Santa is a central figure in Christmas celebrations, while Rudolph is the most popular reindeer in history. Both have interesting origins.
St.Nicholas was a Bishop who lived in Myra, Turkey and often helped children in need. He is said to have helped three poor girls by giving them cold coins for their dowries, and became the basis of the mythological Santa Claus. The villagers believed that he threw bags of cold coins from the chimney, and they fell into the girls’ stockings which were left to dry near the mantelpiece.
Many years after his death, he was made a saint, and considered the patron saint of children! His death on 6th December (340 AD) is a holiday in some European countries, as the Feast of St.Nicholas . The night before, children put out shoes or hang up stockings to receive gifts. St.Nicholas has many names–“Knect Ruprecht” in Germany, “Pe’re Fouettard” in France and “Hoesecker” in Luxembourg. The Dutch call him “Sinter Klaas” and believe that he arrives in Amsterdam by boat! According to legend, St. Nicholas always has a helper, and a book with the names of good and bad children–the bad ones get only twigs! He is dressed as a Bishop, with a red or white robe, and a tall, pointed hat. He became the patron saint of Russia, the patron saint of sailors in Greece, the patron of lawyers in France, and that of children and travelers in Belgium.
There were countless churches dedicated to him all over Europe, and his death anniversary was declared an official church holiday in the 12th century. Charity was an essential part of the celebrations.
However, devotion to St.Nicholas died down after the Reformation, except in Holland. Children kept their wooden shoes (clogs) by the hearth, and filled them with straw for the reindeer. A special treat was kept for Sinter Klaas” near the fireplace, and he left them gifts.
“Sinter Klaas” or “Sint Klaas” in Holland soon became Santa Claus after the Dutch introduced him to US. He is “Father Christmas” in UK, “Pere Noel” in France, “Papa Noel” in Peru and Brazil, “Babbo Natale” in Italy, “el Nicesus” in Mexico, Costa Rica and Spain. in Germany, presents are given by “Christindl” or the Christ Child. In Sweden, the elf “Jultomten” is a miniature Santa, and his sleigh is pulled by two goats. In US and Canada, Santa comes on a sleigh drawn by 8 reindeer. He comes down the chimney, wearing red clothes trimmed with white fur.
Another popular figure associated with Christmas is Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, who was laughed at by the other reindeer, but chosen by Santa to pull his sleigh! This story has an interesting background. Montgomery Ward Company, a department store in Chicago, gave away children’s coloring books to customers. In 1939, they asked an employee to create one, in order to save money. Robert May, a copy writer, wrote the story of Rudolph, and it sold 2.4 million copies that year. He drew inspiration from the story of the Ugly Duckling and own personal experiences, and thought of “Rollo” and “Reginald,” before settling for Rudolph. Meanwhile, May’s wife died, and he was in debt with medical bills, so he asked for the copyright, and printed it commercially in 1947. Later, his brother in law Johnny Marks wrote the melody and recorded the song in 1949. Very soon, 2 million copies were sold, making it a best selling song, second only to Bing Crossby’s “White Christmas.”
The imaginary figure of Santa Claus is very much a reality during Christmas, and few celebrations are complete without a rendition of the popular song “Rudolph the red nosed reindeer”!