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Soul FriendsBack to Soul Friends

Here Comes Santa Claus!

Posted by Billy Pilgrim on December 21, 2011, 8:36 am


The Saint Nicholas that Clement Clarke Moore introduced to the world in his 1822 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (aka “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) is a far cry from the Catholic bishop who was still (mysteriously) visiting Calvinist Holland and a very long way, indeed, from the fourth century wonder-working saint from Turkey. Moore’s “right jolly old elf,” who flew over the rooftops of old New York in a “miniature sleigh,” pulled by “eight tiny reindeer” is a supernatural being with very little resemblance to a traditional Christian saint, although he is clearly identified as “Saint Nicholas,” or, simply, “Saint Nick,” several times in the poem. And the father of the house, awakened by the clatter on the snowy lawn, recognized “in a moment” that the jolly, fur-clad little man with his snow-white beard, a “nose like a cherry,” and a belly that “shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly” was Saint Nicholas, bringing gifts for the children.

It’s hard to say exactly where some of Moore’s Saint Nicholas imagery comes from. Scholars of folklore believe that much of it comes directly from the various pre- or non-Christian beings that had long been attached to the Saint Nicholas figures of northern Europe. Moore was, after all, a scholar of ancient languages and lore. The poet’s Saint Nicholas is obviously not a human holy man, but instead resembles a whole tribe of Germanic and Scandinavian trolls and their kin associated with mid-winter festivities, the family hearth, and what we might call “earth magic.” With the poem’s magical flying reindeer (these seem to be completely his own invention) and a laughter-prone little man who comes down the chimney dressed all in fur distributing gifts, Professor Moore of General Theological Seminary had wandered far afield from the traditional images of a Christian Christmas! Despite still calling him a saint, and having transferred Saint Nicholas’s visit from December 5 to Christmas Eve itself (which probably reflects changing customs in Dutch-American homes), Moore, a bishop’s son and prominent Episcopal churchman, makes no reference at all to the birth of Jesus Christ or what is often referred to as the “real” meaning of Christmas. Despite this, Moore’s Saint Nicholas, although much-transformed, was still very much the kindly December gift-giver and friend to children he had been for centuries.

Children’s books, Sunday school publications, newspapers, and magazines spread--and then elaborated on--the legend of the Dutch Sinterklaas (his name now Americanized as Santa Claus) to an enthusiastic American public. Along with the Christmas tree, first introduced to America by German immigrants at about the same time, Santa Claus was quickly becoming an essential part of mid-19th-century Christmas celebrations. Clement Moore’s “right jolly old elf” was most often portrayed in the illustrations of the period—a fat, little gnome-like old man smoking a clay pipe and carrying a bag full of toys. The details of his costume varied considerably according to the imagination of the artist portraying him. Sometimes Santa Claus wore a fur-trimmed cloak with a hood, like many of old Europe’s Saint Nicholas-related figures. He could be dressed in green or brown just as often as he was dressed in red. Sometimes he wore a little fur cap festooned with holly. But Santa was always dressed for cold December weather and he was definitely no longer clad in the vestments of a medieval Catholic bishop.

It was another New Yorker, the German-born illustrator Thomas Nast (1840-1902) who created the image of a Santa Claus that is almost, but not quite, our modern one. Over the years, Nast drew Santa Claus literally hundreds of times—in settings as varied as lonely Civil War military encampments, children’s Christmas parties, and in his ice-bound palace at the North Pole. His illustrations appeared on magazine covers, in newspapers, and in books. Over the decades, Nast’s portrayal of Santa Claus evolved into full human size and his immensely popular illustrations showed Santa climbing around on snow-covered roofs, driving a team of full-sized reindeer through the sky, and using a magic telescope to observe children’s behavior--which he kept track of in a great, big book. Nast was incredibly influential in helping to create the Victorian Santa Claus that Americans came to know and love so well.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Santa Claus was as American as apple pie and a symbol of the middle-class culture to which millions of immigrants aspired. Just about every American child knew then, as they still know, that Santa lives at the North Pole, wears a red, fur-trimmed suit, keeps track of who’s naughty and nice, and flies through the air on a sleigh pulled by reindeer delivering gifts to good boys and girls (who should be fast asleep) on Christmas Eve. The Santa Claus that our great-grandparents knew oversaw an increasingly child-centered and family-oriented Christmas. And the simple gifts he brought—an orange, a candy cane, a doll, a watercolor set—were still small enough to fit into a child’s stocking.

One of the most powerful myths of the modern world was becoming well established. Instead, of seeing this myth as an alternative to the story that took place at Bethlehem, we might think of Santa Claus as a powerful ambassador for that most ancient Christmas message, with a unique ability to carry it beyond the Christian church and into the ordinary world, into places that might not otherwise have welcomed it.
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