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Santa Claus; is a legendary American figure who traditionally brings gifts to children at Christmas. The popular image goes back to a historical person, St. Nicholas, who was a bishop of Myra in the fourth century in what is now Turkey. Little is known about the life of St. Nicholas, but many traditions have grown over him. It is assumed that he was elected bishop when he was still very young and that he was imprisoned during the persecutions of Diocletian. One story about him is that he secretly provided three bags of gold as a dowry for three sisters, the daughters of an impoverished merchant. One of the bags of gold, thrown out the window at night, fell on a stocking hanging in the fireplace to dry. Some say that the custom of hanging Christmas stockings originated in this way.
He was a very popular saint among Eastern Christians, and his cult was introduced into Germany by the Byzantine princess Theophan, who became the wife of Emperor Otto II (973-983). It spread to England, where some 400 churches were dedicated to him. In the west, San Nicolás became known as the patron saint of children, apparently through some fantastic elaborations of his kindness towards the three sisters. One of these stories was that it brought back to life three children who were killed by an evil innkeeper, who cut their bodies and pickled them in brine. During the Middle Ages, particularly in Germany and England, a popular party of the “Bishop Child” was celebrated on December 6, the day of the Feast of St. Nicholas. A young boy was elected bishop for a day and, dressed in the full episcopal garb of mitra, lidia and crosier, he led a parade through the city.
American Development The Dutch, although largely Protestant, retained their attachment to St. Nicholas whom they called Sinter-Klaas. They were responsible for his introduction to the American scene. Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam (now New York) held the festival on December 6 and the practice of giving gifts to children. The English settlers took charge of the idea. Sinter-Klaas became Santa Claus, and gradually became associated with Christmas.
Washington Irving in his Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809), undoubtedly influenced by Dutch origins, described him as a round and cheerful figure, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and smoking a long-stemmed pipe. The current popular image of Santa Claus owes much to the poem by Clemente C. Mo.ore A visit to San Nicolás (1822). It was he who added the reindeer and the sleigh, the twinkling eye and “pulled the finger away from the nose”. The leather outfit seems to have been a contribution from Germany, where Saint Nicholas was often depicted as a hairy devil named “Pelz Nichol”. Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, developed the popular image of Santa Claus, first in a caricature in Harper’s Illustrated Weekly in 1863 and again in a number from 1866 in which Santa Claus and His Works appeared. Curiously, the wide-brimmed hat became Nast’s imagination in a soft furry cap.
The idea of Santa Claus has parallels in other countries. The influence of the Reformation reduced the role of the saints, so in Germany the image was replaced by the Child Jesus, who in popular legend became Kris Kringle. Santa Claus was the English variant, although the American Santa Claus has extended to England, as well as to Canada and Australia.