Behind the jolly, red-suited, shopping mall Santa of today, lies a real person - St. Nicholas of Myra, a Christian monk who lived in the third century around 280 A.D. in what is now Turkey.
Much admired for his piety and kindness, St.Nicholas became the subject of many legends. It is said that he gave away all his inherited wealth to help the poor and sick. One of the best-known St.Nicholas stories is the time he saved three poor sisters by providing them with a dowry so that their father wouldn’t be forced to sell them into slavery or prostitution.
St Nicholas became known as the protector of children and sailors. He was credited with stopping a violent storm to save doomed sailors and even restoring to life a trio of boys who had been dismembered by an unscrupulous butcher.
We know very few historical details about St Nicholas's life. Even the year of his death is uncertain, although both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have celebrated December 6, the date of his passing, for more than 1,000 years. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death. This date was considered a lucky day to make large purchases or to get married.
By the Middle Ages, Nicholas’ fame had spread to much of Europe, thanks in large part to the dissemination of parts of his skeleton to churches in Italy, where they were venerated as relics.
St. Nicholas’ popularity spread to northern Europe, where stories of the monk mingled with Teutonic folk tales of elves and sky-chariots. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas took on the Dutch-friendly spelling Sinterklaas. He was depicted as a tall, white-bearded man in red clerical robes who arrived every December 6 on a boat to leave gifts or coal lumps at children’s homes.
Stories of Sinterklaas were likely brought to the New World by Dutch settlers. In his satirical 1809 “History of New York,” Washington Irving portrayed St. Nicholas as a portly Dutchman who flew the skies in a wagon, dropping gifts down chimneys. In 1823 another New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore, penned the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” which traded the wagon for a sleigh drawn by “eight tiny reindeer.” During the Civil War, Cartoonist Thomas Nast published the first of a series of popular depictions o fa rotund and jolly St. Nicholas. In 1879 Nast was the first to suggest that St.Nicholas lived not in Turkey, Spain, or Holland but at the North Pole!
What Santa means to children
The magic of Christmas fosters imagination and creativity
As an educational and developmental psychologist, Kelly Allen says: I am yet to work with a young person that has been negatively impacted by Santa's mythology and I am certainly not aware of any scientific evidence to suggest it is harmful. I believe the Santa tradition is not only good for children but may actually benefit society more widely. The Santa Claus tradition provides an opportunity for children to engage their imaginations, boosting the social and emotional skills that underpin resilience. Engaging in fantasy and pretend play is important for executive functions like attention skills. Parents should stimulate their children’s imagination. Even the simple act of writing a letter to Santa is an opportunity for young children to articulate their hopes and dreams – and practice their writing.
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