One of the most visible figures during the Christmas season is Santa Claus. During the holiday commercial establishments have personnel dressed up as Santa to enliven the spirit of the season and to help heighten business activities. In the west and in other regions of the world Santa is generally depicted as jolly, fat, white-bearded old man with red suits. He is also depicted as always on sleigh pulled by reindeers as he comes to homes via the chimney to deliver toys to the children.
It is said that the real Santa was the Greek bishop Nicholas of Myra who was born in third century in the village of Patara, now a part of the southern coast of Turkey. Nicholas, an only son, was raised in a rich family. At a young age his parents died because of an epidemic and he inherited their wealth. As a devoted Christian, Nicholas lived his life in accordance with the teachings of Christ. One of them was to share his material possessions to the poor. His love of the children, his generosity to the poor, and his help to the sick made him a true follower of Christ. He became a bishop at a very young age. During the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian the Christians were persecuted and their religious leaders were imprisoned. One of them was Bishop Nicholas of Myra. The situation of the Christians changed for the better when the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity. During his reign he gave the Christians freedom to exercise their religion. This development enabled Christianity to spread like wildfire throughout the ancient Roman Empire. However, the Christians were deeply divided on their doctrine so that in 325 AD Constantine had to call the bishops for a council in Nicea to discuss on the issue. Nicholas was one of the bishops in the attendance list.
Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD. His person and his good deeds were widely known throughout Christendom so that he was made as patron saint of people of different walks of life in many places, and many churches were named after him. Stories on his deeds abound. One of the most popular stories was on the three poor girls whom he saved from slavery. It was said that their father could not afford a dowry for their would-be husbands. During the time it was the father’s obligation to provide for the dowry so that he could get ideal husband for his daughter or else she would consign her life to being a slave. Out of nowhere, a sack with three gold bars was left in the house of the girls and their father was able to solve their problem. The sack of gold was attributed to Saint Nicholas who was said to have thrown it through the window and landed right in a wet stocking which was left hanging by the fire.
The Vikings who were sea-faring people made St. Nicholas as one their patron saints. They helped spread the saint’s stories to the lands that they went to such as Germany and Netherlands. The Dutch settlers in America started the tradition of associating Christmas with St. Nicholas whom they called “Sinter Klaas”. Overtime that name has evolved into what is now Santa Claus.
To counter the commercialized tradition of Saint Nicholas day which was on December 6, and to divert the focus of reverence to Christ rather than on Saint Nicholas on Christmas, Martin Luther came up with Kris Kringle. In that concept the giver of gifts to children is the child Christ who does it when they are asleep. And because of that situation they never know who the giver of the gift is.
Father Christmas who was also called “Old Man Winter” was a figure related to a traditional pagan celebration of the winter solstice that is assimilated to Christmas. He traveled from home to home and was given foods and drinks by the people. In return Father Christmas granted them blessings of a moderate winter.
The tradition on Santa Claus is a blend of religion, historical facts, myths and legends so that most people consider Santa Claus, Kris Kringle and Father Christmas as one and the same person. From the historical Saint Nicholas people derived the tradition of putting in toys in the stockings which are by the fire. From the Kris Kringle is the tradition of giving gifts to children when they are asleep so that they don’t know who the giver is. And from “Old Man Winter” is the legend that Santa Claus travels from house to house. In the Middle Ages St. Nicholas was typically depicted as a tall, thin and bearded Cleric. The fat and white bearded appearance of Santa Claus as he is depicted today is generally traced to a 19th century poem entitled “’Twas the Night before Christmas”.