West Palm Beach, Florida, December 9, 2011–Although the roots of modern day Santa Claus go back to Saint Nicholas in the fourth century and the Norse god Odin, who had a long white beard and rode a flying eight-legged horse to deliver presents to children during the winter pagan holiday, America did not always have Santa Claus.
In the early United States, Protestants discouraged celebrating Saint Nicholas and certainly had no interest in perpetuating the Odin myth. Dutch immigrants to the US celebrated Sinterklaass at the time, a festival on December 6th, when Sinterklaas would visit houses with his sidekick, Grumpus, and punish bad children and give bags of gifts to good children. Sinterklaas was dressed as an elegant bishop during his visit.
In the 1800s, the United States continued to only flirt with the Christmas holiday and Santa Claus. Some religious groups argued that it was a sacred holiday which should be marked in church, and others believed that any observance at all was blasphemous.
Then a writer, an anonymous poet, a cartoonist, and an unwitting 8-year-old in the 1800s created and refined our current day Santa.
In the early 1800s, John Irving recognized that to make Christmas better, it needed a good story. His satirical novel, “Kinckerbocker’s History of New York,” spread the story of Sinterklaas, who he called by the English name St. Nicholas, and expanded it with new details.
He said that St. Nicholas flew through the air in a wagon filled with presents, delivering them to deserving children. His St. Nick also filled stockings hung by the chimney. In his story of Oloffe the dreamer, he tells of a dream where, “the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.”
Irving added to this story in 1820 with “The Sketch Book,” which included more Irving-made Christmas stories, inspired by English holiday traditions. In “The Stagecoach,” he writes about a holiday visit to an English family and describes the bountiful meal and the kindness and cheer of his hosts. He also talks about signing carols on the holiday. Irving’s story “Christmas Eve” explains the English tradition of hanging mistletoe, saying, “The mistletoe is still hung up in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases.”
While Irving set the stage for Christmas, and Santa Claus, it wasn’t until later in the 1800s that more details on the jolly gift-giver came to light. In 1823, the Troy New York Sentinel published an anonymous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known as “The Night Before Christmas.”
This provided details of Santa’s appearance and added reindeer to the sleigh Irving described. According to the poem, Santa is a plum, cheery man who flies on a present-laden sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. This Santa enters houses through the chimney to deliver presents to sleeping children.
Thomas Nast, a cartoonist with Harper’s Weekly, drew a series of 32 Santa cartoons between 1863 and 1886 based on “A Visit from St. Nicholas and his own ideas. Mr. Nast gave America the visualization of Santa that continues today. He also provided the new detail that Santa lives in the North Pole.
The final push for Santa came in 1897, when the New York Sun ran an editorial responding to a question from eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, asking if there was a Santa Clause. The amazing, poetic and emotional response from Francis Pharcellus Church solidified our Santa. As Church said, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus.”
Church could not be more right.
Read more by Lisa at Life with Lisa at The Washington Times Communities.
Lisa has an undergraduate degree in International Relations from George Mason University and a graduate degree in Foreign Affairs from The University of Virginia. She spent 11 years as an analyst with the federal government. She is part owner of a research and analysis company, C2 Research, LLC, which specializes in complex research and analysis. Lisa is also a freelance writer, contributing to Donne Tempo Magazine.
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