Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Would the real Santa please stand up
Santa Clause in one form or other is a familiar figure to people all over the world, but the weight advantaged, red suited, old man variety is of comparative recent origin. Giving gifts during the festive season however is an old and treasured custom. Modern Santa is a mixture of many historical and cultural traditions and prior to the 20th century was often depicted as either a tall gaunt man or spooky-looking elf. Often he donned a bishop's robe and a Norse huntsman's animal skin.
St Nicholas of Myria
The most ancient Santa was St Nicholas of Myria. Born about 280 AD in Patara (now Turkey) and patron saint of sailors, merchants, wrongly accused, endangered travelers and farmers. One of his gracious deeds was to give gold to a poor man with three daughters. This meant the girls could have dowries and marry well. Because St Nicholas wanted to remain anonymous he threw three bags of gold down the chimney. The gifts landed in the girls stockings and henceforth we hang up Christmas Stocking at Christmas Eve.
Father Christmas dates back as far as 16th century in England during the reign of Henry VIII, when he was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry. As England no longer kept the feast day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, the Father Christmas celebration was moved to 25 December to coincide with Christmas Day.
Modern Santa probably came from North America (via Holland) and is likely to be only 200 hundred years old. He first appeared in literature about 1822 in the famous children's poem
'T’was the night before Christmas, when all throughout the house, No a creature was stirring, not even a mouse...."
The poem introduced to many Americans the fictitious character, Sinterklass. He was a Dutch mythical character with a friendly disposition. Many historians believe Santa came from a mispronunciation of Sinterklass.
Thomas Nast’s Santa
In 1863, a picture of Santa illustrated by caricaturist and political cartoonist, Thomas Nast appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. The character was first introduced during the civil war and the image of Santa Claus continued to evolve over the years (1863 - 1865). At first Santa was a small elflike figure who supported the Union (North) . Nast continued to draw Santa for 30 years during which time the color of his coat changed from tan to the red. Much of the myth of Santa Claus including living at the North Pole etc., may also have been a Nast creation.
Christkind The Christkind is a sprite-like child, usually depicted with blond hair and angelic wings. He is the traditional Christmas gift-bringer in many European and Hispanic Countries Martin Luther openly discouraged the figure of St. Nicholas, and after the Protestant Reformation changed the gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkindl. The date of giving gifts also changed from December 6 to Christmas Eve. Christkindl or Christkindel are diminutive versions of Christkind. Père Noël
In France, children lay out their shoes (traditionally sabots which were clogs) in the anticipation Père Noël (Father Christmas) who will fill them with lollies. The legend is Père Noël was so cold one Christmas Eve, to keep warm he burnt the clogs of a little girl and to compensate her left gifts.
In Spain Christmas were traditionally a religious festival and the Spanish still do not recognise Santa Claus. Children do however look forward to gifts during this season. One Spanish tradition was for children to leave their shoes on the windowsill stuffed full of straw, carrots, and barley to feed the horse and donkeys of the Wise Men. Balthazar is a welcome visitor for he is the Spanish Santa and on Christmas morning children's shoes are filled with gifts. A similar ritual is observed in Portugal where Menino Jesus ("Jesus Boy") will leave gifts for the children.
Babouschka and La Befana
The Russian Christmas gift giver is a woman called Babouschka and like her Italian counterpart, La Befana depicts an old lady who did not offer help and food to the Wise Men on their journey to the baby Jesus. The women search in vein carrying gifts which they give to well behaved children. In Italy the Christmas gifts are given on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5). In Belgium children get their presents on the 6th December i.e. St Nicholas Day.
American artist Norman Rockwell had done a number of paintings with Saint Nicholas wearing red and white including A Drum for Tommy which appeared on the cover of The Country Gentleman in 1921.
Coca Cola Santa
In the 1920’s The Coca-Cola Company began its Christmas advertising in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. The first Santa ads used a strict-looking Claus, in the vein of Thomas Nast. In 1930, artist Fred Mizen painted a department-store Santa in a crowd drinking a bottle of Coke. Later Coca-Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus. The artist took the giftgiver in the poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas") and based him upon his friend, Lou Prentiss, a retired salesman. . Sundblom’s Santa debuted in 1931 in Coke ads. When Prentiss passed away, Sundblom used himself as a model, painting while looking into a mirror.