Friday, December 5, 2008
Who is Santa Clause and what has he to do with shoes?
Although Santa Claus in one form or other is a familiar figure to people all over the world, the weight advantaged, red suited, old man variety is of comparative recent origin. Giving gifts during the festive season however is an old and treasured custom. Modern Santa is a mixture of many historical and cultural traditions.
The most ancient Santa was St Nicholas of Myria. Born about 280 AD in Patara (now Turkey) and patron saint of sailors, merchants, wrongly accused, endangered travellers and farmers. One of his gracious deeds was to give gold to a poor man with three daughters. This meant the girls could have dowries and marry well. Because St Nicholas wanted to remain anonymous he threw three bags of gold down the chimney.
The gifts landed in the girls’ stockings and henceforth we hang up Christmas Stocking at Christmas Eve.
Modern Santa probably came from North America (via Holland) and is likely to be only 200 hundred years old. He first appeared in literature about 1822 in the famous children's poem
'T’was the night before Christmas, when all throughout the house, No a creature was stirring, not even a mouse...."
Written by Clement Clarke Moore for his children the poem introduced to many Americans the fictitious character, Sintaklass.
He was a Dutch mythical character with a friendly disposition. Many historians believe Santa came from a mispronunciation of Sintaklass. After pictures of Santa appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1863 the rest, as they say, is history.
In France, children lay out their shoes (traditionally sabots which were clogs) in the anticipation Pere (Papa) Noel (Father Christmas) who will fill them with lollies.
The legend is Pere Noel was so cold one Christmas Eve, to keep warm he burnt the clogs of a little girl and to compensate her left gifts.
In Belgium children get their presents on the 6th December i.e. St Nicholas Day and only small gifts are exchanged on Christmas Day.
In Spain Christmas was traditionally a religious festival and the Spanish still do not recognise Santa. Children do however look forward to gifts during this season. One Spanish tradition was for children to leave their shoes on the windowsill stuffed full of straw, carrots, and barley to feed the horse and donkeys of the Wise Men.
Balthazar is a welcome visitor for he is the Spanish Santa and on Christmas morning by children's shoes are filled with gifts. A similar ritual is observed in Portugal with the added tradition of setting an extra place at the table for the souls of the dead (Celtic tradition).
The Italian Santa is a woman, La Befansa and like her Russian counterpart, Babouschka depicts an old lady who did not offer help and food to the Wise Men on their journey to the baby Jesus. The women search in vein carrying gifts which they give to well behaved children. Naughty children get ashes in their stockings.
In Holland highly decorated clogs are traditionally given as Christmas gifts.