Santa Claus

An icon of Christmas

December 20, 2022

Over the years, Christmas has blended in to a mishmash of traditions with the blurring of the lines between its purely religious meaning and the more secular elements.

A page from The Night Before Christmas Golden Book, copyright 1955

Take Santa Claus, for example. The idea of the jolly elf who brings presents for children began several hundred years ago. He is based on Nicholas of Myra, the patron saint of children.

The image of Santa Claus as a portly and white bearded man dressed in a red suit trimmed with white fur can be traced back to 1823 with the publication of “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

The images which that poem conjured up captured the imagination of people everywhere as the story became a favorite to read to children on Christmas Eve.

You will be pleased to know that the Infallible Wikipedia has an extensive and exhaustive article in regards to everyone’s favorite Christmas elf:

“In 1821, the book A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve was published in New York. It contained ‘Old Santeclaus with Much Delight’, an anonymous poem describing Santeclaus on a reindeer sleigh, bringing rewards to children. Some modern ideas of Santa Claus seemingly became canon after the anonymous publication of the poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (better known today as The Night Before Christmas) in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on 23 December 1823; Clement Clarke Moore later claimed authorship, though some scholars argue that Henry Livingston, Jr. (who died nine years before Moore’s claim) was the author. St. Nick is described as being ‘chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf’ with ‘a little round belly’, that ‘shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly’, in spite of which the ‘miniature sleigh’ and ‘tiny reindeer’ still indicate that he is physically diminutive. The reindeer were also named: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem (Dunder and Blixem came from the old Dutch words for thunder and lightning, which were later changed to the more German sounding Donner and Blitzen).

By 1845, ‘Kris Kringle’ was a common variant of Santa in parts of the United States. A magazine article from 1853, describing American Christmas customs to British readers, refers to children hanging up their stockings on Christmas Eve for ‘a fabulous personage’ whose name varies: in Pennsylvania he is usually called ‘Krishkinkle’, but in New York he is ‘St. Nicholas’ or ‘Santa Claus’. The author quotes Moore’s poem in its entirety, saying that its descriptions apply to Krishkinkle too.”

There is so much more in the article which I would encourage all Santa researchers to peruse.

Me and my sister visiting Santa circa 1960

From my perspective, Santa Claus is as integral to Christmas as a tree or a nativity scene and he’s always been a part of the holiday for me. Over the past several days, as I considered this topic, the biggest challenge was deciding what, exactly, to share.

I found early home movies of this author at age four or five, standing on the porch of our house with a three foot tall stiff paper Santa and Mrs. Claus. There was a photo of my sister and me sitting on Santa’s lap as well as one of my older brother and one of our cousins.

On Christmas Eve each year we dutifully hung our stockings only to discover them full of goodies the next morning; evidence that Santa had paid a visit overnight.

But perhaps the best part of the Santa Claus myth was when I became a parent and could share the joy with my own children. Like me, both my son and daughter looked forward to hanging the stockings and anticipating Santa’s visit.

I saw the magic happen with my son in 1991. It was a week or two before Christmas and the local fire district had a tradition of Santa riding on the back of a fire truck through the neighborhood.

For a small boy, this was nirvana. On this particular night – well, it was probably no later than six p.m. – my sister and her daughter were visiting and we were eating dinner when I ‘heard’ the fire truck a few blocks over.

What they would do is have the truck’s lights flashing and run the sirens to announce their approach. When we heard the sound, we sprung into action, bundling the children into their coats, arriving out on the street just in time to watch as the big red fire truck, with lights ablaze, roll slowly towards us.

Closer and closer it came, it’s sirens blaring. And then the truck was in front of our house and Santa – riding on the back of the truck – turned and waved at my son and niece – then jumped down and gave each a candy cane.

A moment later, Santa was back on the truck and spirited away up the street. We waved Santa goodbye and then it was back into the house to finish eating dinner. My son, however, was having none of that. I put him in his high chair but he refused to sit down, instead standing there and repeating over and over and over in a staccato voice: “Santa Claus… Fire Truck!”

His little fist was extended and he pumped it up and down pronouncing each syllable: “San-ta-Claus… Fi-er-Truck!”

This continued for the next half an hour and even after that it was a tough night getting him to settle down and go to sleep.

I think for my sister and me it’s one of our favorite Christmas memories and one we reminisce about every year.

When cleaning out my parents’ home, I came across a copy of the book “The Night Before Christmas.” Picking it up and reading it was like getting together with an old friend: the story and colorful artwork a familiar companion from Christmas’ past. Inside the front cover, it was signed by my grandmother who gave the book as a gift to my sister (I got Frosty the Snowman that year). It seems like my sister said I could keep the book. I include it as part of my holiday decorations each year now.

Three treasured books from my childhood. The Night Before Christmas and Frosty The Snowman were gifts to me and my sister on Christmas circa 1961

Truly, it wouldn’t seem like Christmas without Santa Claus. And a fire truck.

The links:

And, yes, Santa riding on Fire trucks is a thing all across America:

Eastside Fire and Rescue in Sammamish have been doing the Santa thing for many years

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