After an absence of many weeks from my weekly coffee club in Atlanta, I threw open the door to welcome them for some Christmas cheer and to catch up on the news.  Two fellows, Jackson and Harry, had been added to the group making a total of six.  Jackson hails from Montgomery and Harry was born in New Orleans, so our group is larger but still true to our Southern heritage.

          After viewing my holiday decorating this year and sitting down for cranberry/walnut coffee cake and spiced cider, conversations began about Christmas and the myths, fables and stories of our growing up during the season.  When the conversations ensued, I shuffled through various Christmas books scattered about to retrieve one that should have all the answers to questions folks had about this most treasured holiday.

          As usual, the topic of Santa came up and I was ready for their questions, book in hand.  “Does anyone know just how long Santa Claus has been around and how did he get his start?” Jackson asked.  We all shared our theories and ideas but leave it to the “Bookman” to have the answer.  I told him, when I was around five or six, the first Santa I remember up close and personal was a figurine nestled in a bed of greenery on a desk at my aunt’s house and from that moment on I was mesmerized.  Today, this tiny reminder of my childhood maintains a place of honor in my living room where, many years later, he still holds a magical spell over me.

Opening a book of Christmas legends I gave the background of Santa to the group as they sipped their cider.

Santa Claus began life as Saint Nicholas.  After dedicating his life to the service of God, he became the Bishop of Myra in Asia Min0r in the fourth century. During a journey by sea to Palestine, he stilled a great storm, becoming known in southern Europe as the patron saint of sailors.

The story that provides the link between St. Nicholas and Santa Claus, the bearer of gifts to children, begins when St. Nicholas finds the dismembered bodies of three boys murdered by an innkeeper.  He puts the pieces back together and brings the children back to life, thereby becoming the patron saint of children.

When Dutch settlers arrived in America in the seventeenth century they introduced St. Nicholas as “San Nicholaas” or confusingly, “Sante Klaas” as a figure who came out of the sky on the night of December 5, dressed in red robes and riding a white horse, entering and leaving each house he visited through the chimney.  Children who left their shoes on the hearth woke to find them filled with cookies and candies.  Bad children received birch switches instead.

Over the years the legends and depictions of Santa Claus changed.  Washington Irving depicted his bringer of gifts as a figure who rode in a wagon, not on a horse.  Clement Clarke Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is credited with the concept of his coming to visit in a sleigh drawn by twelve reindeer.

A less appealing forbearer of Santa Claus was a German night visitor who was terrifying.  This mythical man was called “Pelznickel”, or “Fur Nicholas” or Nicholas dressed in furs.  In the far north he was called “Knecht Rupprecht” and was thought to be the servant or assistant of St. Nicholas.  Due to his looks he was a frightening figure.  He knew every child’s secrets, including instances of misbehavior and rewarded each child accordingly.  Stories of Pelznickel probably formed the idea that St. Nicholas doled out punishment as well as gifts.

In many European countries the equivalent to St. Nicholas was, and still is, called “Father Christmas”. This name is translated into the languages of various countries.  In France he is “Pere Noel”, in Sweden, “Jultomten”.

          In America, Santa Claus was described by poet Clement Clarke Moore and given his physical depiction by cartoonist Thomas Nast in drawings that appeared in an 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly.  Nast’s early versions suggest his figure was based on Pelznickel, but his later renditions portray him as a big, red faced, white bearded, jolly man dressed in red fur, sometimes smoking a pipe and wearing sprigs of holly or mistletoe on his hat.

          And thus, the metamorphosis of our American Santa Claus is complete with how we picture and conceive him.

          But still the question looms after hundreds of years and was put to the editor of the New York Sun in December of 1897 by Virginia O’Hanlon, if Santa Claus was real and not just something made up.  In his letter back to his young reader, the editor assured her: “Virginia, your little friends are wrong.  They have been affected by skepticism.  They only believe what they can see. They think nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds…..Not believe in Santa Claus?  Why you might as well not believe in fairies……No Santa Claus!  Thank God, he lives and he lives forever.  A thousand years from now Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

          This reminder of just how long St. Nicholas has been around and will be from hence forward brought a few tears to the crowd, mine included, as we told stories and tales of our experiences with Santa. Those in my living room that Tuesday reconfirmed their belief in Santa Claus with an addendum; once you pass the gates of childhood and become an adult, our relationship with Santa changes ever so subtly.  We don’t scurry in on Christmas morning to see what he left for us under the tree.  His gifts to us come in other ways, some big, some small, but nonetheless gifts from Santa all the same.  And they might not all come on December 25th; they might come at various times throughout the year, but make no mistake, they are STILL gifts from Santa which will continue to last us a lifetime.

          To enforce what I said to the fellows, I passed around my TWO letters from Santa, one dated December 1953, the other December 1996 and let the group read them to completely understand what Santa is all about.  The message in the ’53 letter was decidedly different than the letter from 1996, showing that as we age, our needs become different but still can by handled with ease by our jolly old friend in the red suit, white beard and sleigh with reindeer.  And if anyone needs verification of my belief in him, all they need do is visit my house at Christmas and they will see what strong faith I have he continues to live and will do so way after I am gone.  That is why that small figurine of Santa which means so much to me lo, after all these years, is still so important to me.  It was my first introduction to him and remains exactly how I still perceive him.

          It is my wish Santa will visit each of you this year and leave the gifts of peace, comfort and joy in every home.