Santa Claus was not always a jolly old fellow. He did not always have long white whiskers and he did not always wear a big red suit. Like so many other traditions, he's a product of the great American melting pot - a blend of many different cultures and customs.
Long before he lived in the North Pole, and long before his yearly Christmas visits brought joy to all the children of the world, Santa Claus was a child himself. He was once just an ordinary baby boy living in a village in what is now Turkey.
The baby boy was just like any other, but his parents hoped for great things from their only son. They named him Nicholas, which means "hero of the people"
Even at a young age, Nicholas was a kind and generous boy. He often helped the people in his village. He shared his meals with those who had nothing to eat, he was always the first to lend a helping hand, and he brought joy to young and old alike.
At a very young age Nicholas joined the church. Nicolas became well-known throughout the land as a kind and wise young man. He was soon named a bishop of the church. Because Nicholas was still so young people called him the "Boy Bishop".
He wore a long red robe with a red hat, and traveled on horseback. At every village, happy children would spot his bright robe from a distance and gather in the road to greet him.
In one village, Bishop Nicholas heard the sorrowful tale of a poor old man and his three young daughters. It seemed the man could no longer feed his daughters, and he feared he would have to send them away from him. Nicholas knew he could help this family.
That night, while the whole village slept, Nicholas crept up to the hut where they three sisters lived. He climbed up to the rooftop to find the chimney. There Nicholas dropped three bags of gold, one by one, down the chimney stack. Earlier that day, the three sisters had hung their newly washed stockings by the fireplace to dry. Each small bag of gold that Nicholas dropped fell into one of the stockings below.
The next morning, the girls were overjoyed to find gold coins in their stockings. "Father", they called, running to wake him. "We have received a magical gift!"
As the story of these three sisters spread from village to village, other people began hanging their stockings by the fire, hoping to find a secret gift when they awoke the next morning.
Though this was Bishop Nicholas' most famous gift, it was not his first good deed. And it would certainly not be his last.
For all of his good deeds, Bishop Nicholas was named a Saint. He is honored as the saint who looks after all children. Because of his wisdom and sensitivity, many groups claimed St. Nicholas as their patron saint. Children, orphans, sailors, and even thieves often prayed to the compassionate saint for guidance and protection. Entire countries, including Russia and Greece, also adopted him as their patron saint, as well as students and pawnbrokers.
The date of his death, December 6th, was commemorated with an annual feast, which gradually came to mark the beginning of the medieval Christmas season. On St. Nicholas' Eve, youngsters would set out food for the saint, straw for his horses and schnapps for his attendant. The next morning, obedient children awoke to find their gifts replaced with sweets and toys, found their offering untouched. St. Nicholas' Day is still observed in many countries, and gifts are exchanged in honor of the spirit of the brotherhood and charity that he embodied.
After the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the feasting and veneration of Catholic saints were banned. But people had become accustomed to the annual visit from their gift-giving saint and didn't want to forget the purpose of the holiday. So in some countries, the festivities of St. Nicholas' Day were merged with celebrations of the birth of Christ…Christmas. And although the gift-bearer took on new, non-religious forms, he still reflected the saints generous spirit.
In Germany, he appeared as Weihnachtsmann, in England as Father Christmas, and in France, as Pèrè Noël, who left small gifts in the children's shoes.
Immigrants to the New World brought along their various beliefs when they crossed the Atlantic. The Scandinavians introduced gift-giving elves, the Germans brought their decorated trees and the Irish contributed the ancient Gaelic custom of placing a lighted candle in the window.
In 1822 in the now-classic poem by Dr. Clement Moore, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas," gave an Arctic flavor to Santa's image when he substituted eight tiny reindeer and a sleigh for St. Nicholas’ normal horse and wagon. It is Moore's description of Santa that we most often think of today: "He had a broad face, and a little round belly, that shook, when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly."
St. Nicholas' evolution into today's happy, larger-than-life Santa Claus is a wonderful example of the blending of countless beliefs and practices from around the world. This benevolent figure encompasses all the goodness and innocence of childhood. And because goodness is his very essence, in every kindness we do, Santa will always be remembered.