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The Santa Clause Story: Through the Ages with Father Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

While some believe this timeless poem birthed the Santa legend, the truth is a little more complex.

Allow me to properly introduce myself. I am Santa Claus. I am not Jesus nor do I pretend to be. I don’t judge kids for their sins, despite what some people might think.

Ho ho ho and happy holidays!

Speaking of signature catchphrases, I didn’t actually utter my first “ho ho ho” until 1836 when Charles Dickens published his classic “The Pickwick Papers.”

So ancient as I may be, even my story continues to evolve with each generation.

Let’s start with this eerie Christmas eve of 1836, one I remember well, as described by Charles Dickens:

“In an old abbey town, a long, long while ago, lived a grave-digger near a churchyard. His name was Gabriel Grub. He was a surly fellow, a lonely man who talked to nobody but himself and an old wicker bottle that fit into his large deep waistcoat pocket. He returned each merry face with a deep scowl of malice.

A little before twilight, one Christmas Eve, Gabriel lit his lantern and headed towards the old churchyard, as he had a grave to dig by the next morning. As he strolled along, he returned short, sullen growls to the Christmas greetings of the neighbors as they passed him. He looked forward to reaching the dark lane, a nice gloomy, mournful place the townspeople avoided, especially when it was dark.

As Gabriel walked on, he heard some young urchin sing a jolly song about a merry Christmas.”

Remember this voice, children; it is the voice of the boy that bellowed the first Ho Ho Ho. Now, let’s return to the story.

As Gabriel reached the spot marked as the grave to dig, he set down his lantern, took off his coat, and began digging. He worked at it for an hour or so, and the earth was hardened with frost, making it very difficult to shovel. At any other time, this may have made Gabriel upset and miserable, but he was so pleased with the light of the moon and the solitude on Christmas eve that when he finished the work, he drew forth his bottle of liquor and laughed: ‘Ho Ho Ho, a gravesite for Christmas, Ho Ho Ho!’

‘Ho Ho Ho,’ repeated a voice that sounded close behind him.

Gabriel thought it was just an echo.

‘No, it’s not,’ said a deep voice from behind him.

Seated on an upright tombstone close to him was a strange figure not from this world. He was sitting perfectly still, his tongue long and sticking out, and he was grinning at Gabriel. He was certainly a Goblin.

The story concludes as Gabriel Grub is taken by the goblins on a magical journey. During this journey, the goblins show him various scenes related to Christmas celebrations, depicting joyful and loving moments among families and friends, contrasting sharply with Gabriel’s own isolated and grumpy existence.

As Gabriel witnesses these scenes, he begins to feel a change in his heart. The goblins, rather unexpectedly, become instruments of his redemption.

When Gabriel wakes up, he finds himself back in the churchyard on Christmas morning, with a newfound appreciation for life and the festive spirit. The story ends with Gabriel Grub becoming a changed man, embracing the true meaning of Christmas and showing kindness to others. The goblins, having fulfilled their peculiar role in his transformation, are not explicitly mentioned at the conclusion of the tale. They vanish as mysteriously as they arrived.

However, they are responsible for one significant addition to the legacy of Christmas, the familiar refrain of Santa on his way.

HO HO HO!

The children were nestled all snug in their beds;

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;

And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,

Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

Some time ago, to my earliest memory—though time holds little significance beyond my annual duties—I was known as St. Nicholas, a humble bishop in the third century. Those days as St. Nicholas, marked by a simpler, yet turbulent atmosphere, hold a fond place in my memory.

Born in the year 270 in the ancient Greek city of Myra, I emerged from the historical setting of that era. Today, much of what is spoken about Ol’ Saint Nick is shrouded in legend or myth. Allow me to set the record straight about a few items.

As the sole heir to a wealthy family, Nicholas received fine schooling and grew up devoutly Christian even amidst the religious turmoil of the Roman Empire. His parents’ death in an epidemic left the orphaned boy’s sizeable inheritance at risk of seizure by officials. Somehow, Nicholas managed to hang onto it and used it to benefit others. Known for throwing satchels of money down chimneys of the poor and putting coins in the shoes of those who could barely afford them, Nicholas embodied the spirit of generosity.

After his death, his name became a legend, solidifying him as the original Santa Claus. About a thousand years ago, people worshipped him so much that they dug up his grave, cut up his bones, and sent them to churches around the world. In fact, there are seven places in the world where you can visit to see the bones of St. Nicholas and pray to them if you’re into that.

St. Nicholas was my favorite. He’s attributed with saying: “Preach goodness at all times. Only use words if necessary.”

Now, some people say he never said that. But I know the truth. I am him, and he is me.

The Catholic church made him a saint, worthy of being worshipped and this is where Martin Luther comes into the story and where I received a new name.

The legend of Santa Claus continued to evolve through the centuries as Christmas traditions spread across Europe. The Protestant Reformation would also come to shape the jolly gift-bringer.

Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, sought to make Christmas a more Christ-centered celebration. Rather than saint worship revolving around St. Nicholas Day on December 6th, Luther popularized the tradition of exchanging presents on Christmas Eve to honor the Christ Child (Christkindl in German).

The German term Christkindl transformed into Kris Kringle, a moniker I’m affectionately known by. However, I’m somewhat uncomfortable with this term due to its religious connotations. Some prefer to see me as a secular icon, and that’s perfectly fine. What I do request is not to use my name to justify punishing kids, as an unknown author did in the early 1800s.

In 1821, a poem titled “old Santa Claus with much delight” published anonymously in New York was the first to mention me in a sleigh and introduced the idea that I come on Christmas Eve, not on Christmas day. This novel approach allows kids to wake up to Christmas and sleep in anticipation.

The poem begins innocuously:

Old SANTECLAUS with much delight

His reindeer drives this frosty night,

O’er chimney tops, and tracts of snow,

To bring his yearly gifts to you.

The steadfast friend of virtuous youth,

The advocate of duty and truth,

Each Christmas eve, he joys to come

Where peace and love have made their home.

However, it takes a turn for the worse:

But where I found the children naughty,

In manners crude, in temper haughty,

Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,

Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,

I left a long, black, birchen rod,

Such as the dread command of GOD

Directs a Parent’s hand to use

When virtue’s path his sons refuse.

Ouch! What a vile way to speak of Santa Claus. I don’t endorse the idea of wooden rods in Christmas stockings for parents to beat their kids with.

Fortunately, two years later, my image experienced a revival with the creation and publication of the world’s most famous Christmas poem. Despite some controversy about the authorship, I can clear up that mystery for you—I was there. The poem was indeed written by Clement Clarke Moore, a kindly British chap, not Henry Livingston Jr., despite some claims from his descendants.

This poem significantly shaped our understanding of Christmas and me. For the first time, I was described as a jolly, round figure with a white beard, dressed in a red suit, arriving at each house in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. The reindeer even had names (Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen), and the poem introduced the idea of delivering gifts down chimneys.

The only point of contention in the poem is the mention of a pipe in my mouth. My transformation into a seasonal character aside, Santa’s pipe was an integral part of his identity until Canadian author Pamela McColl republished Clement Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and removed its mention of Santa’s pipe. She spent $200,000 to print 55,000 copies and declared to the New York Post, “Santa has stopped smoking, and 2012 is the year he quit, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;

He had a broad face and a little round belly

That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

In 1897, the heart of America grappled with the question of whether to believe, not in Jesus, but in me. The inquiry came from an earnest eight year old named Virginia, who, in a letter to the Sun Newspaper, expressed her concern that some of her friends told her there was no Santa. With sincerity, she asked the newspaper to unveil the truth: “Is there a Santa Claus?”

The task of responding to this heartfelt inquiry fell to Francis Pharcellus Church, an editor at The Sun. Church, a distinguished Columbia University graduate with honors, was known for his editorial acumen specializing in matters of religion. Influenced by his father’s clerical background, Church was renowned for his unwavering intellectual honesty and determination not to be swayed, even by his own convictions.

Church, fittingly named, penned a response that has resonated with belief for over a century.

“There is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing more real and abiding.

No Santa Claus? He lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

My yearly sleigh rides from the early 1900’s to this Christmas have afforded me unique insight into the diverse ways parents approach gift-giving across varied economic circumstances and cultures.

During the lean years of the Great Depression, I witnessed resourceful mothers and fathers lovingly craft simple wooden toys and save money for an orange or bar of chocolate for their children, valuing imagination over extravagance. My visit served as a comfort, instilling a sense of magic and hope, creating an enchanting mystery around modest offerings.

Conversely, in later decades delivering overflowing bounty to manicured suburban homes, I sensed parents chasing material excess in a fervent quest to outdo their neighbors and create the most favored and happiest kids on the block. Each year seemed to spawn a new frenzy of indulgent gifts and lavish decorations, perhaps revealing deeper insecurities.

And now in the Instagram age, the “Elf on the Shelf” has become the latest must-have tradition for the Christmas-obsessed. Seemingly not content with my annual voyage, parents now post daily photos of their elf figurine staged in clever tableaus, hoping to rack up likes and wring each last drop of holiday hype for their children’s’ delight.

And so my legend marches on, incarnated on both page and screen by actors of every style and disposition. I’ve been depicted as a whimsical Ed Asner on Elf, America’s Grandpa by Richard Attenborough in Miracle on 34th Street, a relatable do-gooder by Tim Allen in Santa Clause, a horror-show Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa, and every incarnation in between.

Yet, if asked to pinpoint a portrayal that resonates most with who I am and why the legacy should endure, I consistently turn to James Cosmo’s rendition in “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” When this Father Christmas presents the unexpecting children with useful tools for their destiny-driven journey rather than frivolous playthings, he reflects my deeper understanding. The presents I deliver and the origin of Santa Claus were not meant for fleeting pleasure or status elevation, but to equip children with what they need to reach their potential, serve others, and make this world a little kinder and less violent.

A gift is a sacrifice, a blanket quilted, a heartfelt expression of appreciation and care. Timing is often the key to a great gift. We often fall into the habit of social obligation where gift giving and Christmas are concerned. But it does not have to be this way. We have the power to infuse meaning and intentionality back into the tradition. Let the story of St. Nicholas inspire us to give in ways that truly support growth, community and human dignity. Gifts should build each other up, not weigh us down.

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

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