Santa began as a fourth century Catholic bishop named Saint Nicholas. The cult of St. Nicholas was one of histories most widespread religious movements. There are 2,137 churches dedicated to Nicholas in France, Germany, and the Low Countries alone before the year 1500." (Jones, Charles. W. "Knickerbocker Santa Claus." The New-York Historical Society Quarterly, October 1954, Volume XXXVIII Number Four, p.357)
The popular book, The Christmas Almanack, states, "By the height of the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas was probably invoked in prayer more than any other figure except the Virgin Mary and Christ Himself" (Del Re, Gerard and Patricia. The Christmas Almanack. New York: Random House, 2004, p. 131)
Miraculous folklore and legend surround the mysterious St. Nicholas. Among the more popular legends of St. Nicholas is the rescue of three poverty-stricken girls destined for prostitution. These girls were poor and did not have the dowry for marriage. St. Nicholas saved them from a life of shame, by providing marriage dowries of gold. They then were able to get properly married.
Another amazing miracle in the life of St. Nicholas is the three young boys who were sadistically murdered by a wicked innkeeper. Their bodies were chopped up and preserved in pickle barrels, with the cannibalistic intent of feeding their flesh to unsuspecting house guests. Of course, the amazing St. Nicholas resurrected the boys and their mutilated bodies. And like Santa, Saint Nicholas gave gifts to poor children, hence, his veneration as Patron Saint of Children. During the Middle Ages, hundreds of plays and paintings told and re-told the amazing feats of St. Nicholas.
Next, according to legend, Santa magically appears in the Netherlands around the seventeenth century. During this time, Sinter Klaas (a.k.a. Santa Claus) was officially born. Dutch children began the tradition of placing their shoes by the fireplace on December 5, for the mystic fourth century Bishop, Saint Nicholas. (Note: In the Dutch language Saint Nicholas is "Sint Nikolass," which was shortened to "Sinter Klaas," of which the anglicized form is "Santa Claus.") The next morning, the gleeful Dutch children quickly awoke to gifts and goodies in their shoes, left by Sinter Klaas. Like today’s Santa, Sinter Klaas, miraculously, traveled from housetop to housetop, and entered through the chimney.
Our next stop on the Santa highway is the year 1626 in the New World called America. Searching for the "American dream," Dutch settlers sailed from the Netherlands and established the Dutch colony called New Amsterdam (today called New York). The Dutch colonists quickly settled into America, bringing their customs, and of course, their beloved Sinter Klaas.
In December 1809, American essayist Washington Irving published a popular satire of the Dutch founding of New York titled A Knickerbocker History of New York. More than any other event, it was Irving’s Knickerbocker History that is credited for creating our modern day Santa Claus. The following history-making words from The Knickerbocker History became the public inauguration of Santa Claus. Who could have possibly imagined the significance these simple words would soon have?
And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream,–and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to the children. . . And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then, mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared. (Irving, Washington. Knickerbocker’s History of New York, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1928, p. 50)
At this early period was instituted that pious ceremony, still religiously observed in all our ancient families of the right breed, of hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St. Nicholas Eve; which stocking is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children. (Irving, Washington. Knickerbocker’s History of New York, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1928, p. 68)
Next stop on our investigative journey for Santa, surprisingly, comes from the pen of a New York theology professor named Dr. Clement Clarke Moore. In 1822, inspired by Irving’s popular, Knickerbocker History’s portrayal of jolly St. Nicholas, Dr. Moore quietly wrote a trivial poem titled, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" for his own children as a simple Christmas present. Dr. Moore had no intention of publishing his poem, but in 1823 it was published anonymously, by a friend, in the Troy Sentinel. Moore’s extremely popular poem was the spark that lit the Santa Claus wildfire. Santa quickly began flying through America. Dr. Moore’s poem was later renamed the famous, "Twas’ The Night Before Christmas."
The finishing touches for Santa occurred around 1863 from the artistic hands of cartoonist Thomas Nast. Inspired by Moore’s popular poem, Nast illustrated scores of Santa pictures in Harper’s Weekly and the world was officially baptized with the face of Santa Claus. Nast’s early Santa was burly, stern, gnome-like, and covered with drab fur, much unlike today’s colorful and jolly fellow. But make no mistake – it was Santa.
My Confirmation name was Nicholas. I chose it because of his love for children. Although I will never have my own, as a Priest, I want to appreciate every child I baptize and every boy and girl I minister to in my parishes. I have no nieces or nephews, but I do have several God-children that are as dear to me as if they were blood relatives.
I left my shoe out last night to see if St. Nick would leave anything. I found a stuffed cat toy, which I suspect Tiberius placed there instead ;-)