Sometimes the most famous of citizens are also the most mysterious.
Six years ago on Christmas Eve, President Donald Trump got on a conference call with several children eagerly awaiting the arrival of one of the globe’s most famous citizens – an important individual that has made Shinnston a mandatory stop for as long as old timers can remember.
One caller shared a very special wish. President Trump responded that “So you want your Grandma to get out of the hospital? That’s what your wish is? That’s great! That’s much better than asking for a toy or something. That’s great!”
In 1982, as he celebrated the lighting of the National Community Christmas Tree, President Ronald Reagan assured everyone that “the US Marine Reserves have a toy collection drive to make sure that old Saint Nicholas – Santa Claus – has enough to go around.” President Reagan added that “firemen, policemen, churches, religious groups, and service clubs” were all pitching together to help Santa fill all of his orders.
Santa Claus serves as both a symbol of the Christmas season and also the smiling, laughing face of childhood giving and sharing loving memories with family and friends. The work of Santa and his helpers around the world is inspired by the example of the love of Jesus Christ, whose birthday is celebrated on December 25 every year.
Cultures as widespread as Puerto Rico and remote areas of West Virginia also celebrate a holiday on January 6, when the three wisemen came to Jesus to present Frankincense, gold, and myhr. Spanish cultures refer to it as “Three Kings Day,” while in Appalachia and elsewhere, the holiday goes by the name “Old Christmas.”
The story of the “right jolly old elf” starts in the city of Myra. This city sits on the southern coast of Turkey. In the 300s A. D., the Greek city under Roman rule served as the home of the famed bishop Saint Nicholas.
He grew up in the nearby city of Patara, the son of wealthy Christians. One early story of his generosity shares that he learned of three women whose extreme poverty might force them to a life of crime. St. Nicholas donated three bags of gold to ensure that their lives remained on a godly path.
Stories of his life also tell of him secretly leaving gifts at various people’s homes. St. Nicholas wore his night clothes out on these expeditions, which included clothes much like the iconic image seen riding the sleigh on Christmas Eve.
Another story illustrated his ability to perform miracles, such as healing a woman’s withered hand, calming a stormy sea to help a ship cross safely, saving wrongly condemned men from execution, and rescuing lost children. Christians in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions see him as a patron saint of children, sailors, and the falsely accused.
In the Russian Orthodox tradition, St. Nicholas remains the most beloved figure after the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ Himself. Eastern Orthodox faiths generally regard three dimensional representations as a sacrilege. Only “Saint Nicholas the Miracle Worker” carries the honor of being allowed his own statue in that faith.
Russian ship captains, long haul truck drivers, and even crews sent to the International Space Station alike keep St Nicholas icons for protection, in the same fashion as Roman Catholics rely on a medal of St. Christopher.
Europeans and, later, Americans, learned to revere the story of the man many of them knew better as Santa Claus, but under different names. In the 1500s, the Christian reformer Martin Luther sought to bring changes to the worship of Christ.
One of those included de-emphasizing the stories and contributions of martyrs and saints and keeping Christian minds on Jesus Himself. Luther and his followers, however, understood the importance of the example set, and told children that “Christkind,” or the Christ Child, brought presents on Christmas Eve. Germans later changed this to “Kris Kringle” with much of the substance of the story of St. Nicholas intact.
The Dutch, whose main faith by the 1500s came from the teachings of John Calvin, also held a cherished place in their heart for “Sinter Klaas,” their name for Saint Nicholas. During the 17th century, Dutch colonists settled the Hudson River valley between what they called New Amsterdam and Fort Orange and brought their culture with them.
By the 1680s, Britain had taken these lands from the Dutch and added them to their empire under the provincial name of New York. From here, Santa Claus evolved in the American ideal. In 1822, a minister named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a children’s poem about Santa Claus’ Christmas Eve trek now known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” New York cartoonist Thomas Nast several decades later drew the man in the red suit and billowing beard that children recognize and love to this very day.
Santa Claus in the 21st century has a busier schedule than ever. Children in Shinnston and other towns eagerly await the chance to see him in person during parades, parties, church functions, and shopping trips. He somehow finds a way to make kids smile during parades and other Christmas fun all over the world while preparing for his yearly job.
Yet Santa, like many older gentlemen, prefer the “old school” way of doing things. He will take emails from children, but still loves letters written on paper. Santa is especially proud of letters written in neat cursive. He also has turned down modern modes of travel, preferring the companionship of his faithful reindeer and the chilly winds of Christmas Eve night to comfy climate control.
And, of course, Santa always has time for cookies and milk left for him by children who want to thank him for the good he has done in all his years of generosity.