an influential advertising campaign.
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