Santa Claus: greatest transport operator of all?

Santa Claus: greatest transport operator of all?

‘Tis the season to be jolly! Retailers are certainly jolly – as goods fly off their shelves. And transport operators are jolly, as deliveries peak. However, there is one person who takes the cake when it comes to delivering goods in record time. We are, of course, referring to Father Christmas, or Santa Claus! But where did the legends and stories come from?

The idea of a jolly fat fellow driving a sleigh that is pulled by magic flying reindeer to deliver presents across the globe by sliding down chimneys sounds … well … utterly farfetched. Nevertheless, this legend has spread globally to the point where most everyone would recognise that red-suited and white bearded transport operator with his delightful disposition if they “spot” him.

However, as ludicrous as this may sound, the story of Santa Claus is based on factual history – well mostly.

His story can be traced back hundreds of years to a Bishop named Nicholas, believed to be born roundabout 280 AD in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and travelled the countrysise to help the poor and sickly. The Bishop was also credited for performing a number of miracles involving sailors and children.

After his death he earned the title of patron Saint for both groups (sailors and children) as well as for unmarried girls. One Nicholas story tells of the Saint saving three sisters from being sold into slavery and prostitution by their father by providing them with a dowry so that they could be married.

These good deeds and his sainthood secured Nicolas a feast day, which was celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6. However, at about the same time that Nicholas lived, Pope Julius the first decided to establish a date that Jesus’ birth could be celebrated each year. As the exact date that Jesus entered this world as a baby was unknown, the Pope decided on December 25 for the holiday.

Why this date you may wonder? Well, there had long been a pagan festival during the winter solstice, taking place this time of the year, and the Pope hoped that the new holiday would Christianise these celebrations. So he “launched” Christmas Day on December 25. But, before long, the two celebrations – old Saint Nick’s feast day and Christmas Day – became “joined at the hip”, so to speak.

As the popularity of Christmas Day grew around the world, so too did St Nick’s … As he was revered as the patron Saint of children the belief that he would visit homes on Christmas Eve arose, leading to the tradition of children leaving snacks around the house to welcome him.

But the legend of Father Christmas wasn’t without its hurdles. Things looked grim for him in the 16th century, as a reformation swooped over Europe and Nick’s popularity dropped in most Protestant countries. The one exception was Holland, where he was called Sinter Klaas.

It is believed that Dutch settlers brought the tradition of Sinter Klaas to North America when they immigrated to New Amsterdam, modern-day New York. As early as 1773 Nicolas’ name appeared in the American press as Saint A. Claus, but it was author Washington Irving who gave Americans their first detailed account of the Dutch Saint.

Irving included Old Nick in his comic History of New York City, which he wrote under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker in 1809. There had been a growing interest in Dutch customs following the Revolutionary War.

It is said that John Pintard, founder of the New York Historical Society, took keen interest in the legend, which resulted in the Society hosting its first Saint Nicholas anniversary dinner in 1810.

Artist Alexander Anderson was commissioned to draw an image of the saint for the dinner, where he still depicted Saint Nick as a religious figure. Anderson, however, used his creative licence and drew Nicolas depositing gifts in children’s stockings, which were hung by the fireplace to dry.

But arguably the biggest influence of Santa Claus image in the publics’ mind is the poem entitled A Visit from St. Nicholas (reprinted later under the more familiar title The Night Before Christmas), written by Clement Moore in 1822.

Moore, a professor of biblical languages at New York’s Episcopal Theological Seminary, was inspired by Pintard’s fascination in the early New Amsterdam traditions and added some elements from German and Norse legends.

In the poem, he depicts the Saint as a tiny man with a sleigh drawn by eight miniature reindeer. They fly him from house to house and, at each residence, he comes down the chimney to fill stockings hung by the fireplace with gifts.

This image of Santa Claus was further built on by illustrator Thomas Nast, who depicted a plump Santa for the Christmas issues of Harper’s magazine from the 1860s to the 1880s. Nast added in the details of Santa’s workshop in the North Pole and the jolly fellow’s list of naughty and nice children around the world.

During the 19th century Mr. Claus was often shown wearing different colour outfits, including purple, green, blue and red. But this slowly faded out. And, since the beginning of the 20th century, the standard image of Father Christmas has been a man in a red suit trimmed with white.

– May you all have a very merry Christmas! And to those of you whom don’t celebrate it; may you have a wonderful holiday, spend heaps of time with your family and friends and return invigorated in 2013. Information gained from various websites, most notably the-north-pole.com and unmuseum.org.

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