Wednesday 5 December 2018

Little Saint Nick: how Christmas got its Santa

6th December is the feast of St Nicholas - or Little Saint Nick as the Beach Boys referred to him in their 1973 festive offering. I wonder how many readers didn’t know that, or had forgotten. It's a festival that, like many, appeals to me as I love special days and seasons. Every month has its particular feel; I enjoy each of the four seasons for their own atmosphere, and above all for the contrast between them.

I take childlike pleasure in the big festivals - family birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Shrove Tuesday, Halloween - as well as many forgotten, neglected or less universally observed days like Epiphany and Candlemas. Follow the links from those words to read my previous posts about the latter two if you haven’t seen them. Moreover, in my long career as a schoolteacher, I enjoyed the traditional landmark events of the academic year like start of term, end of term, Sports Day, Speech Day, Leavers’ Day etc.
Much of our day-to-day home and working life is by necessity routine and repetitive, so days which feel a bit different help to punctuate the year and to give us something to anticipate with excitement then look back on with warmth and affection.
These days, the retail and hospitality industry tries hard to part us from our money by promoting special days like Valentine’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day as occasions for buying cards, gifts and enjoying some special food and drink. Some decry the over-commercialisation of festivals, but I have no problem with it: good luck to hard-pressed retailers or pubs trying to get us to mark an occasion with a card, a gift or a drink.
I also find it interesting that as a society, we seem to crave collective events and enjoy celebrating them: the unexpected and refreshing success of the England football team in the World Cup in Russia palpably raised the spirits of a divided nation for a few heady weeks in summer 2018, and the day of the Semi-Final, an ordinary Wednesday, felt like a public holiday, with beer and burger sales booming as millions with only a passing interest in football used the occasion to go on a night out or invite friends round for a party. Likewise, the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May of the same year proved to be a collective celebration in the early summer sunshine, with the kill-joy republicans suddenly going rather quiet as the nation rejoiced in the happiness of a personable couple with a happy knack of seeming connected to ordinary folk yet retaining the dignity and mystique of monarchy. Sadly, two years on, that story appears to have had a less than happy ending.
Yet we in the UK are not very well off for festivals. Despite attempts by some, we English still seem embarrassed by St George’s Day, tainted as it is by the impression that it somehow the province of the Brexiteer generation. I remain very uneasy about it and therefore indifferent to it, not least because the real St George (ethnically Greek by most accounts) had so little connection with our country. The Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, the French, the Americans and many others have no such problem with their own national day.
And unlike our European neighbours, we don’t seem to have been very good at appropriating religious festivals, secularising them and enjoying them, even without any of the belief. The French enjoy public holidays on Catholic feast days like All Saints, Ascension and Pentecost, despite living in a country where religion is constitutionally excluded from public life. A case of not having your cake yet still eating it!
And what about Harvest Festival? Here, it’s marked in churches and primary schools, but nowhere else. But the Americans have combined the notion of giving thanks for food and drink with gratitude for the founding fathers of their nation to create Thanksgiving, a celebration of family life, and which helps keep Christmas where it belongs in December.
At the time of writing, we have reached the time of year when we are being told “it’s Christmas” by everyone from the BBC to Noddy Holder, in a manner which is quite fun but risks having us fed up with Christmas three weeks before the day. Which is where St Nicholas - aka Santa Claus - should be able to help! St Nicholas Day presents a golden opportunity, taken by people in many other countries, to enjoy a little celebration ahead of Christmas.
Having lived in Eastern France for a year in my early 20s, I have ever since celebrated St. Nicholas Day on December 6th. When our children were little, we told them to leave a pair of shoes by the chimney, and in the morning it was filled with a Lindt chocolate Santa or some such. Just a little treat, but a nice way of teaching them the origin of Santa, and a little landmark on the way to Christmas. This custom is widely observed in some cultures.
So who was St. Nicholas?  Many people just know him as Santa Claus. While the modern figure of Santa derives from St. Nick, the real man behind the fictitious Santa was St. Nicholas of Myra. Born in 280 A.D. in Asia Minor, he lost his parents at an early age, but leaving him great wealth when they died. He was known for giving anonymous gifts to help those in need and was eventually made a bishop. He died on December 6th; thus this day is now St. Nicholas Day. He was apparently a generous and kind man, so the association with gift-giving seems obvious. The history of leaving shoes or stockings out for St. Nicholas derives from the story of his leaving small bags of gold for a man and his three daughters. In those days, women had to bring a dowry to a marriage in order to find a good husband. St. Nick heard of a man who had three daughters but could not afford the dowry. Without it, the daughters would most likely enter a life of prostitution instead of being able to marry. According to legend, St. Nick threw three bags of gold through their window at night, saving them from a life at a brothel and creating his reputation as the patron of gift giving.
The feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated around the world in various cultures. In Greece (as well as Albania, Serbia, and Bulgaria), St. Nicholas is celebrated on the eve of his feast day, December 5th. This day is known as Shen’Kolli i Dimnit (Saint Nicholas of Winter). In these cultures, this day is one of fasting. Most people abstain from meat or fast completely or prepare a feast to eat just after midnight.

In Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of eastern France, children leave their shoes or boots in front of the fireplace for St. Nicholas on the evening of December 5th. Often, they include a carrot or a treat for his horses, as legend has it that he arrived with his horses via sleigh or steamboat in these areas. (a tradition which has transferred into the “sherry and mince pie for Santa, carrot for Rudolph idea for Christmas Eve). 
St. Nicholas is said to arrive on December 6th and give children small gifts and chocolates. In the weeks leading up to this day, parents and grandparents tell stories of the legend, including a disturbing but popular addition: the story goes that three children wandered away and got lost, and a butcher lured them into his shop where he killed them and salted them away in a large tub. According to legend, St. Nicholas revived the boys and brought them home to their families. This story earned him his reputation as protector of children in France. The butcher (known as “Père Fouettard,” meaning “Father Whipper”) is imagined to follow St. Nicholas in penance and leave lumps of coal or even whips misbehaving children. In France, statues and paintings often portray this event, showing the saint with children in a barrel.
In Germany and Austria (and some other countries in this region), children leave out a boot for St. Nicholas and receive small toys, coins, or sweets. In these areas, St. Nicholas is commonly depicted as a bishop and is often portrayed on a horse. Like in the French story, a sinister companion accompanies him, in this case the even more terrifying demon-like Krampus. This beast is thought to punish children who misbehave and to capture particularly naughty children in his sack and carry them away to his lair. The Krampus has roots in Germanic folklore and its influence has spread to Austria, southern Bavaria, South Tyrol, northern Friuli, Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, and Croatia.

So St Nicholas is a well-known legendary figure in many countries, and the connections to Santa Claus - gift giving, naughty or nice etc. – are clear, although the timing of his festival is coincidentally near Christmas, rather than because of the Santa connection.
However, the Christmas connections present us with a nice “extra” feast to help us get through the long, excited wait for Christmas. So put your shoes out and see what Little Saint Nick puts in them!

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