From Bishop Nicholas (Sinterklaas) to Santa Claus

Posted by Kitara Julian On 6:58 PM

"The Night Before Christmas”, a poem written in 1823 by Clement Clarke Moore, heralded Santa Claus in America. Or so the story goes. But centuries before, (280-342 AD) to be exact, Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna in Turkey brought joy to poor children by strewing gifts and goodies their way on his birthday.
That’s the same Sinterklaas (Flemish) and Sint-Nicolaas (Netherlands) we celebrate on the eve of December 5th (or the morning of the 6th), the birth date of the Bishop. And Saint Nicholas as we call him is patron saint of children.
The pilgrims of Holland brought this tradition to America in the 17th century, also to New York (formerly Nieuw Amsterdam).
From there the Santa Claus morphed into the jolly friendly fellow we know today, continuing to enchant children wherever he goes on his sleigh, the famous sleigh powered by reindeer.
Speaking of which, my favourite Yuletide carol is “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. It is one of the very few with a deeper message and which few seem to realize.
Nobody cared much for Rudolph. He was a laughing-stock and wasn’t allowed to play with the other reindeer. He was ridiculed, mocked or ignored, until Santa recognized great merit in that glowing nose. (Read: as in recognizing his worth and talent.)
Then of course all the other reindeer loved Rudolph. The message in Rudolph’s song isn’t unlike the story by Hans Christian Andersen of the “Ugly Ducking”, who turned out be a swan.
[Just like we all ‘love’ Vincent van Gogh or other artists, now that they’ve been universally recognized, a century or more after they were living and breathing amongst us.]
Getting back to the song, it was Gene Autry, the legendary “singing cowboy”, who made an evergreen recording in 1949. That’s when I heard it, during one of my transatlantic sailings with Holland America Line to the New World, when I worked as a steward in the first-class dining room.
Then, we also heard Gene Autry singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” back home on Radio Luxembourg, broadcast station for the U.S. Army in Europe. (That’s where I learned my first English, through Radio Luxembourg.)
Then, there is the Scandinavian tradition (where the word “Yuletide” originates), with its Festival of Light. Yule has its origin from a Scandinavian word (e.g. in Finnish it’s “Joul”) and means ‘feast’.
Also there is the Norse mythology of Thor, the God of Thunder. He would fly through the sky in a sleigh pulled by magical goats. (And in the American song, the seventh reindeer is named “Donder”, which in my native tongue translates as “Thunder”). Pagan traditions, ancient mythologies and history, all mixed up. More to come on the subject. Signing off, Henri

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