Two truths and a lie: Santa Claus

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Two truths and a lie: Santa Claus

TOPIC: Santa Claus

TRUTH: Santa Claus is based on St. Nicholas, a Greek bishop.

St. Nicholas was born in Patara, a small Mediterranean town in modern day Turkey, in the year 280. He became a priest at age 19 and a bishop in Asia Minor at the age of 20. Much of his life story is apocryphal. We know the Roman Empire was not kind to Christians early in Nicholas’ life. He was arrested, jailed and tortured for more than a decade for continuing to practice his faith when it was forbidden. When Rome abruptly changed course after military victory in 312 AD and not just allowed but promoted Christianity, Nicholas was released and resumed his position as bishop.

He was known as a troublemaker, a curmudgeon and a man with a short temper. He was most famous for slugging a fellow bishop who claimed Jesus was a prophet and not divine — a still undecided argument in the Catholic Church at the time. Nicholas would be thrown into dungeon for the public slugging, but when Jesus’ divinity became canon, Nicholas’ legend was cemented.

His only tie to children was told by St. Bonaventure nearly 1,000 years later related that St. Nicholas once went to a tavern where the owner — in a time of famine — murdered, dismembered and pickled his three son to serve them to customers. St. Nicholas doesn’t fall for it, and puts the children back together. By the Middle Ages, this story helped cement St. Nicholas as the patron saint of children, who would deliver trinkets to those who behaved and twigs to those who were naughty.

TRUTH: Santa Claus is milky white, fat and jolly with twinkling blue eyes — according to Washington Irving.

We’ve covered that North Pole Santa Claus is based on a lanky, oft-imprisoned Mediterranean known for his temper.

But through the myth-making process, especially in the last 200 years, Santa’s appearance has changed dramatically.

Much of modern Santa can be traced back to American author Washington Irving, noted for creating “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Most Americans did not celebrate Christmas in the early 1800s — it was too British a tradition (Yule logs and fig pudding) for a country who had just warred (and would again soon enough) with the English.

But Irving loved Christmas and he took a lot of creative license in creating something similar to the man we know today.

Irving Americanized the Dutch word “Sinterklass,” itself corrupted from “Saint Nicholas.” Santa Claus was born. The new fella delivers gifts to children, as he had in old stories, but he has new accoutrements: a low, broad-brimmed hat, a flying wagon and a long pipe. Just 10 years later, failed New York poet Clement Clark Moore penned “Twas the Night before Christmas,” which cemented the man as plump and jolly and driven around by eight flying reindeer. The great political cartoonist Thomas Nast took Moore’s poem and created the image of Santa we see today in malls and advertisements across the country.

LIE: Santa is responsible for all the gifts of Christmas.

While Santa has his place under the tree, he gets a lot of help along the way. Parents, for instance, make a lot of sacrifices in order to make sure Christmas goes off without a hitch.

And don’t forget, the whole reason for the holiday is the birth of Jesus. It is Jesus’ teachings about love, respect, kindness and charity that offer us an opportunity to make Christmas meaningful. And the best part: no reindeer required.