Sunday, December 18, 2011

Jolly Ole' Saint Nick

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I love Christmas. More for the pretty lights, the family gatherings, the warm collection of friends, than for the gifts. The practice of decorating your house with lights and celebrating away a cold winter night can be traced back to Pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. If we really stop and think, and look back through traditions, all cultures have some common aspect that overlaps and connects them. Folk lure blends with religion and one can help the other along. When early Christians were spreading Christianity through Europe it was easier to blend these traditions than to try and banish them all together. Saint Nicholas, or Santa Clause, is no exception. His story is actually very interesting.

Saint Nicholas can be traced as far back as early Germanic tribes and their legends. One of their major deities was Odin the ruler of Asgard. Odin would lead hinting trips through the the night sky and was said to drive a eight legged horse who could leap great distances. (An early precursor to Santa's reindeer.) During the winter German children would place their boots by the fire with treats for Odin's horse. Odin would reward them by leaving little treats behind. In several German cultures this practiced survived even with the transition to Christianity. As a result the gift giving became associated with St. Nicholas. (But now we hang stockings instead.)

The Santa we think about today is based on St. Nicholas, a 4th century Bishop from Turkey. He was known for giving gifts to the poor. Most notably for giving dowries to poor young women to save them from a life of prostitution. (Really, I am not making this up!) A lot of time St. Nicholas is associated as the patron saint of children, the poor, and prostitutes. (once again, not making this up.) In most European countries he is still portrayed as a bearded Bishop wearing red clerical robes.

So how did we get from Nordic deities, and gift giving Bishops, to the "Jolly old elf".

When Dutch settlers arrived in the new world they brought their customs with them. Including leaving shoes out for Sinterklaas, which later morphed into Santa Clause. in 1805 Washington Irving wrote a Dutch version of St. Nick. But it was 15 years later that the Santa we know was introduced to Victorian America by Clement C Moore, in his classic poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas." That poem forever shaped America's vision of Christmas and Santa Clause. It was that poem, originally published anonymously in a New York news paper, that first associated St. Nick with a sleigh and reindeer. (In fact Clement Moore was from a prominent New York Family. His father was the bishop who officiated at George Washington's inauguration.)

I don't know about you, but that version of St. Nick is the one that sticks in my mind and comforts me.  Like the old Coke a Cola Santa, and classic Norman Rockwell era prints. Those quaint and classic versions of Christmas and Santa stand out in my mind. They bring back happy associations from my childhood. When pressing your nose to a cold window to see if there was a blinking red light in the sky was all the happiness you needed on Christmas eve. I would love to go back to those days, especially after the last few years i have had. 

I love that my children, at eight and eleven, still believe whole wholeheartedly in Santa. Especially D. His eyes still light up at the mere mention of Santa and reindeer. He wants to go to the North Pole. (He is certain there is a whole village of elf's with a Super Walmart at their disposal.) When they stop believing, the magic will certainly be gone for me. And I am having a hard enough time this year finding it in my self. No harm in keeping it going as long as I can. The innocence of childhood is lost too soon now if you ask me. 

A very good friend asked me today what I want for Christmas. I told him if any wish was possible I would want my house back and and the peace I had a few years ago. There was nothing material I could think of. As long as my kids are taken care of I am good. Anything else will come in due time. And I have to say that Santa's elf's have been great this year in making sure the boys have a wonderful Christmas through all the upheaval. I have some of the best friends going. 

So think of the jolly old elf in a whole new light. Keep Christmas in your heart, and keep the innocence going as long as you can. 

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