Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Long Roots Of Tradition

Dec. 6 is the Feast of St. Nicholas of Bari, a Saint in the Catholic pantheon who lived between 270 A.D. and 346 A.D. in modern day Turkey. He rose to the position of Bishop and was famed for giving gifts from his sizable inheritance to better the lives of his flock. His two most famous acts involved saving three girls from being sold into prostiution by donating their dowry and bringing back to life three children who had been butured by an inkeeper. Get Medieval has the whole story. You can also find an extensive treatment of the Saint's life in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Since his cannonization as a Saint in the early church, feasts of St. Nicholas have long been associated with the giving of gifts. Not surprisingly then, this long, two millenium old tradition has evolved through today, where we commonly refer to St. Nicholas of Bari as . . . Santa Claus

Update: For some very good videos on the history of Chirstmas, please see my post here.


Robert J. Avrech said...

Fascinating. I know this sounds stupid—I'm Jewish and clueless about the true story—but where did Santa coming down the chimney come from?

GW said...

Hello Robert, thanks so much for stopping by.

The real Saint Nickolaus actually used to throw coins into the houses of his parishioners, either through the window or, if that was locked, than through the chimney. That may have some bearing on how this Santa-chimney story started. More likely though, the story of Santa coming down the chimney is based on pre-Christian traditions of Germany. They celebrated their God, Odin at the holiday of Yule. During that holiday, children would place their boots and socks near the fireplace and fill them with straw for Odin's horse to eat. During the night, the horse would consume the straw and Odin would repay the children's kindness by filling the depleted footwear with candy and the like.

Once the German tribes were Christianized, the traditions associated with Odin merged with St. Nick. (Indeed, you can find pagan customs and festivals intertwined with most Christian holidays and customs - including the day we celebrate for the birth of Christ. We don't know the day of his birth, so it was grafted over the Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti). It seems likely that the chimney myth grew out of the Odin custom.

The final part of the story comes with publication in 1823 of the poem 'Twas The Night Before Christmas.

. . . And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound. . . .

Forever after, Santa Claus in American tradition enters through the chimney.

Robert J. Avrech said...

Thanks so much for the explanations. You are now my official Christian Rabbi:-)

GW said...

Hah. I am honored, sir. It is my first clerical appointment. I am waiting for the sky to fall . . .

Actually, my latin is good enough to cut it for the Christian side of the duty description, though if there are rabbinical aspects too it, be forewarned my Hebrew is very limited to only the most practical of expressions - i.e., תביא לי שתי בירות בבקשה

Robert J. Avrech said...

My Latin is limited to E Plurbius Unum. Interesting to note that Menachem Begin was something of a Latin scholar. When he was in hiding from the British he would often sit down and read some Latin.

That's pretty impressive Hebrew, mazal tov!