Tag Archives: Santa Claus

I Believe: Part 2

English: Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, &q...

Thomas Nast’s most famous drawing, “Merry Old Santa Claus”, from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper’s Weekly. Thomas Nast immortalized Santa Claus’ current look with an initial illustration in an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, as part of a large illustration titled “A Christmas Furlough” in which Nast set aside his regular news and political coverage to do a Santa Claus drawing. The popularity of that image prompted him to create another illustration in 1881. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Visit From Saint Nicholas, was first published in 1823 anonymously. It is in this poem that we have for the first time: stockings hung by the chimney, eight reindeer (named), reindeer and sleigh landing on the roof, a pack full of toys on his back, white beard, a short pipe, and Santa as a “fat elf”.

The chimney and stockings originally, as I said last week, started with the original Saint Nicholas, but in this poem we have the stockings filled with toys as part of Santa’s job (instead the only job). With the older Christian mythology of Bishop Nicholas, all the gifts are left in the stockings hung by the chimney.

Some today some state that the stockings tradition comes from Scandinavia and the older pagan ritual of leaving out shoes for the god Odin. To be sure the origin in Scandinavia, but not for the western Christian ritual. Today if someone comes up with some new electronic gadget the whole world knows about it. The world was a different place more than 1,000 years ago traditions were often similar, but from different origins in different parts of the world. In Scandinavia the shoes (or stockings) were left outside the door (instead of by the chimney) with hay and carrots in them for Odin’s horses and he replaced them with candy. In Turkey, Christians were unaware of the pagan traditions in Scandinavia. In Christian tradition, the stockings were left empty by the chimney, and filled with gifts (such as St. Nicholas’ gift of a dowry) by Saint Nicholas.

Why though was Santa Claus fat, and why did he smoke? Ah yes. Not very politically correct, well not for the 21st century, though very politically correct over 100 years ago. When tobacco was first discovered and brought back to Europe, it was very expensive and smoked only in pipes. Smoking became a status symbol, a sign of wealth and became wide spread. More than just smoking a pipe, the length of the pipe was also indicated a person’s social status in life.

If you were rich, you had your own pipe, a long stemmed pipe (I have one for my Santa collection). The common man did not own his own pipe. The common man would smoke at a tavern or inn (a bar). The innkeeper left pipes on the bar. A customer would pick up one of these pipes, break off the tip, and put his tobacco in the bowl to smoke. When the customer was done, he would lay the pipe on the bar and the next customer would pick it up and break the tip off, following the same steps of the previous customer. So, when Clement Clarke Moore had Santa with a “stump of a pipe” he was identifying Santa with the working class (a very political statement).

Thomas Nast was the first illustrator to give us visual images of Santa Claus, 100’s of images. Nast used a long stem pipe in his images, which made sense for Nast. Nast created an entire factory for Santa to make toys for all the children of the world (which he identified as being at the North Pole). A man who could afford all of this, including all the workers, and could give away the toys free was obviously wealthy. So, Nast used the long pipe to identify Santa as wealthy. Santa was over weight for the same reason, only wealthy people could afford enough food to be overweight.

Another controversy is over Santa’s red and white clothes. On Wikipedia it correctly states that many companies before Coca Cola used their company colors for Santa’s clothes in their advertising, and as such, several companies had red and white Santa’s before coke. Wikipedia goes on to say that for this reason, our red and white Santa is not because of Coca Cola. Well … yes and no. Yes there were several red and white Santa’s before coke. No, because Coca Cola IS the reason for our red and white Santa. Confused yet? It is simple. When the other companies gave us their red and white Santa, there were still other Santa’s in many colors. However, after Haddon Sundblom began doing the Coca Cola advertising paintings in the 1930’s, all the other Santa’s with other colors went out of style and Santa universally became a red and white suit only Santa. I saw an interview with Mr. Sundblom shortly before he died where he was asked why he painted Santa in red and white. Sundblom said he did that because red and white were Coca Cola’s company colors, the advertising firm did not tell him what colors to use and neither did Coca Cola, Sundblom said he chose them himself (Wikipedia got that one wrong too).

My favorite time of the year and my favorite holiday figure, I have researched Santa and Christmas for decades and I never tire of learning new things about the two. I enjoy giving talks about Santa and Christmas more than any other topic I give talks about. Next year, I will pick up where we have left off. For now, I wish that you and the people you share your life with will have a memorable and happy Christmas, filled with good cheer and love.

May God bless you and keep you …

and …

May you always have …

A Merry Christmas

January 3, 1863 cover of Harper's Weekly, one ...

January 3, 1863 cover of Harper’s Weekly, one of the first depictions of Santa Claus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Portrait of Santa Claus, by Thomas Na...

English: Portrait of Santa Claus, by Thomas Nast, Published in Harper’s Weekly, 1881 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Santa's Spreadsheet, after Haddon Sundblom

Santa’s Spreadsheet, after Haddon Sundblom (Photo credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com)


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I Believe

I believe, and not just because I have a 7-year-old daughter. I have always believed, even when I was a 40-year-old man who thought I would never have children I believed. Why do I believe? To explain, I need to tell a brief history of Santa Claus, and of course, any history of Santa Claus begins with a brief history of St. Nicholas. My rule on my website is no politics or religion. However, as Saint Nicholas was a Christian Bishop it is part of who he was, and as such, it is part of his story. This article is a brief history of Saint Nicholas / Santa Claus and makes no judgments for or against Christianity in keeping with my rule.

Nicholas was born in present day Turkey to wealthy Greek parents. Orphaned while a small boy he was raised by his uncle Nicholas. Uncle Nicholas was the bishop of Patara. As he grew older, our Nicholas became a priest under his uncle’s tutelage. On his uncle’s death, Father Nicholas became Bishop Nicholas. Religious icons are almost as old as Christianity, and play a part in some of the legends of Saint Nicholas. In the early days of Christianity the majority of people could not read or write, (priests were the exception to this). Icons are religious images created according to strict rules. Each saint’s icon has specific items in the image that identify that particular saint. In the case of Saint Nicholas, he holds a book in his left hand and in his right hand, he holds three purses, or three gold coins, or three balls of gold.

The book is a gospel. Saint Nicholas is considered a defender of the faith. At the Council of Nicaea, the Roman Emperor called all the leaders of Christianity together in an attempt to “standardize” the religion. There were two main groups within Christianity. The first and smaller group (called Gnostics) believed Jesus was a prophet who was then killed, executed, and buried. They also believed that the way to heaven was through a secret knowledge (Gnosticism). By learning this secret knowledge, people earned their way into heaven. They were the authors of the Gnostic gospels, often referred to as the “forbidden books of the bible”. The second group (which Nicholas was a member of) believed that Jesus was the son of God and rose from the dead, they also believed that no one could earn their way into heaven. This second group believed that people went to heaven only through the grace of God, because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

By now you are asking “Ok, but what does all of this have to do with Saint Nicholas?” When the leader of the Gnostics stood before the Emperor making the case for his side at the Council of Nicaea, Bishop Nicholas calmly walked to the front of the gathering and slapped the Gnostic leader across the mouth, while he was addressing the Emperor. The other Gnostics demanded that Bishop Nicholas immediately be put to death for striking a person in the presence of the Emperor (this was a Roman law). Bishop Nicholas was well liked by all who knew him and he was generous to the poor. Also, Emperor Constantine is believed to have favored Nicholas’ side over the Gnostics. The Emperor decided that Bishop Nicholas would be stripped of all his Bishop’s attire and symbols of his rank, and placed in a cell for the night while the Emperor decided his fate.

In the morning, when the guards went to get Bishop Nicholas, his cell door was opened, all of his Bishop’s vestments were returned, and he was kneeling in prayer. Nicholas’ supporters claimed that Jesus had freed him and the Virgin Mary had returned all of his vestments to him. Emperor Constantine declared that was enough for him he would not go against Jesus and Mary. He restored Nicholas as a bishop. After this, all traces of Gnosticism were removed from the accepted cannon and Gnosticism was outlawed. It is for this reason that icons of Nicholas show him with a book (a gospel) in his right hand.

The three pieces of gold in his other hand are a testament to his generosity to the poor. There was a man who had three daughters, but no dowry. At this time, a woman without a dowry could not marry and would most likely become a prostitute because this would be the only way she would be able to support herself. Bishop Nicholas on hearing of this man and his three daughters provided the dowry for each of the daughters. When each daughter became of age, he secretly made his way to the house at night. He then left a bag of gold coins for the young woman’s dowry. When it was the youngest daughter’s turn, her father decided to hide and see who the anonymous benefactor was. Bishop Nicholas wanted to keep his identity secret, and so tossed the bag of coins down the chimney where they fell in a pair of stockings the daughter had hung over the fireplace to dry.

A myth surrounding Saint Nicholas has him bringing three boys back to life after a butcher had killed them. This story most probably comes from illiterate people mistaking the three gold balls in his hand (in the icon) for three heads. The three gold balls have also been mistaken for three oranges. This is why in Holland it is believed that Sinterklaas comes from Spain. In the time before North America was explored, oranges were imported from Spain to Holland.

Bishop Nicholas spent the rest of his life in service to the church and spent the fortune he inherited from his parents helping the poor, particularly children. During his life, children were considered of no value, and a parent or guardian could do with children as he liked (woman ranked above only children at this time). Bishop Nicholas died on 6 December 343. Traditionally a saint’s feast day is the anniversary of his/her death (the day they enter heaven). In celebration of the feast day of Saint Nicholas gifts are given to children to honor Saint Nicholas. Bishop Nicholas’ reputation as a giver of gifts is the source for our Santa Claus or Father Christmas.

Father Christmas goes back more than 500 years in England, over time he merged with Saint Nicholas into the figure we know today as Santa Claus. The first use of the name Santa Claus goes back to the American colonies in 1773. Santa Claus is also mentioned in Washington Irving’s 1809 History of New York. Santa Claus is an Americanization of the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas.

Santa Claus as we know him today has evolved over the last 200 year. In 1821, in the poem Santeclaus he was described as an old man on a reindeer sleigh. Next came the poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas (known today as Twas the Night Before Christmas or The Night Before Christmas). This poem was published anonymously on 23 December 1823. Today it is attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, though some claim it was written by Henry Livingston Jr. (books and articles have been written on which of these men actually wrote the poem).

A Visit from Saint Nicholas gave us much of what we know today about Santa Claus, but that is for next week.

Nederlands: Sinterklaas tijdens het Het Feest ...

Nederlands: Sinterklaas tijdens het Het Feest van Sinterklaas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Something For Yourself

I want to ask you to do something for yourself, but I need to tell you a couple of stories first.

This past week (just before Halloween), the Halloween stuff went on sale and the Christmas stuff came out at my local Kroger’s. I was telling this to my mother and it prompted a conversation about her best Christmas. That very same Christmas was my worst Christmas, but as a dad myself now, I can understand the parent side and the child side of that one Christmas, but I am getting ahead of myself.

When I was ten years old (gee has it really been 40 years ago … I can’t be that old) we were not going to have a Christmas. It was not that my brothers and I had been bad. My youngest brother had just been born on the 10th of December; we were already poor, and in a time when most people had to pay their own medical bills for the birth of a baby, the birth of Jason used all of the money my parents had. So, this year there would be no Christmas. With two older sons (I was ten and Jeff was eight) in the house to feed as well, there would be no presents for Christmas … for anyone.

Then a local minister, that knew our family’s situation, stepped forward. He mobilized his church and they came through with Christmas for us. He got in a lot of trouble for this when his congregation found out we were not members of their church, he could have lost his job. But, he stood his ground, it was the right thing to do, it was the Christian thing to do, and he was glad he did it. I guess you could say his attitude was consequences be damned, he was helping this family (though the word damn is not in his vocabulary). As an adult I will always be grateful to him for risking his job (and when you place your job at risk you are also placing your family at risk) to help us. My mother will always be grateful because her boys had presents to open on Christmas morning.

I understand that parental pain. We tell our children that Santa has a list of good boys and girls, and that he checks it twice. Then, Christmas morning your child runs to the tree and there is nothing under the tree. Even if they can hold back the tears, even if they do not ask the questions out loud, the questions are still there … and unanswered. “What did I do wrong? Why didn’t Santa bring me anything? With all the boys and girls in the whole world, did he just forget me?” Then comes the return to school and all the pain comes back again. All the other kids talking about what they got for Christmas and asking you what you got for Christmas. What did you get for Christmas? Nothing. The boy who got only socks does not feel so bad now.

My brother and I did not have to go through this. That church provided all the gifts we opened. My younger brother had a great Christmas and played with his toys non-stop all day. But like I said this was my worst Christmas ever, maybe I noticed this one small little thing because I was older than Jeff. Maybe, I noticed this one little difference because, as my grandfather used to say behind my back, I had an “old head on my shoulders.”

Whatever the reason I did notice the difference, the difference I noticed was that not one of my gifts had my name on the package. Every one of my gifts was addressed to “boy age 10.” I explained the parent side of this Christmas. Now I want to explain the ten-year-old-little-boy side of this Christmas.

I had no presents for Christmas. Sure I had stuff to open, but those presents were not for me, those presents were not “To: Joe From: Santa”, or from anyone else for that matter. I am Joe, I am not “boy age ten”. I went to school with a classroom full of “boy age ten.” If those gifts had been for me, they would have been addressed “To: Joe.” I knew I had not been a bad boy that year. Not only had I tried to be good, but as soon as my baby brother, Jason, came home I started feeding, changing, and taking care of him as much as possible. I watched him, bathed him, and in the future there would be many times when I was both mother and father to him. That cost me, to this day Jason and I have never had that brother-to-brother relationship (but that is another story, one that I am not going to share). My point is that I knew I was not bad, but I also knew that no one went to the store to buy a present for Joe C Combs 2nd. Someone went to the store to buy Christmas gifts for a generic boy who was “age ten.” That hurt, that hurt just like that kid I described in the fifth paragraph above. I did not say anything … to anyone. My mother did not know how I felt until this past week when we talked about that Christmas 40 years ago.

I think part of the reason I stayed quiet for so long was because I understood the intention. The intention was caring, thoughtful, and loving; I knew there were other kids that did not have anything to open, or if they did have something to open, it was only a few packages of things they needed, like socks. I was ten, but I understood these things, and I did not want to hurt anyone else’s feelings.

Why is it that two little boys are abused as children and one becomes a killer while the other one becomes a pediatrician that spends his weekends giving free medical care at the orphanage? In life, it is not what happens to you, but how you react to what happens to you. The one little boy passes the abuse to the next generation and the other little boy becomes a doctor and breaks that chain. That second little boy says “NO! No more will this abuse be passed to the next generation.” Not everything is as large as becoming a doctor or a killer, most things are small. Some things are so small that other people do not notice them, but you do. You know that small little thing (that no one else notices) that happened to you and to your parents before you. You know that you do not like that small thing, it may even hurt your feelings. Do you see the incredible power you have. You. You and no one else has the power to pass that on to another person or to say to yourself, “No. No more will this be passed to another person.” You have that power, no one else has that power, not your parents, your brother or sister, not the President of the United States. You and you alone have that power.

What I did was to spend the next forty years giving something to someone every Christmas, someone who was in need. I now include my daughter.  But, every time I give something it has that person’s name attached to it. I give anonymously, and sometimes I never know who the receiver is (like the angel trees in stores), but I always make sure the receiver’s name is on that package; always, every time, no exceptions.

One year I went to someplace collecting things and had this conversation (this is word for word, or as much of it as I can remember 22 years later).

“Excuse me. I bought this gift, but I want to make sure the child’s name will go on the gift.”

“Sir, we are not allowed to tell you who the gifts go to.”

“I do not care who gets the gift, I just want to make sure the gift will have the child’s name on it when they get it.”

“I’m not allowed to tell you who will get the gift.”

“I do not want to know the child’s name, I just want to know the gift will have the child’s name on it before they get it.”

“We do not give out the names of the people receiving the gifts.”

“Good. I do not want to know the name. But, if you cannot tell me a name will go on this before a kid gets it then I will keep it.”

She still would not guarantee me that the kid’s name would go on the gift. So, I went to Wal-Mart. The angel tree at Wal-Mart had angel cutouts with a child’s first name, age, sizes, and a toy that they wanted too. I walked up to the customer service desk and had this conversation.

“I have a gift I want to give for your angel tree, but I did not buy it here. Is that ok?”

“Oh yes sir. Thank you sir. You can leave it here if you want too, and I will take care of it for you.”

“I just didn’t know if you would accept something from another store for your angel tree.”

“We would like you to buy it here, but you do not have too. It’s about the kids.”

Yes Wal-Mart, it is about the kids, you are right. So, I left my gift at a Wal-Mart where I knew the child’s name would go on the gift before it was delivered. I know Wal-Mart gets bad publicity sometimes, but for everything I don’t like about them, I will never say anything bad about them because of two employees (this woman is the first and I will tell you another time about the second).

So, what is it I want you to do for yourself this Christmas? I want you to give something to someone anonymously. I want you to go to a church, fire station (remember Toys For Tots, the fire departments do this every year with the Marine Corps Reserve), or one of those angel trees and give something, something for a child. I know many of you are having a hard time now, and do not know what you will do for Christmas for your family. Just donate a pair of mittens to keep a child’s fingers warm. You have seven weeks. Take a coffee cup, set it on your counter and put some of your change in it every day, all your quarters, or all your dimes if you cannot spare all of your change. At the end of those seven weeks you will be able to buy those mittens, who knows maybe you will be able to buy two pairs and help two children.

I do not enjoy competition. I have awards in several fields (art, music, writing, military service & etc), people do not take you seriously if you do not have awards. My philosophy has always been that no matter how good you are someone is better, no matter how bad you are someone is worse. That applies to finances too. No matter how good you have it, someone is better off. No matter how bad your money is now, someone is worse off.

Yes, I know some of you are struggling right now, but there are those in worse shape than yourself and your family. One pair of mittens may not seem like much, but it may be the whole world to a child this Christmas. Maybe one pair of mittens is a big deal for you this year. Do you remember the Christmas story about the woman who cut her hair and sold it to buy a watch chain for her husband, while her husband was selling his pocket watch to buy silver hair combs for his wife for Christmas? It was everything they had. It was a Christmas when a husband and wife gave not only their most prized possession, but their only possession for each other.

Giving to someone else does something for you and to you. The harder it is for you to give, the more you receive when you give. I can’t explain it, but it is so, I know from experience.

So, this year I want you to give something to a stranger for Christmas, THAT is what I want to ask you to do for yourself.

Thank you, and may you have a good holiday season, and may you always feel the love that only giving creates.

English: Santa Claus with a little girl Espera...

English: Santa Claus with a little girl Esperanto: Patro Kristnasko kaj malgranda knabino Suomi: Joulupukki ja pieni tyttö (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Examination and Trial of Father Christmas,...

The Examination and Trial of Father Christmas, (1686), published shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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