Father Christmas, Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas?

Whatever name you choose to call him, Father Christmas embodies the spirit of Christmas.

Saint Nicholas, known by many different names around the world, has a large and varied portfolio.

The fourth century Greek bishop of Myra (now Dembe in Turkey) serves as the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, brewers, pawnbrokers and students. He is, however, best known as the special protector of children.

During his lifetime many miracles were attributed to him and one of his very first names was Nikolaos the Wonder Worker.

Nowadays he is is known as Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas or even Saint Nic in most of the English speaking world.

In various parts of Germany he goes by a number of names including der Heilige Nikolaus, Belsnickle, Niglo and, Pelznickel.

Children in the Netherlands know him as Sinterklaas and Hungarian children call him Szent Mikulás. In Italy he is San Nicola, San Nicolò or Niccolò, in Spain he is San Nicolás, in Sweden he is Sankt Nikolaus or Nikolai and in France he is Saint Nicolas.

In some countries children look forward to his visits on Christmas Eve but many children receive treats from their official protector on his saint day, December 6. For many this date signals the start of the festive season.

A host of magical legends, stories and customs surround the former Bishop of Myra. Children in much of the English speaking world believe he has a workshop at the North Pole staffed by a work force of non-unionised elves who devote the whole year to making toys for good children.

On Christmas Eve, the elves pack the fruits of their labour into a sleigh to which they harness a span of magical flying reindeer. After Mother Christmas hands the round-the-world traveller a packet of padkos, off he goes with his list of good children and their requests, travelling from continent to continent, city to city and village to village, dropping off the toys.

The story does not end there. In fact it gets even more incredible. Tubby Santa manages to find his way down assorted narrow chimneys with his bag of toys and Christmas goodies, tiptoeing past even the most vigilant watchdogs, to fill thousands of waiting empty stockings. And all this happens in just one night.

He is said to enjoy a snack or two along the way and appreciates the milk and cookies children leave out for him, A nice cold beer or a good whiskey would apparently be well received, too. If this all sounds a bit improbable don’t forget about the power of magic. Everything is possible when magic is involved, especially on Christmas Eve.

Way back in the old days, children had to trust in magic that Santa would find his way around the world every year. Modern children make use of a new type of magic, the numerous websites that enable them to track Santa’s progress via their computers or smart phones.

By the way if hanging up stockings in the hopes of receiving gifts from Santa sounds a bit bizarre, there is a very good reason for this custom. Back in his Myra days St Nicholas left golden coins in the shoes of the three daughters of a poor man who couldn’t pay for their dowries. In so doing, Saint Nicholas helped them to find good husbands and saved them from slavery.

Father Christmas, Santa Claus or Saint Nic – whatever you wish to call him and however you include him in your Christmas celebrations, the miracle worker has come a long way from Myra.

It was the American soldiers who first started the globalisation of Santa when they brought their American version of him to Europe after World War II to greet and treat children in war-ravished towns. Since then, the kindly bishop has morphed into the jolly global figure in a red jump suit who puts the ho ho ho into Christmas.

If, however, we look past the commercialisation and the jingling tills, the kindly bishop and the kindly old man who lives on top of the world still have so much in common. Both versions of Saint Nicholas embody the spirit of selfless giving. And this, along with the much-loved customs and traditions that foster a belief in miracles and the magic of childhood, is what Christmas is all about.

Long may the Bishop of Myra bless, with his presence, our celebration of the miraculous coming of the Christ Child.


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