’Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there …
However, exactly what Santa Claus would you expect to see landing on your fireplace hearth on Christmas Eve? There are just about as many personas of the “jolly old elf” as there are presents under the Christmas tree!
Most Americans, when thinking of Santa, might first recall the famous lines from Clement C. Moore’s poem published on December 4, 1823. Moore, was the son of the second Episcopal Bishop of New York City, Benjamin Moore. The elder Moore is best remembered for giving communion to a dying Alexander Hamilton after the notorious duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804.
Born in 1789, Clement C. Moore was a respected professor of literature and divinity at the Theological Seminary for the Episcopal Church in what is today known as Chelsea Square in NYC. Clement Moore’s inheritance included a considerable amount of land in lower Manhattan which he subdivided into lots bringing him a notable fortune. Moore also donated land to the Episcopal Church and helped to establish the St. Luke in the Fields parish church.
Moore’s writings were not limited to lectures for the seminary. He also wrote political pamphlets including attacks on Thomas Jefferson who was running for re-election in 1804. Moore opposed Jefferson claiming the President was working to “subvert religion and establish a false philosophy”.
In December of 1823, a poem entitled, A Visit from St. Nicholas was published anonymously in the Sentinel, a newspaper in Troy, New York. Detailing a magical visit on Christmas Eve from a “jolly old elf”, the poem describes Santa in fine detail including his fur costume, a sack full of toys, rosy cheeks, white beard, a round belly and arrival in a sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer. This nearly 200-year old poem pretty well describes the way most of us envision Santa Claus today – though politically correctness today has often eliminated St. Nick’s smoking pipe from Santa’s mouth.
It was not until 1837, in a compilation of poetry edited by Charles F. Hoffman, that the poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas was attributed to Clement C. Moore. Eight years later, Moore included the Christmas-themed poem in an anthology of his own work. According to his children, Moore had first written the poem too amuse his youngsters but because it was not a sophisticated nor scholarly work, he published it without attribution. While some historians have since debated the identity of Moore as the author of this poem, it cannot be denied that the words from what is often called ’Twas the Night Before Christmas provided an unforgettable image of what Santa Claus might look like.
Of course, the story of St. Nicholas did not begin with Clement C. Moore. Looking back in time to approximately 280 A.D. in the Village of Myra in what is today known as Turkey, we might find the first tales of the Santa Claus legend. There a Greek was serving as bishop and was well known as a generous monk who shared his deep faith with all in the village. He was thought to have been a member of the Council of Nicea and strongly opposed to paganism. Traveling throughout the countryside, Nicholas earned the respect of his followers who praised his piety. It was known that he aided the poor and the sick and shared his wealth to all those in need. One story of the monk’s life included his having thrown a sack of gold coins into the home where three poor sisters lived because he knew that, without a dowry to aid in arranging good marriages, the young womens’ lives might be ruined by being sold into slavery or forced to work as prostitutes. After his death, the stories of his life and reported miracles associated with him continued and Nicholas became known as a protector of children and he was elevated to sainthood.
The image of Saint Nicholas has long appeared on Eastern Orthodox icons as an elderly bishop with a full white beard. Aside from being a patron saint of children, St. Nicholas is known as a patron saint of sailors. Sometimes he is depicted in icons standing in a boat or reaching out to help a drowning sailor. In Russian iconography, St. Nicholas is depicted having dark skin to signal his Greek heritage.
In Roman Catholic iconography, Saint Nicholas is depicted as a bishop, wearing vestments including a headdress and holding a bishop’s staff shaped like a shepherd’s crook. In some imagery, he is shown holding three gold balls or three sacks of gold. During the Middle Ages, the three gold balls were often interpreted as being three oranges which may have inspired the tradition of children receiving oranges as gifts at Christmas. Despite the differences in the images of St. Nicholas, he became one of the most popular and most beloved saints from the time of the Renaissance.
In the 1500’s, at the time of the Reformation, which ignited the Protestant movement, the practice of honoring saints was diminished but, particularly in Holland, St. Nicholas continued to remain an important and beloved figure. As the Dutch settled into the New World, they brought the tradition of celebrating St. Nicholas, or ‘Sinter Klaas', with them from the Netherlands.
From the Dutch colonies in New York’s Hudson Valley, the legendary Sinter Klaas soon became the annual Christmas visitor called Santa Claus by the British and others setting in New York in the early 1700s. The evolution of his name paralleled the various descriptions of his appearances. From a monk wearing a long green robe; to a jolly but mischievous character dressed in a blue tri-cornered hat, red waistcoat with yellow stockings; to eventually eventually becoming the jolly old elf dressed in a red velvet jacket and pants trimmed in white fur, with a long stocking cap atop his head.
Whether you call him Kris Kringle (meaning Christ child) in the German and Swiss tradition; Jultomten as they do in Scandinavia; Father Christmas as he is called in Britain; Pere Noel as he is known in France and Belgium; or as dear old Santa Claus in America – the legend and lore of a kind and beneficent giver of gifts continues to be cherished around the world.
Let’s hope St. Nicholas’ piety and generosity will continue to remain emblematic of kindness, hope and faith for many generations to come as we all long to hear those enduring words, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”