Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

Rocky Mountain Adventure Gear - For all Your Motorized and Non-Motorized Adventures!

By Betty Vanderwielen

Who Brings Holiday Presents?

Part 1 of 4


December 7, 2017

Sander van der Wel

Modern day St. Nicholas rides throughout Netherlands.

SEELEY LAKE – As every child in the United States knows, on Christmas Eve a jolly old man named Santa Claus, dressed in red coat and hat, hops in his toy-filled sleigh and is magically pulled through the air by Rudolph and his reindeer cohorts. Throughout the night the chubby man slides down chimneys, or accesses other ports of entry into people's homes, and leaves presents under the tree for good little girls and boys.

At least that is how the story goes in the United States. But where did that tradition come from and how did the giving of presents become associated with the celebration of the birth of Christ, essentially a Christian religious holy day? This begins a series of four articles on the Gift-Givers of the holiday season: Part I Saints and Santas; Part II The Three Kings; Part III The Baby Jesus or Kristkind; Part IV Non-Christian Holiday Gift-Givers.

Saints and Santas

In the United States and most countries around the world, Santa Claus or some sort of Father Christmas figure is the principal gift-giver of the season. Called Old Man Christmas in Denmark; the Good Old Man in Brazil; and the Christmas Grandfather in Lithuania, the traditions all date back to the fourth century and the story of St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, a city in Greece in the fourth century, but now part of Turkey. Representations of him show a white-bearded man wearing a bishop's miter and carrying a crosier or pastoral staff. Nicholas was especially kind to children and the needy, but his gift-giving fame derives primarily from the story of a poor man who had three daughters. Because the man was too poor to provide a dowry for his oldest daughter, she was destined to become a slave or prostitute. Knowing this, Nicholas tossed a bag of money down the chimney of their house one night and it landed in one of the stockings left to dry by the fire (which is the origin of Christmas stockings hung from the fireplace mantel). He did the same for the next two daughters when they needed dowries.

Based on this and other stories and miracles, Nicholas was declared a saint. He was venerated throughout Europe during the Medieval Period and there were pilgrimages to locations associated with him. In memory of his generosity, it became the custom to give small gifts and sweets to children on his feast day, Dec. 6.

He is still a primary gift-giver in some countries today. In the Netherlands he is called Sinterklaas and arrives by boat from Spain. He then mounts his white horse and travels around the country dropping off gifts at people's houses on the eve of his feast day. Children put out stockings or wooden shoes by the fireplace and place carrots in them for St. Nick's horse.

In the United States and other countries, St. Nicholas morphed into Santa Claus (a linguistic corruption of Sinterklaas). Washington Irving, in his satirical work "A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Deidrich Knickerbocker," unwittingly began the transformation of the stately bishop. Irving repeatedly described St. Nicholas as "jolly" and depicted him as a short, portly Dutchman with a clay pipe. Clement Moore later solidified the attire and physical characteristics of Santa Claus in his poem, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."

Commercial advertising has made the jovial Santa Claus figure popular world-wide, though even countries that have adopted him as their primary gift-giver sometimes reconfigure him to better conform to their culture.

While U.S. and Canadian children firmly believe Santa lives at the North Pole, children in Finland are quite sure he lives in Lapland and the children of Greenland know for certain he lives in Spraglebugten, Greenland, and his sleigh is pulled by sled dogs, not reindeer.

In Australia, where Dec. 25 falls in the summer season, Santa's traditional suit is made of lighter weight material and sometimes he is pictured in beach clothes, flip-flops and an Aussie hat – and maybe carrying a surfboard. According to a popular Australian Christmas song, his sleigh is pulled by kangaroo (Six White Boomers).

Public doman from a 1910 Postcard

Père Noël – The French Father Christmas.

In other countries, re-envisioned images of St. Nicholas depict him in a slender, more dignified form. His miter is replaced by a warm winter cap, his crosier by a staff, and his name becomes Father Christmas, Grandfather Christmas, Christmas Elder Man, or something similar. Like Santa Claus, he brings presents to children, generally on Christmas Eve.

St. Basil the Great was another fourth century bishop saint. His ministry took place in an area of Greece which is now Turkish territory (Caesarea). Like St. Nicholas, Basil was also known for his generosity to the poor and his love of children. His Greek name is Aghios Vassilis, and the Eastern Orthodox Catholics embraced him as their gift-giver, just as the Roman Catholics embraced St. Nicholas. St. Basil brings presents to Greek children on his feast day Jan. 1, though in modern times he sometimes conforms to convention and brings his gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day instead.


Reader Comments


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2017