It’s Christmas, a very special Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus. It is also the season with a sentiment that seems to be universally appealing. The spirit of goodwill, gift giving, merriment and introspection is something anyone of any cultural and national extraction can enjoy and celebrate.
Santa Claus, around the world, is one of the major icons of Christmas. It grew from the exploits of a Christian saint, Nikolaos of Myra, who around the year 300 was credited with performing healing miracles while at sea, and during his pilgrimages. He often secretly engaged in gift-giving. One story is that he secretly provided dowries for three young girls whose father was too poor. Without a dowry a woman may not be able to marry which could leave her in poverty. Legend says, for each of the two girls, he threw a bag of coins through their window. But in danger of being identified, he dropped a bag of coins down the chimney, for the third girl. They dropped into a stocking hung by the hearth. He helped the poor going out at night putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out hoping he’d come by.
This practice was celebrated formally when the church declared December 6 the feast day of Saint Nicholas or Father Christmas (English), or Sankt Nikolaus (German), Weihnachtsmann (Santa Claus or Father Christmas in German), Kris Kringle (German) or Christkindl (the Christ Child who is also the spirit of the gift giver in Germany and Austria), Sinterklaas (Dutch).
Santa Claus’ name is Dutch and comes from the same origins as the Spanish and Portuguese. Santa for saint, and Claus a contraction of Nikolaos. In French he’s also known as Pere Noel (Father Christmas)
In the American poem of 1893, the “Night Before Christmas” referred to Santa Claus as Saint Nick “that right jolly old elf.”
The Santa we know today evolved from the advertising campaign by Coca Cola, which began its Christmas advertising in the 1920s with ads in magazines including the Saturday Evening Post. The first Santa ads depicted a strict-looking Claus, such as the illustrations of Thomas Nast. The D’Arcy Advertising Agency wanted Santa to be wholesome, realistic and symbolic, described as a warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human Santa. The image pretty much set the bar for the image we know today.
Speaking of Santa: On Christmas Eve, Santa Claus may ride a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer over North America, but Santa rides a kangaroo in Australia, he paddles a canoe in Hawaii, he rides a horse in the Netherlands, he travels by a donkey in Switzerland, and he is dropped from heaven on a golden cord into the Czech Republic.
Around the world there are a number of very unusual Christmas traditions. Here are a few:
Portugal: The largest gathering of people dressed like Santa Claus took place on December 10, 2010, when more than 18,000 people dressed as Santa Claus marched through the streets of the Portuguese city of Porto.
India: only about 2.3% of the population are Christians, but because of the large population that means about 25 million people. Christians here celebrate Christmas with midnight mass and gift-giving like the rest of the world, but with the absence of fir trees or pine trees to decorate, they create brightly lit, well-decorated Christmas banana or mango trees on the streets. They even use the leaves of those trees to decorate their houses.
Ukraine Christmas Cobweb: There was a poor woman who could not afford to decorate her family’s Christmas tree. But when her children woke up they saw their tree covered with spider webs. When the first light of Christmas morning touched the web threads, they turned into gold and silver and the family was never left for wanting again. Hence, seeing a spider web on Christmas morning brings luck.
Where do you send your letters to Santa? The North Pole of course, at Santa’s postal code, H0H 0H0 (with zeros instead of the letter ‘o’). In Canada postal codes are alphanumeric. Letters used to end up undelivered because there was no centralized address for Kris Kringle. But for the past 30 years, Canada Post volunteers (in the thousands) had been helping Santa reply to a million letters (every year) in different languages including Braille, from children around the world.
Next week we’ll honour Boxing Day with an explanation and more unusual Christmas traditions from around the world. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from your Jolly Old Elf at the Asian Journal!