Winter Tea Party winners: Angela's book,THE SCARLET COAT, will go to: Print copy- Andrea Stephens; e-book copy - Catherine Wight!

LUCY REYNOLDS has a table topper quilt on the way, and winners of the Valentine Ebook Collection are: Deanna Stevens, Caryl Kane, Anne Payne and Winnie Thomas. With thanks to all who joined in!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

How Santa Claus Came to the New World

by Roseanna M. White

Stories of St. Nicholas go back for centuries. Growing up in a protestant family, I knew next to nothing about the saint so well beloved by Europeans. All I knew was Santa Claus--the jolly old elf who brought presents on Christmas Eve.

As I grew up I ran into more and more people who eschewed the tradition of Santa--and I understood why. Santa takes the focus off Jesus, right? And that's where it belongs. 

But this year, I wanted to dig a little deeper into the traditions that shaped American Christmases into what they've become...and where better to start than with St. Nicholas of Myra?

The saint was, from childhood, considered a wonder-worker. A miracle-doer. A boy of astounding faith. Not a magician, let it be noted--a Christian who believed fully in the awe-inspiring power of the Holy Spirit, and that he, as a believer, could call on that power to heal, to save those in danger, to work wonders. When his wealthy parents died when he was still young, his uncle, the bishop of Patara, raised him. He was soon, at a young age, named a reader in the church, and then a priest.

Nicholas had a large inheritance from his parents...but no desire to spend it. Instead, he gave it to those in need. The most famous story of his generosity was when a local family in Patara lost all they had. Destitute, the three daughters of the family, now without dowries, couldn't be given in marriage. The only choice open to them was prostitution. When Nicholas heard of this impending tragedy, he took a bag of gold and tossed it through the family's window one night--a dowry for the eldest daughter. He did it again for the second daughter. But when he tried to toss a third bag of gold through the window, he found the family was waiting for him.

Now, Nicholas took seriously Jesus's command to give our gifts in secret. He wanted no notice, no thanks, just to help. So he climbed up onto the roof and dropped the gold down the chimney, where it's said to have landed in a shoe or stocking left there to dry.

That, my friends, is where the stocking tradition comes from.

The father of the girls rushed out into the street to catch up with their mysterious benefactor, and he did indeed catch the young man...who begged him not to tell anyone of what he'd done, not while he lived. The father promised.

But after Nicholas's death, stories of his generosity came out. Story upon story of how this miracle-worker gave from his own wealth to help those in need around him. Always quietly. Always anonymously. Always out of Christian love.

When Nicholas was named a saint shortly after his death, his feast day was established on his day of death--December 6th. And to honor the memory of the man who gave so generously, people would also give anonymous gifts--and sign them St. Nicholas. It was around the same time that Christmas was established on December 25th. Pretty close to each other, and over the centuries the two celebrations merged into one.

The Dutch especially loved their stories of Saint Nicholas...or as they called him, Sinterklaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas). But with the advent of protestantism, feast days were abolished. Still, the Dutch people refused to give up their gift-giving, even when Martin Luther insisted it is the Christ Child who gives us all the gifts we need, not some saint. So the people, in the way people do, said, "Okay...so our gifts are now from the Christ Child." Or as they would say in Dutch, the Christ-Kindl.

When the Dutch arrived in the New World, they brought their Christmas traditions with them. British colonists latched hold of them, though they mis-pronounced Christ-Kindl and called him Kris Kringle...which they took to be another name for the one the same Dutch settlers called Sinterklaas, which they also mispronounced, LOL, and called Santa Claus. The anonymous gift-giver...
Traditional interpretation of Dutch Sinterklaas

But of course, stories get changed over the years. As the centuries went by, people forgot that Nicholas performed God-given miracles, not magic. They forgot that he gave in secret so that no one would praise him. They forgot that he was a man who, above all, sought to bring honor to God. Instead, he became an elf in our new mythology. A magical being who watched our children and gave gifts only to the good, coal to the naughty. He became a symbol of Christmas-when-you-stop-focusing-on-Christ.

Sad, since focusing on Christ was all he ever did.

Examining this story made me examine more than the role Santa Claus plays in modern America. It made me examine our gift-giving in general. Because while so many of us today are quick to say, "No Santa in my house!" we're not so quick to actually focus on Christ. It's still largely about the gifts in this day and age...we just sign them with our own names. Something Nicholas never did, lest he take pride in the praises it brought him.

But when the country was founded, when Christmas traditions were first begun here, that's not what it was about. Gifts were simple, small--an orange, candy, perhaps a small toy for each child. Christmas, if it was celebrated (the Puritans, of course, didn't celebrate the day at all), was begun with church, followed with a family dinner, and only then introduced any gifts to be given.

Santa Claus was a way to give a gift anonymously. A way to capture a bit of the wonder of all God gives us. Not an excuse for children to make an "I want" list a mile long, not a way to take the focus away from where it should be...but an invitation for you to look around you and see where there is need. A way to meet that need quietly--not for praise, not even for the joy of seeing their faces, but just out of Christian love.

This year, whether you have any Santa figures in your house or not, I pray you play Santa for someone. Not just for the kids or grandkids that already have a house bursting with toys, but for someone around you in need. Meet it. Meet it quietly. Meet it anonymously.

And remember who the man the Dutch brought to these shores as Santa Claus or the Christ-Kindl really was--one of the most generous, faithful men I've ever read about. He may not be a jolly old elf, or have a broad face and a little round belly...but you can be sure that he would be the first to wish:


6 comments:

  1. Great post, Ro! Thanks so much. And Merry Christmas!!!

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    1. Merry Christmas, Carrie! Thanks for all you do for the CQ. =)

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  2. Thank you, Roseanna, for the interesting and inspiring post. Merry Christmas!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Kay! Merry Christmas!

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  3. Interesting post Roseanna. So often the origin of our traditions, and even the way they morph over the years, gets lost. I've found so many of our secular traditions had a spiritual foundation.

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  4. Lovely post, Roseanna. Thank you for this good reminder and for inspiration to carry on a tradition with meaning. Merry Christmas!

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