Santa Claus hasn’t always looked like the jolly old fellow we know today. Like so many other American traditions, he’s a product of the great American melting pot – a blend of many different cultures and customs. But the most influential figure in the shaping of who we know now as Santa was a real man, known as St. Nicholas of Myra. He was a fourth century bishop, and is legendary for being generous and kind.
According to one legend, St. Nicholas heard of a farmer who had three daughters of marrying age who could not afford to pay their dowries. Knowing the farmer was too proud to accept an offer of money, he climbed atop their home and tossed three bags of coins down their chimney, each of which landed in a stocking that each girl had washed and hung their by the fire to dry. The next morning when they woke, they found the gift and each went on to marry and live happily ever after. When word of St. Nicholas’ generosity spread, families far and wide hung stockings by their fireplaces and hoped to also receive gifts.
Because of his wisdom and sensitivity, many groups claimed St. Nicholas as their patron saint. Children, orphans, sailors, and even thieves often prayed to the compassionate saint for guidance and protection, and even entire countries including Russia and Greece, also adopted him as their patron saint, as have students and pawnbrokers. Eventually, the image of the stately saint was transformed onto an almost mystical being, one known for rewarding the good and punishing the bad.
The date of his death, December 6th, was commemorated with an annual feast, which gradually came to mark the beginning of the medieval Christmas season. On St. Nicholas’ Eve, youngsters would set out food for the saint, straw for his horses and schnapps for his attendant. The next morning, obedient children awoke to find their gifts replaced with sweets and toys, found their offering untouched, and might also find a bundle of firewood. When people came to America, they brought the legend of St. Nicholas with them, which evolved into excitedly awaiting his arrival on Christmas Eve.
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