Leon Worden

Santa doesn't live at the North Pole

Leon Worden · December 25, 1996

How is it that a fat man in a furry red suit came to symbolize the birthday of Jesus Christ?

Santa Claus, and the other rites and rituals performed today, are a strange amalgamation of traditions spanning many cultures and religions, some of which predate Christianity itself.

Thomas Nast's Santa, 1860sDutch settlers brought their legend of Sinter Klaas (literally, Saint Nik-klaas) to New York in the 17th Century. Writer Washington Irving memorialized the legend with a detailed discussion in his 1809 "History of New York." But it was the famous 19th-century cartoonist Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly -- the same artist who created the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey -- who truly popularized Santa Claus in the 1860s with his illustrations of a pot-bellied elf based on Clement C. Moore's 1823 poem, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas."

St. Nicholas (13th Cent. Russian Icon)Who was St. Nick? Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, was born in the Mediterranean port town of Patara in modern-day Turkey in AD 245. His father died when he was young and left him a vast fortune, which he anonymously gave to the needy. He entered the church and traveled to Egypt and Palestine. Imprisoned by the Roman emperor Diocletian and later released by Constantine, he attended the ecumenical Council of Nicea in AD 325, which reaffirmed the divinity of Christ.

As the story goes, there was once a nobleman who had fallen on hard times. His three daughters could not get married because he couldn't afford a dowry. Nicholas stealthily tossed a sack of gold through their window one night. He repeated the act the next night. On the third night the window was closed (dumb nobleman?) so Nicholas climbed onto the roof and dropped a third sack of gold down the chimney. The next morning, the daughters found their dowry money inside the stockings they had hung by the fireplace to dry.

Recognized for performing several miracles, at various times Nicholas was the patron saint of Greece, Russia, Moscow, children, seafarers, teachers, students, merchants, prisoners, bakers, pawnbrokers and wolves. His feast day is December 6th. His relics are housed in the basilica of St. Nicola in Bari, Italy.

It wasn't until around AD 354, shortly after Nicholas died, that the church fixed December 25th as the birthday of Jesus. Falling close to the winter solstice, it was an important feasting time in early European cultures -- thus the enormous Christmas supper -- and roughly coincided with the Roman "Saturnalia," a pagan festival with elaborate rituals that were performed from December 17th to 21st. Even more timely was the celebration of Sol Invictus, invented by the emperor Aurelian back in AD 273 to honor the birthday of the Persian god Mithra on December 25th.

Most Christian churches accepted the date, although some, like the Armenian, kept the Jan. 6th Epiphany as the celebration date. January 6th is the baptismal date of Jesus and the date of the three wise men, Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior, otherwise known as the Magi -- a Persian word for a priest of the Zoroastrian (Zarathustran) religion.

For years, astronomers have tried to explain the star that lured the Magi to Bethlehem. Was it a supernova? Was it a bizarre alignment of the planets? Whatever it was, many believe it happened sometime between 6 and 4 BC. Today the star is remembered atop Christmas trees.

Stylized Christmas TreeAs for some other Christmas metaphors, mistletoe was a symbol of eternal life to ancient druids (same meaning as the Christmas tree today). Mistletoe later symbolized peace, and kissing underneath it was a popular Roman custom.

Christmas music wasn't particularly upbeat until the 19th Century, but music has been a part of the Christmas tradition since the 4th Century, when St. Hilary of Poitiers composed "Jesus refulsit omnium." Christmas music took the form of Gregorian chant in Medieval times and became somewhat more festive in Italy during the Renaissance.

Elves, pixies, gnomes and so forth are completely pagan in origin.

And contrary to popular belief, Santa Claus doesn't live at the North Pole. He lives in Lapland, in northern Finland, where the reindeer roam. Not until 1925 did American newspapers figure out that reindeer can't graze at the North Pole. In 1927, a Finnish radio program pinpointed Santa's location on Lapland's Korvatunturi, or "Ear Fell." The area resembles a rabbit's ears, from which Santa can hear if the boys and girls of the world are being naughty or nice.

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The memorial service for Signal columnist Dan Hon will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 29, at the Elks Lodge, 17766 Sierra Highway. In lieu of flowers, please send a nice yuletide check in Dan's name to the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital Foundation, 23845 McBean Parkway, Valencia, CA 91355.

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Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears on Wednesdays.

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