The onset of winter brings in its wake misty mornings, snowy evenings and that sweet little man with a smiling face and shaggy white beard, that very popular figure dressed in a red jacket and pompom-topped cap – riding on a sleigh, jingling his bells all the way into our hearts, spreading happiness and warmth. With a red sack slung onto his back, clambering down chimneys to leave his gifts on the fireplace's mantelpiece for the little ones, he is Santa Claus.
The myth of Santa Claus dates back to antiquity. In fact, Santa Claus, as we know him today, is a combination of many different legends and mythical creatures. The basis for the Christian-era Santa Claus is Bishop Nicholas who lived in the 4th century AD. He was born in a wealthy Christian family in Patara near Myra in modern-day Turkey. Later on, he became the Bishop of Myra. He was a kind and pious man who was always ready to help people in distress. Soon many legends about his good deeds became poplar. He had inherited a large property, which he used from time to time to help the poor and the sick. He travelled anonymously during the nights to ensure that all his parishioners are well-fed and happy.
During one of his visits, he heard a family lamenting over their poverty. As Bishop Nicholas listened, the family lamented how it was being forced to sell the three poor sisters into slavery or prostitution as their father was unable to provide a suitable dowry for them or even provide food and clothes to them. That very night, Nicholas threw three purses of gold secretly into their home from the chimney thus saving them from shame and distress. Later, he became increasingly popular as the protector and patron saint of children and sailors. His popularity kept growing and by the renaissance, he was the most popular of European saints, especially in Holland. In the Protestant areas of central and northern Germany, St. Nicholas became known as 'der Weinachtsmann'. In England, he came to be called Father Christmas. Even when Protestants discouraged the veneration of saints, St. Nicholas continued to enjoy his status and positive reputation and remained one with Christmas forever.
The Orthodox Church later raised St. Nicholas, miracle worker, to a position of great esteem. It was in his honour that Russia's oldest church was built. For its part, the Roman Catholic Church helped Nicholas as one who helped children and the poor. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of children and sea-farers. His feast is today celebrated every year on his death anniversary on the 6th of December.
St. Nicholas made his way to the United States with Dutch immigrants. The American version of the Santa Claus figure received its inspiration and its name from the Dutch legend of Sinter Klass, brought by settlers to New York in the 17th century. As early as 1773, the name appeared in the American press as 'St. A Claus', but it was popular author Washington Irving who gave Americans their first detailed information about the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas. In his History of New York, published in 1809 under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, Irving descried the arrival of the saint on horseback (unaccompanied by Black Peter).
The Dutch-American saint, however, achieved his fully Americanised form in 1823 in the poem 'A Visit from Saint Nicholas', more commonly known as 'The Night Before Christmas', by writer Clement Clarke Moore. Moore included such details as the names of the reindeer; Santa Claus's laughs, winks, and nods; and the method by which Saint Nicholas, referred to as an elf, returns up the chimney. The American image of Santa Claus was further elaborated by illustrator Thomas Nast, who depicted a round Santa for the Christmas issues of Harper's magazine from the 1860's to the 1880's. Nast added such details as Santa's workshop in the North Pole and Santa's list of the good and bad children of the world. A human-sized version of Santa Claus, rather than the elf of Moore's poem, was depicted in a series of illustrations from the Coca-Cola company.
As he became more and more popular, children naturally wanted to know where Santa Claus came from. Where did he live when he wasn't delivering presents? Those questions gave rise to the legend of Santa Claus living in the North Pole, where his Christmas-gift workshop was located. In 1925, however, newspapers revealed that Santa Claus, in fact, lived in Finnish Lapland. 'Uncle Markus', Markus Rautio, who hosted the popular Children's Hour' on Finnish Public Radio, revealed the great secret for the first time in 1927: Santa Claus lived on Lapland's Korvatunturi – 'Ear Fell'. The fell, which is situated directly on Finland's Eastern Frontier, resembles a hare's ears – which are, in fact, Santa Claus's ears, with which he listens to hear if the world's children are being nice. Santa has the assistance of a busy group of elves, who have quite their own history in Scandinavian legends
Over the centuries, customs from different parts of the Northern Hemisphere came together and created the Santa Claus – the ageless, timeless, deathless, white-bearded man who gives out gifts on Christmas and always returns to Korvatunturi in Finnish Lapland.
Since the 1950s, Santa has happily sojourned at Napapiiri, near Rovaniemi, at times other than Christmas, to meet children and young-at-hear. By 1985, his visits to Napapiiri had become so regular that he established his own Santa Claus office there. He comes there every day of the year to hear what children want for Christmas and to talk with children who had arrived from around the world. Santa Claus village is also the location of Santa's main Post Office, which receives children's letters from all four corners of the world.
Thus, the legend of Santa Claus continues to grow with time… children and adults alike are enamoured by him. As the first downy flakes float down the air, the world readies itself to welcome into its midst, this most genteel and lovable of all saints – the Father Christmas Santa Claus.
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