Have you ever thought about how a fat, bearded man in a bright red suit became the bearer of toys for all good little boys and girls at Christmas? Why does he fly through the night sky in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer on Christmas Eve? Who was Saint Nicholas, anyway? Was he a real person or merely a legendary figure?
Actually, Saint Nicholas was a Christian bishop who helped the needy in his lifetime. After his death, the idea of gift-giving grew, and Saint Nicholas was transformed into the character of Santa Claus that we know and love today. Although he died in 343, he grew famous for his work with the poor and especially children. His fame spread throughout the world, and he remains famous in Holland where the Dutch children put out their shoes the night before December 6, the day he reportedly died, and find gifts in them from St. Nicholas in the morning. In fact, it was Dutch immigrants who brought the legend of Saint Nicholas to America in the 1700s. In 1773 and 1774, a New York newspaper reported a story about Dutch families celebrating the death of St. Nicholas. This name became Sinter Klaas, the abbreviated name for the Dutch Sint Nicolaas, which eventually became America’s Santa Claus.
In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote of a heavy-set man in a red suit who came down the chimney to deliver Christmas gifts. In his poem, ‘An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas,’ he pictured Santa Claus driving a sleigh pulled by “eight tiny reindeer, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen.” This poem became known as ”Twas the Night Before Christmas.’ In 1881 Thomas Nast, a cartoonist, contributed to the image of Santa by drawing him in a red suit trimmed in white fur.
However, a ninth reindeer was to become the “most famous reindeer of all” according to a song “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” However, this ninth reindeer was the creation of Robert L. May, who was a copywriter for Montgomery Ward. In 1939, he wrote a Christmas story-poem describing a reindeer who was rejected by the other reindeer because of his bright, red nose. This story-line resonated with people in that Rudolph’s liability became an asset on a cold, foggy Christmas Eve when Santa Claus chose Rudolph to guide his sleigh, and save Christmas.
In just a few days, children all over the world will be put out cookies for Santa Claus, and wait excitedly for his arrival. He will miraculously slide down the chimney, and with a “Ho, Ho, Ho,” he will deliver the toys for children who are on his nice list. What a wonderful tribute to Saint Nicholas, who through his example of charity, unknowingly influenced the entire world to give.