Ho Ho Ho!
Our second stop for Holiday History Week with your favorite Ghost of Christmas Past: Let’s go visit Santa Claus! So follow me to the 3rd Century A.D., sit down on Santa’s lap, and hear the story of how Santa came to be.
Jolly Old St. Nick
Santa as we know him today is very different from the Santa of long ago. There have been many legends regarding who Santa is or was and each culture has their own version of the story: Kris Kringle gave toys to well-behaved German and Swiss children. Father Christmas filled stockings full of treats for English children. Pere Noel leaves goodies inside the boots left outside on the porch of houses in which French children live. Russia and Italy traditionally don’t have a Santa Claus but an elderly grandmother-like figure who brings toys, games, and sweets to children-Russia’s Babouschka and Italy’s good witch La Befana. Each culture has contributed partly to Santa Claus as we know him today, especially when all cultures came together in this melting pot that is America. But with every legend comes a question: is there any basis of truth to this, and where is the actual root of this mythical person that is Santa Claus?
While the jolly man in a red suit may not be real, St. Nicholas, the man Santa Claus is based on, was. In the 280s A.D. St. Nicholas was born in Myra, now in modern day Turkey, and in his adult years he lived as a monk. Duly noted for his kindness and selflessness, St. Nicholas was well loved. From those who knew and loved him came stories of things that he supposedly did, such as sell all his possessions and travel the world to help those in need or those who were ill. He also was said to involve himself in situations where an individual was in some sort of trouble and he would somehow manage to rescue them from this trouble, such as he did when, supposedly, he saved three young girls about to be sold into slavery by their father.
His reputation preceded him wherever he went, and people began to know him not only as a kind and generous individual, but also as a protector, especially a protector of children. That reputation continued to follow him even after his death on December 6th, 343 A.D. Those who loved him celebrated on December 6th, the anniversary of his death, with feasts in his honor. By the Renaissance era, St. Nicholas was the most popular and well-known Saint in all of Europe, even during the Protestant Reformation when honoring saints was no longer practiced, and he was especially favored by the Dutch in Holland, who, for centuries, continued to celebrate him and further contribute to legends of St. Nicholas.
When the Dutch began to come to America in the early 1700s, they brought with them the legend of St. Nicholas, or, as St. Nicholas translated in Dutch, “Sinter Niklaas.” Thanks to the Dutch pronunciation of St. Nicholas, American children who heard the story from Dutch children spread around the name Santa Claus. In 1773 and 1774 December, a newspaper in New York told the story of St. Nicholas when they reported about the Dutch families who celebrated him on the anniversary of his death. These articles further popularized Santa Claus, and by the late 1790s, early 1800s, every American household knew who Santa Claus was.
The red-suited image of Santa Claus came from many things. It was first partially thanks to the imagination of a New Yorker named John Pintard who in 1804 made a woodcutting of St. Nicholas, dressed in a red and blue cloak with a long white beard, standing in front of a fireplace where stockings filled with fruit and toys were hung. Washington Irving, in 1809, began to refer to St. Nicholas as the Saint of New York in his book he’d written called The History of New York. The 1822 poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” that was written by minister Clement Clarke Moore for his daughters further contributed to Santa Claus’ image and is largely responsible for how we now think of Santa Claus; as a “right jolly old elf” and the pilot of a flying sleigh led by eight magical reindeer. In 1881, cartoonist Thomas Nast gave a St. Nicholas cartoon for the popular magazine Harper’s Weekly to display. In the cartoon, Nast had drawn Santa in the head to toe red suit trimmed with white fur and a matching hat. Nast also was the one who gave Santa a Mrs. Claus and also a workshop run by elves in the North Pole. Rudolph, Santa’s ninth reindeer, was added in 1939 by Robert L. May who was a copywriter for the department store Montgomery Ward. Ten years later, a friend of May’s, Johnny Marks, wrote Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer which was popularized when sung by Burl Ives, and then Bing Crosby.
In the 1820s, stores began to advertise Christmas shopping and encouraging gift buying, especially focusing on gifts for children, knowing that parents would have a hard time saying no to that option. The holiday advertisements displayed images of the newly popular Santa Claus, dressed in a red suit and long white beard. In 1841, a department store in Philadelphia became the first to display a model dressed as Santa Claus to attract children and parents into the store. Naturally, other large stores followed the example after seeing the Philadelphia store’s success, and by the mid 1800s, a live Santa Claus became the norm during the Christmas season, and in the 1890s, the Salvation Army used the Santa Claus image to encourage people to donate money and food to charity instead of coerce them into buying things. They dressed unemployed men as Santa Claus, placed them on the busiest street corners in New York, and solicit donations. To gain the attention of the busy shoppers, the Salvation Army gave each “Santa” a bell to ring. The Salvation Army Santa has now become a sort of tradition.
Over the centuries, St. Nicholas started a Saint and transformed into an iconic holiday image. Some might believe the image of St. Nicholas has been tarnished and commercialized, especially for a character who isn’t even real. Others believe that, on the contrary, Santa Claus has inspired hope and acts of kindness around Christmastime. Whatever you believe, one thing is hard to argue: while Santa Claus the “Jolly old elf” isn’t real, the Spirit of Christmas inspired by St. Nicholas definitely is.
This is a traditional Dutch Christmas pastry that you can make yourself, but you don’t have to make it the traditional way; just use store-bought pastry to make your life easier.
All you need is:
~1 1/3 cup almond paste
~10.5 oz ready-rolled pastry
~1 egg, beaten
~2 tbsp apricot jam
~Powdered sugar to sprinkle on top
1. Preheat oven to 437 degrees
2. Cut the ready-rolled pastry into 12 cm wide, 40 cm long strips.
3. Roll the almond paste lengthwise so that it’s about 3 cm shorter than the strips
4. Place paste on the pastry and then wet the edges of the pastry with some drops of water and fold the short ends of the pastry over the almond paste and then fold the pastry lengthwise and press at the seams. Then carefully flip the pastry over to the other side so the seam is on the bottom, and brush with the beaten egg.
5. Bake for 25 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown. Let it cool for about fifteen minutes and then brush some apricot jam on top and sprinkle powdered sugar over the jam-covered pastry and serve warm.