Monday, December 11, 2006

Apologetic for a Random Reader (II)

The claim by fashionably skeptical secularists and a few para-Christian groups: "Santa Claus is a myth. We don't even know where the idea came from."

If by "we" you mean "those of us who prop up our own convictions with our own convictions, rather than careful study," then yes, you don't know. If by "don't even know" you mean "can't find evidence documented to 21st century standards," then you're only half wrong; we have documentation on where and when he lived and who he was, and then historical traditions that are pretty consistent in the relevant details.

The popular incarnation of Santa that we see today was started the better part of a century ago in a Coca-Cola ad campaign, but the trail doesn't exactly get cold right afterwards. The name comes from the Dutch "Sinterklaas," which is a contraction of the Dutch for "St. Nicholas."

Nicholas, an actual saint, was a fourth century bishop of Myra, in present-day Turkey. Especially in Europe, he's still depicted as a bishop, complete with miter and crozier. His feast day is December 6, when I should have made this post. He was known for giving anonymously to the poor, to the point that after his death such anonymous charity continued and was still attributed to his actions. He is also the patron saint of pawnbrokers; three gold balls are traditionally hung outside of pawn shops in honor of his best-known anonymous gift, three bags of gold secretly tossed into a poor man's house as dowries for his three daughters. Well, it was anonymous at the time, anyway.

The name Kris Kringle comes from the German for Christ Child (probably thanks to Martin Luther), in the interest of focusing on Jesus Himself over a man who...well, I needn't remind you of the whole commercialization-of-Christmas thing, which even then could have added to the distraction from Christ, if not added to the richness of a Christocentric holiday. Somehow the name and the saint were conflated.

There is the most tenuous of pagan ties through what we think of as Father Christmas. In some places in pagan Europe, around this time of year a man would dress as what we'd recognize as Old Man Winter; centuries ago, the old man would go house to house, where the hospitality shown him was supposed to reflect how gentle the winter would be to that household. There was no association with bringing gifts; the only material holdover I can see would be leaving him a snack, and even that one is mitigated by the fact that hospitality isn't exclusive to paganism, and that St. Nicholas traditions exist even where Christmas doesn't happen during cold winters, so placating a personification of the weather doesn't even have the remotest symbolic value.

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