The Story Behind Santa
It's a wonderful myth: A fairyland inhabited by a flamboyantly dressed,
compulsively merry father figure in a red suit, his few, vaguely
referenced assistants and some implausible English and German reindeer with motivational names (in German, "Donner'' is thunder, "Blitzen'' is flash), all of whom combine to drop treasures down the chimneys of preschoolers who haven't been unduly rebellious during the 12 months past. Nothing in childhood equals the Santa Claus myth, and nothing ever will.
But when it ends, we offer nothing to replace it. Its end is life's
first let-down. Too bad, because it's an unnecessary waste of the
beautiful story behind the myth.
The Columbia Encyclopedia<> says unequivocally: "The career and
qualities attributed to Santa Claus are all recently acquired.'' Oh?
Come with me to the southwestern shores of what is now Turkey, circa
300 A.D., to the country of Lycia, a land of 10,000-foot mountains with
freezing winters, scanty summer rainfall and, in the central region,
no running water--only wells that frequently dried up when summer came.
As one archaeologist put it: "Altogether a hard and, and it had a hardy
folk.'' Settlement is traced back to the third millennium B.C., and
Lycians were among the bravest of the Trojan allies in Homer's
From Patara, the most important harbor of Lycia and once a religious
center with an oracle that rivalled the one at Delphi, came a true
descendant of this ancient stock, a boy named Nicholas. Educated at
nearby Xanthus, the greatest city of Lycia, he traveled to Egypt and
Palestine, became a Christian, was imprisoned during the Roman emperor
Diocletian's persecution of the new sect, then released under
Constantine. Though obviously young, Nicholas attended the Council of
Nicaea in 325 A.D., where he supposedly slapped a heretic "so that his bones rattled.''
One senses why Nicholas became bishop of ancient Myra, some 40 miles
from Patara, at an early age--an event honored in medieval Europe by
a widespread custom of electing locally each year, on Dec. 6th, the
Saint's feast day, a boy bishop who "served'' through Christmas.
Nicholas was revered when alive for his good works, was canonized,
had a host of beneficent miracles attributed to him by later clerical
biographers and became the patron saint of children, virgins, sailors,
travelers, those in peril on the high seas, scholars, merchants,
pawnbrokers, and numerous medieval guilds, and of Sicily, Greece, and
Russia. His name probably derives from the Greek word for "people's
victor.'' In his lifetime, he was renowned for rescuing shipwrecked
sailors, travelers, prisoners, the distressed in general, and, more
than once, his city of Myra. Supposedly he once commandeered corn from an imperial cargo fleet that put in nearby, averting famine for the
Myrans. As embellished by the mythmakers, the holds were nonetheless
full upon arrival of the fleet in Byzantium.
Nicholas's patronage of virgins and children, however, derives not
from miracles but from the simplest and kindest of stories. According
to legend, he secretly threw three purses of gold by night into the
house of an honorable citizen of Myra who had lost his fortune, thus
providing dowries for the man's three daughters, enabling them to
marry. The story appears to be the origin of the pawnbroker's symbol
of three gold balls.
This evolved into a reputation for tossing bags of coins down
chimneys of poor village girls in general, with the same objective.
Those small mesh bags of chocolate "coins'' in gold foil that appear
in candy stores during the holidays, and our myth of secret gifts from
Santa Claus via the chimney, are probably derived from this. The
transformation of Saint Nicholas into Father Christmas, which took
place first in Germany, grew naturally from the association of
Christmas with children, family, and the giving of gifts. Indeed, the
day of gift-giving was originally Dec. 6th, and still is in certain
areas of northern Europe. So much for the encyclopedia.
In the small coastal town of Demre, which encompasses ancient Myra,
a large yellow sign with the legend "Baba Noel'' (Turkish for Father
Christmas) directs the traveler to the 5th-century Byzantine church
dedicated to St. Nicholas. Probably the oldest church in Turkey, it has
four aisles and a rounded, three-window apse in which rests a small
stone altar. Cloisters line one side, and the remains of St. Nicholas
may originally have rested in, or under, a long niche on the other. The
church is rather beautiful in structure. A sizable garden with a modern
statue of Father Christmas carrying his bag of gift shelters the
By the 6th century the church had become a well-known pilgrimage
shrine. In 808 the invading Saracens set out to destroy the tomb,
failing when the saint supposedly misdirected them to another
sarcophagus. In 1087 he was less vigilant, and Italian sailors and
merchants stole the body and brought it to Bari, on the southeast coast
of Italy, to serve as their protector. Bari then became the pilgrimage
point, and even today one finds at its charming church of St. Nicholas
no ready reference to the great saint's true origins. Special services
are still held beside the tomb in Myra on Dec. 6th.
Santa Claus doesn't have to be a bubble that pops when a child turns five. All of the long, traditional history indicates that he was a real
man--and a strong, courageous, purposeful, intelligent one, who lived
for others. Any child who is ready to shed the myth is ready to receive
that message. Why not give it?