|Merry Old Santa Claus by Thomas Nast|
Santa Claus is thought of mainly as a jolly old man in a red suit. Santa Claus, also known as Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, or simply Santa, brings gifts to well-behaved boys and girls on Christmas Eve. When good children awake during the early morning hours of Christmas Day, they find his handy work under their tree. We all know this to be true. We simply do.
Anyone who says this is not what happens during that night is positively un-American.
Being part of our thinking is what Santa is all about. Being good should be rewarded. That's the American way. To think that Santa, or anyone else as far as that goes, would reward bad behavior goes against who we are as a people. It goes against our culture.
We are brought up understanding that cheating is not okay, that stealing is not right, that burning and looting is something that criminals do. We are brought up to understand that condoning bias is wrong, that judges and umpires and historians not being impartial is unacceptable, and that we must condemn such things because we know that bad behavior should not be rewarded. We know Santa does not reward bad conduct. We know we shouldn't. We learn this as kids. We learn this as part of our foundation of what makes us who we are.
Santa teaches us what kindness looks like in the faces of the children who go to see him. Santa speaks to our hearts, not about being stern or unforgiving, but about love and goodness. He does so by being giving. He does so by being understanding. He does so by being who many of us wish we could be more of -- someone who sees the world as a good place where the good are rewarded while the bad get coal in their stockings. This is pure Americanism. It goes to the heart of who we are and why the wrongs in the world bother us deeply.
Why do I keep saying this has to do with our being Americans? Well, it does. And frankly, the world understands that's true.
The legend of Santa Claus is said to have started many hundreds of years ago during the 3rd Century when a kind monk named St. Nicholas gave away the wealth that he inherited. Besides his generosity, he is said to have traveled the countryside helping the poor and comforting the sick. He did so not out of some sort of guilt, as many today what to paint good deeds, but simply because it was morally good to do.
Whether some understand it or not, doing something good with no strings attached makes people feel good. What's the profit in it? The profit is the good feeling one gets from doing a selfless act. That's what Santa teaches us. We can give without expecting anything in return other than a feeling that we did something good. That's what this time of year is all about.
All of this became part of our uniquely American way of thinking almost 200 years ago.
Over the course of European history, Santa's popularity spread. And frankly, by the Renaissance period, St. Nicholas is said to have been the most popular saint in all of Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, when looking up to Saints was discouraged, St. Nicholas was still held in high esteem. And really, it was for a good reason. St. Nick was loved because he showed love.
Are you still wondering where America comes in on all of this? Well, here you go. Santa, as St. Nicholas, became part of our American culture towards the end of the 1700s. In fact, it was in December of 1773 and 1774, a couple of years before we declared our independence from England, that a New York newspaper reported how Dutch families living there had gathered together to honor and recognize the anniversary of the death of that kind monk named St. Nicholas. That day is December 6th. We get the name Santa Claus from the Dutch nickname for Sint Nikolaas, Dutch for Saint Nicholas, that being Sinter Klaas.
In 1804, the New York Historical Society distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas at their annual meeting. Those engravings were of the now-familiar Santa that we know and love. Of course, the other piece to that story has to do with what else was in those engravings. The images included Santa filling stockings with toys and fruit. They were hung over a fireplace. See where this is going?
In 1809, Washington Irving helped to popularize Santa through stories. But really, Santa was not cemented in the American consciousness until 1822 when Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a Christmas poem for his three daughters. That long Christmas poem was entitled "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas." It was printed and reprinted repeatedly over the years with a title that it became more popularly known as "Twas The Night Before Christmas."
Rev. Moore's poem is responsible for our modern image of Santa Claus. He is the reason we see Santa as a "right jolly old elf" who has the incredible ability to do what he does. From coming down a chimney to making his Christmas Eve journey all in a single night, we can thank Rev. Moore for telling us about him. Rev. Moore's account in that poem created an American icon.In 1881, a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast, who is also known to have drawn the political donkey too stubborn to do what's right as the mascot for the Democratic Party, drew a Santa going along with the description in Rev. Moore's poem.