Thursday, December 23, 2004

What Saint Nick and I Have In Common

I love Santa Claus. Especially ones who are realistic. I encountered one the other day at the Burbank Media Center who was truly the best -- twinkly blue eyes, real beard, soft British accent, and didn't care that I'm a 38-year old woman who wanted to get her picture taken with him.

He invited me to sit on his lap, but being more than a bit cognizant of the fact that I'm not a small child, I was perching in an attempt to not put all of my (considerable) weight on his knee. He, however, assured me that Mrs. Claus weighs 350 pounds and sits on his lap all the time, so it really shouldn't be an issue. I didn't want to test that theory though, so that's why the actual snapshot is of me kneeling by his side -- I didn't want to break his knees. After all, he's got a busy night coming up! I thought that would be it -- take the photo with Santa and then go on my merry way, but he wouldn't let me go -- he wanted to know what I wanted for Christmas, and I got to have a lovely little chat with him. No, I'm not telling you what I told him, but we did talk about his busy upcoming night, and I learned some fun facts about how he gets around the world. He doesn't use reindeer in Australia, for instance; he uses white kangaroos.

Here are some other interesting things I've learned about Santa Claus.

The basis for the Christian Era Santa Claus is Bishop Nicholas. The Orthodox Church raised St. Nicholas to a position of great esteem. The Roman Catholic Church honoured Nicholas as one who helped children and the poor. St. Nicholas' feast day is December 6 (my birthday! another fun fact I learned from my mall Santa) and was commemorated with an annual feast which eventually marked the beginning of the Medieval Christmas.

St. Nicholas was legendary for his kindness and generosity and was a champion of children and the needy. Through his benevolence we find the two basic principles of the holiday spirit - giving to others and helping the less fortunate - as well as the tradition of hanging stockings by the chimney. According to one legend, there were three Italian maidens whose father had lost his fortune. The three maidens were to wed, but their father couls not afford the dowries that were necessary. When St, Nicholas heard of this, he went to their home late one night and tossed three bags of gold down the chimney. The bags miracously landed in each of the sisters stockings, that were hung by the fire to dry. A variation of this story, is that as each girl was to wed, he anonymously tossed a bag into an open window. This may have been used as a way of explaining how Santa Claus delivers gifts to homes that have no chimney.

After the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, the veneration of Catholic saints was banned. But people did not want to give up their annual visits from the gift-giving saint, and they did not want to forget the purpose of the holiday. In some countries the festivities of St. Nicholas Day were merged with Christmas celebrations. St. Nicholas underwent a transformation into a new, non-religious form, but he retained his generous spirit.

In parts of Europe such as Germany, Nicholas the gift-giver had been superseded by a representation of the infant Jesus (the Christ child, or "Christkindlein"). The Christkindlein accompanied Nicholas-like figures with other names (such as "Père Nöel" in France, or he travelled with a dwarf-like helper (known in some places as "Pelznickel," or Nicholas with furs). Belsnickle (as Pelznickel was known in the German-American dialect of Pennsylvania was represented by adults who dressed in furry disguises (including false whiskers), visited while children were still awake, and put on a scary performance. Gifts found by children the next morning were credited to Christkindlein, who had come while everyone was asleep. Over time, the non-visible Christkindlein (whose name mutated into "Kriss Kringle") was overshadowed by the visible Belsnickle, and both of them became confused with St. Nicholas and the emerging figure of Santa Claus.

The Dutch-American Santa Claus achieved full Americanization in 1823 in a poem 'A Visit from St. Nick' (The Night Before Christmas) by Clement C. Moore. His poem gave an Arctic flavor to Santa Claus's image. He substituted eight tiny reindeer and a sleigh for the horse and wagon. He included such details as Santa's wink, nod, laugh and the myth by which the 'jolly old elf' returns up the chimney. It is Moore's description that we think of today: "He had a broad face, and a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly."

There's a lot of talk about the commercialization of Christmas. I for one noticed that Christmas decorations competed with Halloween goodies in the stores this year. It does seem that retailers want more from us earlier each year. This causes some disgruntlement for some people, which I can understand.

As a Christian, I wholeheartedly support the idea that Christmas should remain a celebration of the Christ Child's earthly birth. There are many ways that I personally try to retain that in my mind even while shopping amidst the hustle and bustle of stores and malls. But there is something about this image of Santa Claus that I love and that strikes a very tender chord in my heart. I love the idea that in this era of money-grubbing, getting-ahead-at-all-costs, think-about-yourself-first-others-later attitude that seems so prevalent in our current society, there is a figure of a gift-giving, selfless individual who has an entire army of helpers at his disposal to help bring joy and happines to children and the child-like one day a year.

You may call him commercial, but I call him a visible reminder of what I need to be not just at Christmas time, but all year round -- happy, selfless, a good listener, able to discern between right and wrong, and actively engaged in good causes always.

I hope your Christmas wishes come true.
May you enjoy a peaceful and joyous holiday.

Merry Christmas, everyone!