Editor's note: The following is the third in a six-part series examining the origins of Christmas traditions and customs. Author Stan Brown is the historian and archivist for the Rim Country Museum, a columnist for The Rim Review, and a retired pastor.
Pollsters say that 70 percent of American parents teach their children to believe in Santa Claus. And why not, since Santa Claus is a real person, and belongs in the Christmas celebration.
In the fourth century, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, there was a priest of the church named Nicholas in the town of Myra, Asia Minor. His parents had died and he inherited a large estate, which he decided to give to charity.
In the town, there was a man who had lost all his money, which in that time meant his three daughters would not be able to marry because they had no dowry. They would live with their parents, be spinsters, and there would be no grandchildren.
Nicholas took a bag of gold, and in the dark of night threw it into the open window of the poor man's house. It became the dowry for the eldest daughter, and soon she was married. Later he did the same thing for the second daughter. When he approached the house for the third daughter, the father was watching, and recognized his benefactor. Nicholas persuaded him to keep the source of the gifts secret, because the true spirit of giving was to do it anonymously with no thought of reward.
Many such stories became legends after Nicholas was made the bishop of Myra.
For example, three innocent political prisoners were going to their deaths because the governor had taken a bribe to pass the sentence. Nicholas found out about it, exposed the governor and obtained the prisoners' release.
Other times he arranged and paid for the rescue of storm-tossed sailors on the Aegean Sea. When he was made a saint of the Church he became the patron saint of sailors, prisoners, the poor and children.
Nicholas died Dec. 6, 342, after being imprisoned and tortured by the Roman government, and was buried in his cathedral in Myra. In 1007 the town fell to the Muslims, but a group of sailors recovered his remains from the church, taking them to southern Italy. After that, the fame of St. Nicholas spread through Europe.
His memory was celebrated in the festival of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6. Impersonators in the long white robes of a bishop would ride on horseback to deliver presents to poor children.
In France he became known as Father Christmas. The Dutch called him San Nicholas, and when Dutch Protestants came to establish New York, they brought the saint with them. His name evolved as Sint Klaes, and later Santa Claus.
It was a New Yorker, Clement Moore, who wrote the poem called "A Visit From St. Nicholas" for his sick daughter. It drew on the Dutch legends and also introduced some new images. The clothes changed from white to red; the transportation changed from a horse to reindeer. The arrival time moved from Dec. 6 to Christmas Eve, and the slim, sober Nicholas who fasted two days a week became a "right jolly old elf with a belly that shook like a bowl full of jelly."
When Clement Moore wrote his poem in 1822 it was to be for family consumption only, but the next year it was published without his permission. Then in 1886 the political cartoonist Thomas Nast, the same fellow who created the Democrat donkey symbol and the Republican elephant, created a picture based on Clement Moore's description of Santa Claus.
When settlers first moved into the Rim country, Christmas could be a lonely time because so many loved ones had been left back in Texas or Kansas or California. Emma lived up under the Rim with her two sons. Her husband had died some months before. There was a daughter, but they had been estranged for some time.
A week before Christmas, her son returned from Payson with great excitement. A package had arrived on the stage for their mother from the estranged daughter. Emma couldn't wait, and began tearing off the brown wrapping paper. A colorful wrapping underneath appeared and her excitement mounted. Then she saw the note.
"If you've gone this far you've gone too far. Wait until Dec. 25."
She clutched the gift and experienced mixed emotions. She wanted to go ahead and see what the surprise was, yet to please her daughter, she waited. Emma placed the small present with the bright wrapping paper under the small tree they had set up in the house. As the days passed she realized that half the fun of receiving a gift is the anticipation.
The dreariness of anticipating a long winter under the Rim was now offset by the anticipation of something new. In her diary Emma speculated on what there is about a gift that makes it so important. She thought about the importance of expectancy as opposed to expectation. Expectations are hard to live with, but expectancy makes the heart sing. Emma enjoyed that gift all through those days before Christmas, more than if she had hastened to open it as soon as it arrived. Both the anticipation and the expectancy would have been lost.
Then she wrote in her private diary, "I believe the presence of a person is better than the present, and Virginia's gift is bringing me her presence as I look at it day after day."
A gift makes us feel close to the giver. There was the effort in its selection. The wrapping and the delivering means that someone cares, someone loves us. The presence is in the present. The presence is better than the present.
Emma's diary went on to tell the rest of the story. She couldn't sleep, but was awake at 2:30 Christmas morning and opened her solitary gift.
It was a wall decoration, a plaque that said, "Bless this house." But it was more. It was her daughter's presence, and Emma knew that love had come at Christmas.
The Christmas story is about gift-giving. Mary and Joseph's gift to Jesus was loving care, the innkeeper's gift was a place for warmth and privacy, the shepherd's gift to Mary was to confirm her vision, the angel's gift was hope to the shepherds, the Magi's gifts to the impoverished family probably saved their lives when they fled to Egypt, and, of course, there is the gift to us of God's presence in Jesus.
The mood of Christmas is gift-giving. Santa Claus bridges the gap between the secular and the sacred, opening the floodgates of love in the world once again.