Saint Nicholas: During the 4th century, in Asia Minor, lived a Bishop of Myra named Nicholas who secretly gave his possessions to the poor. According to legend, St. Nicholas wished to provide dowry money for three daughters of a poor merchant. To keep his identity secret, he tossed bags of gold down the merchant’s chimney. Accidently, it fell into the girls stockings hanging by the hearth to dry. Thus, began the custom of hanging stockings by the fire filled with gifts, fruit and candy. Three gold balls used to decorate pawn shops, as a sign of merchants honoring their patron saint, Saint Nicholas.
St. Nicholas and his Reindeer: Originally, St. Nicholas rode a white horse in his native country of Turkey. As his popularity spread rapidly across Central Europe to the Scandinavian countries, having no horses, they gave St. Nicholas a reindeer-drawn sleigh instead.
Reindeer are relatives of the wild caribou, but are different from any other type of deer in that both male and female reindeer have branched antlers. Their habitat is now concentrated in Canada, Alaska and in the Arctic.
The Night Before Christmas: Both St. Nicholas and his reindeer became famous when Dr. Clement Moore published his famous poem in 1823, “A Visit from St. Nicholas, or The Night Before Christmas.”
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer
Now Dasher! Now Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen!
On Comet. On Cupid! On Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
Now, dash away, dash away, dash away all!
St. Nicholas was also given some of the characteristics of the Norse god, Thor, who rode through the sky in a chariot wearing a red coat.
He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot
In 1866, the political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, (who drew the characters of the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey for Harper’s Weekly magazine), drew a picture of St. Nick with his pipe, twinkly face and fur trimmed coat that has served as the model for the jolly old elf ever since.
He was chubby and plump, a jolly old elf
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself
A stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth
And the smoke encircled his head like a wreath
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.…
FatherChristmas: In the 17th century, a very old grey-bearded gentleman called Father Christmas also gave gifts to the poor. In the USA, the character of Father Christmas merged with the Dutch settler’s patron, St. Nicholas. He was called Santa Niklaus, then Sinter Klass and finally Santa Claus.
So, whether you call him Santa Claus, Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas, the exchanging of gifts at Christmas dates back to these legendary characters. The Wise Men gave gifts to Baby Jesus. We all give gifts to our loved ones. This Christmas season we must not neglect sharing our good fortune with those who are in need, as was the original intent of St. Nicholas and Father Christmas.
As we look around the world and around our own country, there is no shortage of people in need. My family gives to Samaritan’s Purse, an organization that responds world-wide, bringing relief and the story of God’s love wherever disaster strikes. At Christmas, we donate money to Samaritan's Purse to send a goat and chickens to families in third world countries.
How does your family celebrate the season? What ways do you acknowledge those less fortunate?