Monday, 6 December 2010

December - a time of gifts

 The Feast of St Nicholas (December 6th)

St. Nicholas, the Patron Saint of Children, is the cornerstone of the Santa Claus tradition. Nicholas, the Boy Bishop of Myra, was known for his kindness and generosity. Many  stories about him were woven around that theme. He is commemorated on December 6th - a date which is either his birthday or the day of his death, depending on which version of his story one reads.

In the 12th Century, French Nuns began to give gifts in the name of Saint Nicholas on 'St. Nicholas Eve' and St Nicholas became associated with the idea of a magical gift bringer.

In the 14th Century, St Nicholas' story became linked with that of the pagan god Odin (a magical old man with a white, flowing beard) who, on the night of the winter solstice, rode the skies on an eight legged horse and led away the souls of those who had died that year. St Nicholas slowly evolved as the all-knowing arbiter of children's behaviour throughout the year. Those who had been good, he rewarded with gifts, those who had been bad, with punishment from St Nicholas' 'helper'. 

At the Reformation in 16th–17th century Europe, many Protestants changed the gift bringer from St Nicholas (Sinterklaas) to the Christ Child or Christkindl (corrupted in English to Kris Kringle). Along with the change of persona, the day for gift giving was moved to Christmas Day.

In the 17th century Dutchmen emigrated to Northern America and took with them their tradition of Sinterklaas. In the new English speaking world the name changed to Santa Claus.

In 1930 a designer for the Coca-Cola Company was asked to draw attractive advertisements for the drink which did not sell well in wintertime. He was told to use the company colors of red and white. He remembered the Dutch Santa Claus with his white dress, red cloak, long white beard, kindness and benevolence. Along with the PR 'makeover', Odin's eight-legged flying horse was reprieved (replaced by eight flying reindeer). A punishing 'helper' was thought inappropriate to the advertising concept, so he disappeared.

No one is quite sure how or why St Nicholas became the symbol for generosity and kindness to all men. (In some countries, his feast day is still observed on 6th). St Nicholas/Santa Claus/Father Christmas is just one example of the melding of different traditions that form part of the modern Christian celebration at Christmas.