The Bishop is in the house
I'm not a Bible-thumping kind of guy. But I do get a lot out of the church that I've been attending for a little over a year now. One of the staffers of the parish is a woman named Barbara who serves as director of religious education.
Earlier this month, Barbara had a great column in the parish bulletin about Santa Claus. I was hoping it would get posted to the web so that I could link to it on this blog, but it hasn't made it yet. It's so good that, rather than wait, I'm going to keyboard it all in myself just so that you can read it. Here goes:
At a time when the celebration of Christmas was entirely religious, children were told the Christ Child brought them gifts in celebration of His birthday. So where did Santa Claus come from? Well, he's a little bit bishop-saint, Father Christmas, Christmas Man, and the Norse mythological god, Thor.
The veneration of saints was abolished in most Protestant countries soon after the Reformation (1520's). Of course, also banned were the religious traditions that went along with these saints. Even St. Nicholas (celebrated since the 4th Century) was scratched. According to legend, Bishop Nicholas of Myra (Turkey) was very generous with his personal wealth. One story depicts him secretly placing small bags of money through a window so that the three daughters of a poorer family could afford the dowry to be married. Because of his concern and loving kindness toward children, he became the patron of children. As years passed, it became the custom for "St. Nicholas" to appear in his bishop's red robes and long white beard to question the young children about their behavior, encourage them to prepare for the coming of the Lord at Christmas (religious celebration only), and to give out simple gifts of candy, fruit or a toy. Sometimes this little visit was "secret" -- during the night, and shoes put out by the children were filled with gifts. On Dec. 6th our family still celebrates this custom, even though our daughters are in their twenties now. They make sure that their now-larger shoes (which of course hold more candy) are left on the bannister in our home for St. Nick.
Only the Dutch Protestants after the Reformation kept the ancient tradition of a visit from St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas). They brought this tradition and name to the American colonies and, as a matter of fact, their first church in New York City was named after St. Nicholas. When they lost control of their colony to the English, the English-speaking children envied the Dutch children's gifts from Sinter Klaas (which they pronounced "Santa Claus"). However, their parents, as you can well imagine, did not want to participate in a tradition which involved a Catholic saint -- especially a bishop.
So -- being very creative, as parents sometimes have to be -- the secret visit with gifts was transferred from the eve of Dec. 6th to Christmas Eve and absorbed into other Christmas festivities. The good saint was replaced, except for his name, by an entirely new character, which was a mixture of Father Christmas (England), Christmas Man (other European Protestant countries), the mythical god Thor (Scandinavian), and a little bit of St. Nicholas. The red and white robes could be either a little bit St. Nicholas or a little bit Thor, who hailed from the freezing north.
In 1809, Washington Irving (Knickerbockers History of New York) contributed to Santa's evolution by describing St. Nicholas as a heavy-set Dutchman, smoking a pipe, riding over rooftops in a wagon and dropping presents from his pockets down chimneys. In 1822, Clement Moore ('Twas the night before Christmas) expanded the image of St. Nicholas to "a jolly old elf." In the late 19th Century, cartoonists with their own renditions of "Santa" contributed to our current Santa. Thomas Nast, one of the cartoonists, put the final touches on Santa Claus by a series of drawings to help lighten the mood of people during the Civil War. The result of the cartoonists' efforts: (primarily using details from mythology about the Norse god Thor) elderly, jolly (even though he was the god of war), with white hair and beard, friend of the common people, living in the freezing northlands, traveling through the sky in a chariot pulled by goats, and as god of fire, partial to chimneys and fireplaces.
But -- Santa Claus still wears the red and white robes of a bishop!
(Thanks to Barbara Harrison and St. Philip Neri Parish.)