The possible first humanitarian ever was – Santa Claus.

Today, we will talk about, possibly, the first ever humanitarian. Centuries later, he became known as Santa Claus.

While youngsters believe that the old guy with white beard departs from the Northern Pole with his reindeer, bringing gifts, they are not wrong at all. It is all the matter of perspective. First, let’s take a look into a fascinating evolution of popular traditions.

Source: Dubrovnik Museums

Saint Nicholas, the Bishop

According to historians, Nicholas the Bishop of Myra, born in Asia Minor (then-Greek dominated area of the Empire, modern-day Turkey) lived through the late 3rd and earlier 4th century, during the time of later Roman Empire. He was raised by a wealthy, religious Christian family with a clear instinct for helping the underprivileged, poor, and socially excluded people.

There are many myths about this guy’s humanitarian activities. In one of these stories, he secretly brought gold to a broken man for a dowry for his daughters. In the context of that time, dowry was quite a dealbreaker. If parents were unable to afford the dowry for their daughters, these girls were unlikely to marry and very likely to become prostitutes. To save the poor girls from such a fate, he dropped one golden bag for each of them, secretly into their home.

Most importantly, it was around 1700 years ago.

With the time passing, stories always become legends. Things that happened a long time ago always at some point start sounding slightly unclear, mystical (mystiko is the Greek word for “secret”), almost magical. A few century after the Bishop’s death, he was already celebrated as a saint patron of children, the poor, and also sailors/ships.

Saint Nicholas - Santa Claus
This 19th century painting of Saint Nicholas belongs to the “historical style”. In that time, artists enjoyed painting their imagination about historical personalities and events. This one was made by the Czech historical painter Jaroslav Cermak.

Imagine legends saying that a bishop, who grew up in a wealthy family was secretly passing by poor people houses and dropping random gifts there? Even nowadays, such a thing would easily become – an urban legend.

Strange ways of traditions

Later on, the history and heritage related to Saint Nicholas developed differently across different countries. Regardless of separations between different Christian churches, borders between countries, cultural differences, there is always a little bit of that legend remaining. As a result, Santa Claus is nowadays a mythical figure all over the world, beyond the cultures with Christian religious traditions.

Nowadays the social media shapes new traditions. For instance, Saint Patrick Day is celebrated worldwide, although it is an Irish national holiday. The concept of national tradition is vanishing and being eclipsed by individual lifestyle choices. As a result, you might celebrate Saint Patrick with more passion than any national holiday of your country.

In the 19th century, national identities were quite a new thing. Subsequently many started believing they belonged to distinctive groups in accordance with language, culture, and place they live. Before that, traditions and cultures were mostly local.

It is important to know that in the Mediterranean areas the figure of Saint. Nicholas has more associations to sailors and ships. That being said, he is like a “successor” to the Greek god Poseidon or the Slavic god Veles rather than a patron of children. For instance, Saint Basil has Saint Nicholas’ “role” in Modern Greece.

On the other hand, the mythical image of Saint Nicholas the Humanitarian became highly popular through the Low Countries (The Netherlands) in the middle ages. The 17th century painting of Jan Steen shows the Feast of Saint Nicholas as a day of children’s happiness.

Jan Steen: The Feast of Saint Nicholas, 1665-68, oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Notice that the Saint Nicholas Day is on 6th of December, and it is mostly unrelated to the Christmas Day.

From the Sinterklaas to the Santa Claus

In Dutch langauge, the traditional mythical figure inspired by Saint Nicholas is named Sinterklaas. Meanwhile, there was a figure of Father Christmas in England, also inspired on Saint Nicholas. Consequently, these two names and ideas somehow merged. The word “Sinterklaas” evolved into the “Santa Claus”, relating to the English tradition of Father Christmas.

After that, the tradition spread across many different countries. In the 19th century many authors of children’s book in both UK and US included stories about Santeclaus, or later Santa Claus. Similarly, the idea of Santa Claus living on the Northern Pole started through some of these stories, possibly by the illustrator and journalist Thomas Nast.

Santa Claus
The beautiful engraving by Thomas Nast, showcasing the “Clausville”, a possible source of inspiration for the Northern Pole “residence”.

At the same time, popular culture was on the rise, and children’s literature was no exception. Many old myths became rewritten into fairytales. After all, the example of the good holy man Saint Nicholas becoming a figure of children’s fantasy is one of many examples.

Santa Claus
The Children’s friend. Number III. A New-Year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve. Part III (1821); unknown author

Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland

Did I mention that traditions are constantly evolving? Firstly, 19th century children’s writers shaped the modern Santa Claus. Secondly, we entered the age of experiences. Finally, it became perfectly possible to “meet” the Santa Claus in the remote city of Rovaniemi, in Finland’s Arctic region of Lapland.

Santa Claus Village
A random view of the Santa Claus Village, at about 1 pm during the polar night

It takes quite a long trip to reach this place. Nevertheless, it is a rewarding slow travel experience. Reindeer are also included in the experience!

See also: Stories of the Sea


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