December packs a punch when it comes to the holiday spirit. Long before 25 December, people from all over the world celebrated the Feast of St Nicholas on 6 December, which is a commemoration of his death, by paying tribute to all the good he did in this community.
The celebrations continue as the festive season includes the important Jewish festival of lights on 12 December which marks the beginning of the 8-day long celebration of Hanukkah.
For the approximately one billion Christians in the world, however, the holiday season centres around the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Yet, the reality is despite these great historical figures people and celebrations of culture the most recognisable figure this time of year is a jolly man in a red suit who uses magical reindeer to deliver gifts around the world. How did the season morph from what it was to a pop culture spectacle?
Who is Saint Nicholas?
Nicholas was a monk who lived in and around 280AD. He was said to have donated all his worldly possessions to help the poor and disenfranchised in Patara, which is near to modern-day Turkey. His legendary acts included protecting children and acting as a sponsor of young women who were too down and out to have a dowry. Thanks to a life lived selflessly devoting himself to benefiting others ultimately earned him sainthood from the country.
While St Nick or Santa Claus gets depicted as a jolly elderly gent in a red suit today, it was not uncommon to see him drawn as an emaciated man in early renderings, a look believed to be drawn from the Nicholas of history.
From Saint Nick to Santa Claus
The legend of Saint Nicholas made inroads into American culture in the late 1700s when newspapers reported the gathering of Dutch families who celebrated the Feast of Sint Nikolaas in commemoration of the death of the Saint.
The shortened form of his name, Sinter Klaas is the one that stuck and became part of the language of the day as various groups began to look for something to celebrate as an alternative to New Year's Day. Religious groups were looking for something wholesome to celebrate that promoted family rather than drunken parties.
John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society distributed wood engraving depicting the warm family celebration of Feast of Sint Nikolaas. Pintard's push for the festival gave way to the public love for the jolly gift-giver Santa Clause.
Story books published between 1821 and 1823 turned this ministering Saint into a jolly sleigh riding, reindeer minding pipe-smoking elf that monitored the behaviour of little girls and boys all year round. Those who behaved well during the year received gifts of toys while those who did not would receive punishment.
The description penned in the poem that is now known as The Night Before Christmas that inspired the details which included the sack of toys, jolly demeanour, and white beard. It was this image that was further elaborated on through artistic interpretations that were eventually picked up by soft drink giants and the rest of the media.
The Move to the North Pole
The public’s imagination was stirred by reports of extensive Arctic exploration in the mid-1800s which led to illustrations by Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist who sent in a series of 33 drawings to Harper’s Weekly between 1863 and 1866. One of these illustrations was entitled Santa Clausville, NP, with NP used as the abbreviation for the North Pole.
The idea that Santa lives where it is cold seems to have originated from the reference to reindeer in the 1823 poem with the natural association extending to what Santa would wear and the environment where he would retire after a busy time of delivering toys.
For over 80 years from the time of The Night Before Christmas, the North Pole was an undiscovered territory which made it the perfect location for this fictitious character. Even though Robert Peary completed a voyage to the North Pole in 1909, this didn’t detract from the idea that it was the home of Santa Claus while modern-day movies have started incorporating a magical portal as the area becomes more and more well known.
Santa goes to Hollywood!
The classic 1970s Rankin/Bass animated special, 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town', starts with an orphaned baby who lands in Sombertown who is rejected by the ruling mayor and gets sent to live with Tanta Kringle, a local toymaker.
After being given the name Kris, the boy Santa Claus is adopted by the toymaker and learns the trade of making toys, which he then delivers on the sly and has adventures that lead him to grow old beside his one true love.
Every decade since then has seen the release of hallmark moments through the medium of film as Santa and his elves are made immortal through poignant and humorous storylines.
Christmas commercialisation dates to the 1840s when retail outlets could purchase ad space in Christmas specific newspaper supplements.
By 1841, children from all over Philadelphia were flocking to the stores for a glance at a life-sized model of Santa Claus which it did not take long for other shopping centres to notice the potential and follow suit.
The Salvation Army put those who needed work in Santa suits in 1890 to assist in the raising of funds for them to supply free meals to the less fortunate in the area. These Santa’s, who can be seen out and about today, waving their bell and accepting monetary donations in a bucket, are an excellent reminder of our point of focus during this season of giving.
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