Radio discussion a week or so ago focussed on Christmas at the high school. No one presented the news on this, so the discussion has been only partly a public one. However, the question of who Santa Claus is did arise. This review is primarily of the fascinating, pre-Coca Cola history.
…Patron saint of children, scholars, sailors, travelers, merchants, pawnbrokers, pirates, robbers, Russia, numerous towns and cities (mostly ports), also protector from thieves and criminals, guarantor of debts and of justice in this world and the next, St. Nicholas of Myra was probably the most popular saint of the Middle Ages. The diffusion of his cult in both East and West and the multiplicity of the circumstances in which he was called upon to intervene were certainly unequalled….
St. Nicholas’s feast day, Dec. 6, smoothed the way to the blending of his cult with pagan winter festivities and seasonal gift-giving in northern Europe. His ancient association with children and his celebrated generosity assured his survival even in Protestant countries, notably the Netherlands (he is the patron saint of Amsterdam) where the cult of saints had been rejected by the reformers. In some places apart from the Low Countries, such as the South Tirol, Switzerland and Austria, Sint Nikolaas/Sankt Niklaus has even persisted today as the giver of winter gifts in defiance of the near hegemony of his bastard offspring Santa Claus.
…As the final section of the show commendably demonstrates, the transition from St. Nicholas to Santa Claus was far from a natural development. Although containing vestiges of Old World folklore, Santa was a New World invention closely associated with new ways of advertising and selling products. Thomas Nast in his illustrations for “Harper’s Weekly” did much to establish his now familiar form. By January 1881, Nast’s bearded, twinkly-eyed, holly-sprigged, toy-bearing “Merry Old Santa Claus” looked practically as he does today. By the end of the century he had also acquired a wife, Mrs. Claus, and an outsourced labor force of nonunionized elves working overtime in a factory in the region of the North Pole.