HOW OLD IS SANTA?
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
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.
a book of Christmas legends I gave the background of Santa to the group as they
sipped their cider.
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.
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.
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
Children who left their shoes on the hearth woke to find them filled with
cookies and candies.
Bad children received birch switches instead.
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
less appealing forbearer of Santa Claus was a German night visitor who was
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.
many European countries the equivalent to St. Nicholas was, and still is, called
“Father Christmas”. This name is translated into the languages of various
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
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
It is my wish Santa will visit each of you this year and leave the gifts
of peace, comfort and joy in every home.