Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, Dec. 6, 1999

Just who is that bearded guy?

By Luis Puga

Santa Claus. Saint Nick. Father Christmas.

They're all names for a legendary figure of the Christmas season who hopeful children flock to with requests for gifts.

Locally, as well as around the nation, Santa will be making his appearances. Friday, he was at Lester Prairie to celebrate the season, and the next day was in Winsted at the Legion Club.

Beyond those appearances at Salvation Army drop off points and malls, the jolly herald of Christmas will also appear in dozens of movies, commercials, and stories this year, too.

But just how did this symbol come to be?

Those raised in a religious background probably remember stories of Saint Nicholas. Sunday, Saint Nicholas made an appearance at Sunday services at Holy Trinity.

Richard Baumann of Winsted, who's played the saint, as well as Santa, admits that 90 percent of the children, and their parents, don't know who Saint Nicholas is. Baumann admits that for this reason, he enjoys playing Santa better.

While Sunday's appearance will bes a day after Santa's appearance, last year's Winter Festival had both Santa and Saint Nicholas in the Legion Club.

Suffice it to say, when Saint Nicholas ran out of candy, he lost the attention of most of the children to Santa Claus. Still, Baumann believes Saint Nicholas to be the more true and traditional role for Christmas.

But just how did Saint Nicholas turn into Santa Claus over the years?

Saint Nicholas was a bishop of the Christian church in the Asia Minor city of Myra, now know as Demre Turkey, in fourth century A.D.

Nicholas was said to be the son of wealthy parents who died when Nicholas was young. Nicholas dedicated his life to God, and went into the priesthood and eventually became a bishop.

Called the "Wonder Worker" of Nicholas the Miraculous, he was known for compassion and kindness, particularly to children.

One legend was of a father who could not provide dowries for his three daughters. When it came turn for each daughter to marry, Nicholas anonymously donated a bag of gold for each daughter.

Nicholas, who was said to be shy, did not want his donations to go noticed, so the final bag of gold he dropped down the chimney. Apparently, the gold landed in a stocking hung by the chimney to dry.

Another story goes that an innkeeper who had murdered his own three children had hid the bodies. Nicholas not only found the bodies, but breathed life back into them. He is also credited for saving a whole town from starvation.

In the best tradition of saints, Nicholas was imprisoned for refusing to renounce his Christian faith during the the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. He is said to have died on Dec. 6, 343 A.D. His relics were found in 1087 A.D. and were brought to Bari, Italy.

The date of his death is celebrated in some traditions. Baumann said his family continues to celebrate the day in the German tradition where children leave out their shoes the night before to be filled with candy.

The tradition is still very strong also in the Dutch culture, who are credited with bringing the celebration from Europe to America. In the Netherlands, the day is still marked with a variety of traditional sweets including chocolate letters. It is also marked with other presents and long riddles to entertain children.

Some parallel contributions to the Santa Claus myth are also said to have come from Spain, which had a great deal of contact with the Dutch through sailing. Saint Nicholas was always pictured with a "Zwart Pieten" or black companion, who in less politically correct times, was said to represent evil. This was due to the fact that the Spanish had been conquered by Moors and the two figures together represented good's triumph over evil.

From this tradition came Santa Claus' virtue of awarding the good children and punishing the naughty ones. The harshest punishment, according to the Dutch tradition, was that naughty children would be kidnapped by the Zwart Pieten, put in his gift bag, and taken back to Spain.

However, for the most, part this tradition in the Protestant West died out with the Reformation where the significance of saints and their celebrations was down played.

Saint Nicholas remained, however, due to his popular appeal and eventually became known as Sinter Klaas, responsible for gift-giving around the world. Eventually, some traditions moved the Dec. 6 date to the night before Christmas to mark the birth of Christ.

It was this myth that the Dutch brought to New York with them. In 1823, Clement Clark Moore, in his poem "The Night Before Christmas," changed the image of Sinter Klaas, a stout bishop, to that of one more familiar today; a chubby, jolly man in a red and white suit.

He also used the name Santa Claus and changed the traditional transportation of horseback to a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer.

Thomas Nash eventually put a face to the image. A political cartoonist for Harper's Weekly, Nash wanted to cheer up soldiers in 1870 and made a cartoon of Santa Claus giving them gifts.

This image eventually stuck, and for better or worse, the rest is commercial history. None other than the Coca-Cola company is most credited with spreading the image of the traditional Santa Claus in seasonal advertisements.

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