Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Legend of St. Nicholas

Who is that man in red? The man who, every Christmas Eve, brazenly breaks into people's homes, helps himself to cookies and milk, and leaves things behind resulting in a mess of wrapping paper and ribbon for others to clean up the next morning. Reindeer and a heavily laden sleigh can't be good for the roof. Soot from a chimney tracked all over the floor…something else left behind for others to clean.

Yet every year we anxiously anticipate his arrival, track his progress through the skies, and welcome him into our homes.

The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas. It is believed that Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. Much admired for his piety and kindness, St. Nicholas became the subject of many legends. It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. One of the best known of the St. Nicholas stories is that he saved three poor sisters from being sold into slavery or prostitution by their father by providing them with a dowry so that they could be married. Over the course of many years, Nicholas' popularity spread and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6. This was traditionally considered a lucky day to make large purchases or to get married. By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, when the veneration of saints began to be discouraged, St. Nicholas maintained a positive reputation, especially in Holland.

Sinter Klaas Comes to New York

St. Nicholas made his first inroads into American popular culture towards the end of the 18th century. In December 1773, and again in 1774, a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honor the anniversary of his death.

The name Santa Claus evolved from Nick's Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas). In 1804, John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society, distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society's annual meeting. The background of the engraving contains now-familiar Santa images including stockings filled with toys and fruit hung over a fireplace. In 1809, Washington Irving helped to popularize the Sinter Klaas stories when he referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York. As his prominence grew, Sinter Klaas was described as everything from a rascal with a blue three-cornered hat, red waistcoat, and yellow stockings to a man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a huge pair of Flemish trunk hose.

Shopping Mall Santas

Gift-giving, mainly centered around children, has been an important part of the Christmas celebration since the holiday's rejuvenation in the early 19th century. Stores began to advertise Christmas shopping in 1820, and by the 1840s, newspapers were creating separate sections for holiday advertisements, which often featured images of the newly-popular Santa Claus. In 1841, thousands of children visited a Philadelphia shop to see a life-size Santa Claus model. It was only a matter of time before stores began to attract children, and their parents, with the lure of a peek at a live Santa Claus. In the early 1890s, the Salvation Army needed money to pay for the free Christmas meals they provided to needy families. They began dressing up unemployed men in Santa Claus suits and sending them into the streets of New York to solicit donations. Those familiar Salvation Army Santas have been ringing bells on the street corners of American cities ever since.

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a long Christmas poem for his three daughters entitled An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas. Moore's poem, which he was initially hesitant to publish due to the frivolous nature of its subject, is largely responsible for our modern image of Santa Claus as a right jolly old elf with a portly figure and the supernatural ability to ascend a chimney with a mere nod of his head. Although some of Moore's imagery was probably borrowed from other sources, his poem helped popularize the now familiar image of a Santa Claus who flew from house to house on Christmas Eve in a miniature sleigh led by eight flying reindeer leaving presents for deserving children. An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas created a new and immediately popular American icon. In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore's poem to create the first likeness that matches our modern image of Santa Claus. His cartoon, which appeared in Harper's Weekly, depicted Santa as a rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard, holding a sack laden with toys for lucky children. It is Nast who gave Santa his bright red suit trimmed with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves, and his wife, Mrs. Claus.

A Santa by Any Other Name

18th-century America's Santa Claus was not the only St. Nicholas-inspired gift-giver to make an appearance at Christmastime. Similar figures were popular all over the world. Christkind or Kris Kringle was believed to deliver presents to well-behaved Swiss and German children. Meaning Christ child, Christkind is an angel-like figure often accompanied by St. Nicholas on his holiday missions. In Scandinavia, a jolly elf named Jultomten was thought to deliver gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats. English legend explains that Father Christmas visits each home on Christmas Eve to fill children's stockings with holiday treats. Pere Noel is responsible for filling the shoes of French children. In Russia, it is believed that an elderly woman named Babouschka purposely gave the wise men wrong directions to Bethlehem so that they couldn't find Jesus. Later, she felt remorseful, but could not find the men to undo the damage. To this day, on January 5, Babouschka visits Russian children leaving gifts at their bedsides in the hope that one of them is the baby Jesus and she will be forgiven. In Italy, a similar story exists about a woman called La Befana, a kindly witch who rides a broomstick down the chimneys of Italian homes to deliver toys into the stockings of lucky children.

The Ninth Reindeer

Rudolph, the most famous reindeer of all, was born over a hundred years after his eight flying counterparts. The red-nosed wonder was the creation of Robert L. May, a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store.

In 1939, May wrote a Christmas-themed story-poem to help bring holiday traffic into his store. Using a similar rhyme pattern to Moore's 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, May told the story of Rudolph, a young reindeer who was teased by the other deer because of his large, glowing, red nose. But, When Christmas Eve turned foggy and Santa worried that he wouldn't be able to deliver gifts that night, the former outcast saved Christmas by leading the sleigh by the light of his red nose. Rudolph's message—that given the opportunity, a liability can be turned into an asset—proved popular. Montgomery Ward sold almost two and a half million copies of the story in 1939. When it was reissued in 1946, the book sold over three and half million copies. Several years later, one of May's friends, Johnny Marks, wrote a short song based on Rudolph's story (1949). It was recorded by Gene Autry and sold over two million copies. Since then, the story has been translated into 25 languages and been made into a television movie, narrated by Burl Ives, which has charmed audiences since 1964.
And speaking of Santa and Christmas gifts…I have an erotic romance Christmas short story titled A Gift From St. Nicholas by Samantha Gentry, available as part of the HEARTS 'N' HOLLY anthology from XOXO Publishing (, also from Amazon as a Kindle ebook ( and other online ebook stores.

Adult Excerpt #1:

She turned out all the lights except for those adorning the Christmas tree. A soft glow filled the room. The same warmth permeated her body, sending a tingle of anticipation coursing through her veins. She went straight to the bedroom, undressed, and snuggled beneath the blankets.

It seemed as if only a few minutes had passed when a sound roused her from sleep. She slipped quietly out of bed, pulled the sheer red negligee over her nearly nude body, and walked down the hall toward the living room. One quick peek confirmed what had awakened her...the popping of the champagne cork.

For decades Santa had been portrayed as a rotund, grandfatherly type with a long white beard, but the Santa holding the champagne bottle and wearing the traditional Santa cap definitely was not anyone's grandfather. The lights on the Christmas tree lit the corner of the room. She watched as he touched a match to the kindling in the fireplace. The flickering illumination highlighted the hard planes of his bare chest. An impressive bulge at the crotch of his tight red pants grabbed her attention, causing her heart to beat faster and her pulse to race.

Adult Excerpt #2:

"I'm so glad you finally gave up on the cookies and milk."

"I found champagne to be so much more exciting." She took a sip from her glass. The bubbles tickled the inside of her mouth. The sensation left her wanting something else to tickle the inside of her mouth, something more sensual...something more desirable.

"Have you been a good girl this year?" There was no mistaking the suggestive tone to Santa's voice.

"I always try to be a good girl."

"I do have a list, and I checked it twice."

"What does it say about me?"

His eyes twinkled with amusement, the look quickly shifting to desire. "According to my list, you've repeatedly been very good."

Check in next week (Monday, December 26) for a list of New Year's resolutions that you won't have any difficulty keeping and a discussion about that much maligned holiday treat—fruitcake.


Harlie Reader said...

Great post Samantha. I always look forward to your posts on Sunday. :)

Great excerpts, too.


Harlie Reader said...

Okay, I've licked my computer screen and I've been naughty this year.

Samantha Gentry said...

Marika: And I always look forward to your comments. :)

Naughty enough for Nicholas to pay you a visit and hand out the appropriate punishment?

Harlie Reader said...

Bring it... :)

Samantha Gentry said...

Marika: Be very careful when you unwrap the large package with the big red bow that you'll find under your tree Christmas morning. I understand from a "reliable source" that it's someone...I mean something very special.

Susan Macatee said...

I enjoyed the post about the history of Santa Claus, Samantha, and your excerpts as well! Love the man candy too!

Samantha Gentry said...

Susan: Thanks. While doing the excerpts I thought about a Santa who was not the stereotypical type of Santa. This one looked like someone I'd like to find under my tree on Christmas morning. A sweet treat for the holiday season. :)

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed our post. For a Santa like the one in the hay, I could be very naughty!

Samantha Gentry said...

Patsy: Sometimes naughty can be very nice! :)

Thanks for commenting.