Our current image of Father Christmas as a fat old man with red cheeks and long white beard was cemented into popular culture by Coca-Cola in the early 1930s, as part of a marketing campaign to get people to drink cold drinks during winter. The red-coated figure of Santa was created by a commercial illustrator, Haddon Sundblom, based on illustrations that had appeared in the New York Times in 1906, 1908 and 1925 (see below):
But Santa Claus has been around for a long, long time in various cultures and traditions around the world. It is generally accepted that the earliest incarnations are based on the real life figure of St. Nicholas, who lived in Asia Minor in the 3rd century AD. He seems to have been a wealthy man, who gave most of his wealth away to help others. Famously, he would go at night in mid winter and throw bags of money into poor people’s houses. He used his entire inheritance to help the poor, sick, and children in need. He gave in secret, expecting nothing in return. He attended the Council of Nicea in AD 325. Greatly loved for his faith, compassion and care, he is venerated in both East and West.
Amongst the legends surrounding his life are stories of him saving young women from slavery, protecting sailors, sparing innocents from excecution, providing grain in a famine and rescuing a kidnaped boy.
A blog by Peter Enns pointed out that his icon image looks like he is almost grumpy to have to sit still to have his picture painted while there were people to be helped. He’s even looking sideways out of the image. A lovely thought.
And so far away from the commercial “Santa” we worship today! I wonder if St. Nicholas would have been happy with us wanting him to fly through the air, slip down our chimneys and shower our already spoilt children with even more gifts? He might prefer to knock on our doors, ask us for all our money, and then distribute it to the poor and needy. THAT, surely would be “good news to all mankind” (OK, maybe not to the rich, but I think the baby born on Christmas day grew up to have quite a lot to say to rich people, and most of it would have pleased St. Nicholas no end!).
Instead of planning what to give your own children this Christmas, why not factor in those who have so much less than you – and truly follow in the spirit and tradition of the original “Sint Nick” this year?