Victorians–Jolly Old Saint Nicholas

image from Victorian Christmas by Bobbie Kalman and Barbara Bedell

image from Victorian Christmas by Bobbie Kalman and Barbara Bedell

“His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!”  The look and name of Santa Claus or Father Christmas has changed over hundreds of years and has been different between the various cultures.  He was based on 4th century Saint Nicholas (of what is now known as Turkey) who was famous for helping three women who didn’t have dowries by providing it for them from his own inheritance.  He became a Monk, then an Abbot and then Archbishop of Myra.  Children use to be given gifts on Saint Nicholas day (the 6th of December) but it is said that Martin Luther wasn’t happy with this and wanted it to be done on Christmas to have the focus on Christ rather than saints. In Serbia, (and other European countries) where my father is from, many families have chosen Saint Nicholas as their patron saint.  They celebrate St. Nicholas Day on either the 6th or the 19th of December.  Usually, a picture is set up on a table or on the wall of Saint Nicholas as depicted below.

It was during Victorian times that Santa Claus began  the transformation to  closely resemble the image we see today.  Father Christmas as he is still sometimes known in England use to be depicted as a big man dressed in either green or red fur-trimmed clothes riding a goat.  This idea (minus the goat) was the image used for the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens’, “A Christmas Carol”.

image from Victorian Christmas by Bobbie Kalman and Barbara Bedell

image from Victorian Christmas by Bobbie Kalman and Barbara Bedell

In 1823, Clement Moore wrote a poem entitled ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’ which is now called ‘T’was The Night Before Christmas’.  In it he describes Santa as ‘…chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…’ The illustrator Thomas Nast drew him as round-bellied and sort of a cross between St. Nicholas and an elf.  Which now closely resembled the appearance of how we view Santa today.

The song ‘Jolly Old Saint Nicholas’ was written in the 1860’s author of which is disputable.  If the tune is familiar, it is because it was composed by James Lord Pierpont which he used for the original ‘Jingle Bells’.

Jolly old Saint Nicholas,
lean your ear this way!
Don't you tell a single soul
what I'm going to say:
Christmas Eve is coming soon;
now, you dear old man
Whisper what you'll bring to me;
tell me if you can.

When the clock is striking twelve,
when I'm fast asleep
Down the chimney, broad and black,
with your pack you'll creep
All the stockings you will find
hanging in a row
Mine will be the shortest one,
you'll be sure to know Bobby wants a pair of skates,
Suzy wants a sled
Nellie wants a picture book,
yellow, blue, and red
Now I think I'll leave to you
what to give the rest
Choose for me, dear Santa Claus;
you will know the best.

Saint Nicholas Or Santa Claus In Christmas

It has always been a bit of a quandary for me as how to treat Santa Claus at Christmas.  I brought up my children on the true historical knowledge (as we know it) of Saint Nicholas and that the parents bought the gifts while trying to explain to them that they mustn’t enlighten their friends.  I reinforced this with the fact that I will never lie them.  This in some ways worked well and in some ways it didn’t.  My kids knew to trust me and that nothing I told them was a lie.  Unfortunately, kids can’t help correcting their friends and my daughter Tara felt that when she got older that I wasn’t allowing her a bit of magic.  She asked me if it was okay if she pretended that Santa Claus was real.  I told her it was okay to pretend of course.  When she became an adult, she didn’t agree with me leaving Santa out of their lives.  On the other hand, my daughter Jadzia told me she was grateful that I told her the truth about Santa.  With my two youngest children, I told them who Saint Nicholas was and when they asked me whether Santa Claus brought gifts to children, my husband and I simply stated, “That’s what many people say.”  I had decided it was unfair to ask children to keep secrets from their friends.

On reflection, I wish I added more of the folklore to their knowledge.  I love the image of Father Christmas riding a goat.  He reminds me of the Green Man in Celtic lore.  I also love the depiction of Father Christmas in the wonderful story of “The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe”.

Teaching children about Santa is a decision that each parent must make.  There is no right or wrong in the decision as long as it is done lovingly.  Someone once told me that they received coal in their stocking for Christmas because their parents couldn’t afford to buy them presents but the parents told them it was because Santa knew they had been naughty.  For me the most important aspect of Christmas is Jesus.  Saint Nicholas loved the Lord from the time he was a child.  He lived a life following Christ.  We could teach our children that Saint Nicholas would want us to focus on Jesus during Christmas and that would be telling the truth.  We could also tell children that Santa brings gifts to children because he is trying to model Jesus’ loving kindness and giving nature as we all should.


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