Happy Feast Day of Saint Nicholas!

Thursday 6 December 2012

The Chrismologist's Advent Calendar - Day 6

Saint Nicholas Day, which is celebrated on 6 December (but on 19 December in most Orthodox countries), is a festival primarily for children. It occurs in many countries in Europe and relates to legends told of the saint, but particularly his reputation as a bringer of gifts.

Saint Nicholas is now better known as Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, of course. But have you heard these facts about the jolly fat man with the big sack before?
  • A Dutch tradition kept St. Nicholas' story alive in the form of Sinterklaas, a bishop who travelled from house to house to deliver treats to children on the night of 5 December. The first anglicising of the name to Santa Claus was in a story that appeared in a New York City newspaper in 1773.

  • Clement Moore's 1822 poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas was first published anonymously on 23 December 1823. The 56-line poem introduced and popularised many of Santa's defining characteristics, chiefly that he drove a sleigh guided by "eight tiny reindeer."

  • In 1890, Massachusetts businessman James Edgar became the first department store Santa. Edgar is credited with coming up with the idea of dressing up in a Santa Claus costume as a marketing tool. Children from all over the state dragged their parents to Edgar's small dry goods store in Brockton, and a tradition was born.

  • In his satiric 1809 book A History of New York, Washington Irving did away with the characterisation of Santa Claus as a "lanky bishop". Instead, Irving described Santa as a portly, bearded man who smokes a pipe. Irving's story also marked the first time Santa slid down the chimney.

  • The first mention of a spouse for Santa was in the 1849 short story A Christmas Legend by James Rees. Over the next several years, the idea of Mrs Claus found its way into several literary publications, but it wasn't until Katherine Lee Bates' widely-circulated 1889 poem Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride that Santa's wife was popularised.
"Goody" is short for "Goodwife," or "Mrs", but I always thought that Mrs Claus was called Mary... Mary Christmas... or was it Santa Barbara...?

If you have any more questions about Father Christmas and the Christmas traditions most associate with him, then you need to pick up a copy of What is Myrrh Anyway? Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas, published in the US as Christmas Miscellany.


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