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LONG BEFORE the bright red suit, the rotund figure, and the flying reindeer, the mythical Santa Claus was a real person named Saint Nicholas.

The real St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra (modern Turkey) and a follower of Christ in the Fourth century. He became famous for his love for children and his generosity. Over the years, stories of his kindness grew. Different nations added their own national elements to the images surrounding St. Nicholas.

But how did St. Nicholas, the follower of Christ, become a jolly fat man who slides down chimneys to leave gifts for children?

Until the 1800s, the image of St. Nicholas was one of a tall, thin man wearing a bishop’s robe and riding a white horse. Washington Irving offered a new image in 1809 that was expanded by Clement Clark Moore in his 1822 poem, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.”

Moore was a professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York. On Christmas Eve in 1822, New York lay under a blanket of snow. Moore had been helping Jan, his grounds keeper shovel snow. Jan was a Dutchman, a tubby little man with a white beard, twinkling eyes, and rosy cheeks. That evening, Jan was driving Mr. Moore in a horse-drawn sleigh to buy a turkey from a Manhattan market an hour away when Moore got the idea for the poem.

As the snow continued to fall, Moore sat in the sleigh and composed the poem. That night, he read it to his family, who loved it. The next year one of his children took it to Sunday School to be read. The teacher, impressed by the poem, took it to the local paper, the Troy (NY) Sentinel that published it anonymously on December 23, 1823.

For 15 years Moore denied authorship because, as a scholar, he felt it was too embarrassing to acknowledge authorship. The published poem was an instant success. Thomas Nast, cartoonist with Harper’s Weekly sketched drawings of Moore’s St. Nicholas. That image is the most prevalent to this day.

As for the name Santa Claus, it is the English pronunciation of the Dutch word for St. Nicholas, Sinterklass. American children adopted the Dutch pronunciation. But with the American accent, it came out Santa Claus.

The red suit came from a German artist, who remembered that the bishop’s robe was red. The flying sled and reindeer were from Russian origin.

Still, his real name is St. Nicholas. He wasn’t the stubby little man in a bright red suit with flying reindeer. He was a follower of Christ who lived out his faith with a lot of love and a bountiful generosity.

by Stephen James
[Christian Single, December 1994, p30-31]

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