In many countries, Christmas is associated with a grandfatherly figure who is supposed to bring gifts to children and needy people. In the United States he is Santa Claus, in other countries Kris Kringle, Pere Noel or father Christmas. Most of these figures are believed to be associated with Saint Nicholas of Bari or Nicholas of Myra, known for his generosity.
Saint Nicholas was probably bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the 4th century. According to tradition, he traveled to Palestine and Egypt. He became bishop of Myra soon after returning to Lycia. He was imprisoned during the Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians but released under the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great and attended the first Council (325) of Nicaea. After his death he was buried in his church at Myra, and by the sixth century his shrine there had become well known. In 1087 Italian sailors or merchants stole his alleged remains from Myra and took them to Bari, Italy; this removal greatly increased the saint's popularity in Europe, and Bari became one of the most crowded of all pilgrimage centers. Nicholas' relics remain enshrined in the 11th-century basilica of San Nicola, Bari. Nicholas' reputation for generosity and kindness gave rise to legends of miracles he performed for the poor and unhappy. He was said to have given marriage dowries of gold to three girls whom poverty would otherwise have forced into lives of prostitution, and he restored to life three children who had been chopped up by a butcher and put in a brine tub.
In the Middle Ages, devotion to Nicholas extended to all parts of Europe. He became the patron saint of Russia and Greece; of charitable fraternities and guilds; of children, sailors, unmarried girls, merchants, and pawnbrokers; and of such cities as Fribourg, Switzerland and Moscow. Thousands of European churches were dedicated to him, and his traditional feast day was the occasion for the ceremonies of the Boy Bishop, a widespread European custom in which a boy was elected bishop and reigned until Holy Innocents' Day (December 28).
After the Reformation, Nicholas' cult disappeared in all the Protestant countries of Europe except Holland, where his legend persisted as Sinterklaas (a Dutch variant of the name Saint Nicholas). Dutch colonists took this tradition with them to New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the American colonies in the 17th century.
In the United States, Sinterklaas was adopted by the country's English-speaking majority under the name Santa Claus, and his legend of a kindly old man was united with old Nordic folktales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents. The resulting image of Santa Claus in the United States crystallized in the 19th century, and he has ever since remained the patron of the gift-giving festival of Christmas. Under various guises, Saint Nicholas became a similar benevolent, gift-giving figure in The Netherlands, Belgium, and other northern European countries. In the United Kingdom Santa Claus is known as Father Christmas.
The present Santa Claus story in the US derives from a poem, called " The Night Before Christmas" usually attributed to Dr. Clement Clarke Moore, It was later published anonymously in the Troy (New York) Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823. However, according to Don Foster in his book Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous, Moore could not have been the author. Foster concluded that the author was Major Henry Livingston Jr.
The American cartoonist Thomas Nast did a series of Christmas drawings for Harper's Weekly beginning in about 1860. It was where the today's much familiar fat and rosy cheeked Santa with large beard and ringing bell made his debut after being modified from fat, little elf-like creature depicted in the poem.
Santa Claus, The Night Before Christmas, Charles' Dickens Christmas Carol and popular literature are believed to have contributed greatly to making Christmas a very popular holiday in modern times.
In a classic reply to a reader's letter, the editor of New York Sun wrote to eight year old Virginia O' Hanlon, who had asked if there really was a Santa Claus: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."
'Twas the Night Before Christmas
or Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas
Variously attributed to Major Henry Livingston Jr. (1748-1828) and Clement Clarke Moore)
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below, When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick. More rapid than eagles his coursers they came, And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN! On, COMET! on CUPID! on, DONDER and BLITZEN! To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall! Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky, So up to the house-top the coursers they flew, With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
|And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes -- how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
Who wrote it?
Until recently it was believed that this ballad was written in 1822 for Clement Clarke Moore's two daughters, Margaret and Charity, and later anonymously published in the Troy [New York] Sentinel on December 23, 1823. But, according to University of Toronto English Library, in 2000, Don Foster, in his book Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (New York: Henry Holt, 2000) was able to demonstrate that Moore could not have been the author. Foster concluded that it was probably written by Major Henry Livingston Jr. For another analysis of the authorship see Christmas (Moore or Less?).
Visit A Mouse in Henry Livingston's House for a biography and an account of the quest to correct the authorship of this poem.
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