St. Nicholas

Saint Nicholas Day ( an excerpt)
Originally Broadcast on WCAL radio station, St. Olaf College
December 6, 2005

Intro: Today is the feast of Saint Nicholas, the precursor of the modern Santa Claus. During this holiday season, when Santa is omnipresent in malls of America, and many take part in the conventions of the holiday season, it makes sense to think about these customs. So today at the North Pole of the magnificent (but wholly imaginary) American Studies Museum, our jolly old elf, Dr. America, takes a look at Old Saint Nick.

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For a variety of reasons, the primary symbol of an American Christmas isn't Christ, but Santa Claus. At malls of America, children don't line up to speak with Jesus, but with a fat, bearded man in a red suit. But Santa does have some connections to Christ, however tenuous.

According to the conventional story, our Santa Claus is an adaptation of the Dutch Sinterklaas, who was an adaptation of a Middle Eastern saint named Nicholas. Cartoonist Thomas Nast drew the first American Santa Claus in 1863, and Coca-Cola completed the iconography in the 1930s.

But who was this Saint Nicholas, and what's his connection--if any--to our Christmas?

First of all, there's precious little actual knowledge available about Saint Nicholas. We do know that he was the fourth-century bishop of Myra in Turkey. His defining virtue was his love and charity for the poor.

There exist many stories about him, the stuff of legend. The most famous account has to do with a family so poor they couldn't afford a dowry for their three daughters. In despair, the father decided to sell them into prostitution.  Nicholas heard about this family and wanted to help them. In one version of the story, he climbs up on their roof three nights in a row and throws gold coins down their chimney to land in the girls' stockings, which had been hung by the fire to dry.

Because of this story and many other legends of his good works, St. Nicholas is also regarded as the special patron of children, and of Christmas, as well as of scholars, sailors, virgins, Russia, and (ironically) merchants...

Cherish All Children received reprint permission from the late Professor James Farrell, aka Dr. America, St. Olaf College.

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