Jon de Vos: Didn’t need no stinking reindeer
December 19, 2008
Saint Nicholas was born in the ancient city of Lycia, Turkey in 270 AD. I have to pause here and ask, How can we possibly know this when we can’t even put the question of Obama’s birthplace to rest? Anyway, like Santa, today’s column is all about suspending belief. Legend suggests that Nicholas was an exemplary Christlike child who performed miracles on the house cat. A miracle is defined as a remarkable and most welcome occurrence, often attributed to a divine agency. And a welcome occurrence it was for the sailor who fell out of the ship’s rigging in a storm. He plummeted like a big gob of albatross poop toward the deck below. Not-yet-a-Saint Nicholas saw him coming, braced his back, planted his feet and grabbed the rocketing sailor out of midair to set him gently and unharmed upon his feet. And that’s not even the miracle part. Nick put his arm around this smelly brute of a man and they headed off toward a civil union. No, of course not, they went off toward a church where Nick was crowned bishop for doing nothing more than standing there with his arms out when a handsome sailor dropped by.
The height of a Turkey famine, as odd as that sounds, was the setting for Bishop Nicholas’ greatest miracle. He was living a meager life (starving) in Constantinople but noticed, oddly enough, that the local butcher was growing fat while village children mysteriously disappeared. One day, the young bishop was groping in the butcher’s barrel for a meaty, pickled pig’s foot, but plucked out the leg of one of the missing children instead. The butcher was running a special on “the other white meat.” Well, what was a Saint to do but roll his big sleeves up and bring the kids back to life.
Trouble was, after a few weeks in a pickle barrel, the parents of these children were not thrilled at all to get the little beggars back. They called the centurions who threw Nick into prison to rot.
Kids today would not recognize Saint Nicholas. He was tall and skinny, drove no sleigh and made do with a donkey for his travel plans. His gifts were nuts, fruit, and a hard candy or two. Despite this penury, his legend endured for a thousand years until he was banished from Europe during the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. The Dutch kept his memory alive during those dark years on the continent. They spelled his name, “Sint Nikolass” which came to the New World as “Sinterklass” later anglicized to Santa Claus. But he was still tall and skinny.
Santa’s modern form took shape from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “The Night Before Christmas”. It was popular then and remains so today with the names of the reindeers, Santa’s laugh, and his chimney entrance.
Additional touches on Santa’s image were provided by American illustrator Thomas Nast in twenty years of Christmas issues of Harper’s magazine from the 1860s to the 1880s. The finishing touches to his jolly old image were provided by Coca-Cola advertisements in the 1930’s. Rudolph, the red-nosed ninth reindeer, came to us in 1939, courtesy of the Montgomery Ward marketing department.
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When legends fall, they often fall far. Citing the fact that the saint’s life was so unreliably documented, Pope Paul VI cast Saint Nicholas off the Roman Catholic calendar in 1969.
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