State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
Religious conviction is a tough game. Given the strangeness of what we are asked to believe (let alone give our lives to), it’s all our institutions of faith can do to make the experience as familiar and reasonable as possible. Hence the pictures of Jesus which portray Him as an adorably shaggy, tastefully underlit blue-eyed camp counselor from Santa Monica. Gosh forbid the historical Jesus should show up like a wet blanket and wreck His own brand by being all swarthy and dark and serious-like. You turn to look and some scary Middle Eastern guy (Palestine!) is walking behind you with His hands outstretched? You’re gonna season the Lord with a little pepper spray and get the hell outa there. Right? Our spiritual icons had better look, walk and talk like us or it’s no go, Padre. If we find out one day the Creator has a duckbill, or tentacles, or both a duckbill AND tentacles? Well, church attendance might fall off a bit.
And so we come to Santa Claus. Also known in the United States as Santa Baby, St. Nick, Kris Kringle, and the Red Velveteen Endomorph. Where’d THIS guy come from? And how come all the other saints are portrayed as starved, sallow-cheeked martyr types in bargain sackcloth, hollow eyes aimed heavenward, one bony hand raised in a cryptic saint-gesture?
Ho Ho Hey!
Yes, our seasonal St. Nick is a helplessly laughing, overfed bag of ham in fur-trimmed red velvet. Let’s just charitably describe him as the overdressed outlier in the parade of Saints. Either he or the rest of the saints missed a memo. Good people, let’s briefly discuss the historical Saint Nicholas.
Hence the pictures of Jesus which portray Him as an adorably shaggy, tastefully underlit blue-eyed camp counselor from Santa Monica.
The real St. Nick, still venerated by the Catholic church, was an unshowered do-gooder in the 4th century who you could probably smell coming from a couple pléthron away. But his earnest good deeds earned him a spot in the Saints Social Register, and later the humiliation of being co-opted by a lil’ commercial juggernaut we have the nerve to call Christmas. The tune goes something like this:
In 270 AD a Greek guy named Nicholas of Myra was born in a city called Patara, on the south coast of today’s Turkey. His folks were reportedly very liquid (financially well-off, that is) but raised their son to be a pious Christian lad and not a sports-car crashing jackass. When he was but a pious teen, his parents were unfortunately both swept away by one of the many epidemics then routinely making the rounds of the Civilized-but-not-particularly-hygienic world, and Nicholas was left all alone with more dough than he knew what to do with. So like any ordinary teenager with a boatload of untethered parental cash and the world at his feet, he began lavishing his inherited riches on the poor, and continued to do so into his adulthood. He is known to have made a holy pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine, and sometime after returning to his hometown he was made Bishop of Myra.
Roman Holiday. Not.
Before long the Romans came calling, in particular the legally emboldened henchmen of Diocletian. He is the Roman Emperor generally held to have been the last of the fraidy-cat Roman Emperors to openly and broadly make Christianity illegal, and an offense punishable by arrest and execution. (Whatever else you can say about the whole Christianity thing, it certainly seemed to scare the bejesus out of Imperial Rome).
Nicholas was by then pretty well-known throughout his district as a Dudley Do-Right for Christ, and was of course arrested and tossed in the slammer, presumably by men wearing togas and stern expressions. To Nick’s great good fortune, Constantine, a big fan of Christianity, soon enough became emperor of the whole of the Roman Empire. In 313 Constantine’s Edict of Milan gave Christians legal status throughout the Roman Empire, causing the joyous release of many imprisoned believers, and the disappointment of a generation of lions.
In his lifetime, and in the gossipy centuries thereafter, many many many acts of kindness and mercy were ascribed to Nicholas. One in particular that made the rounds was that of his rescue of three penniless maidens. They had reached marrying age and their father, broke and panicked, had nothing to provide his daughters in the way of a dowry. In that time a young woman would not be able to marry without a dowry; her family’s donation to the marriage, and a kind of security deposit to be returned to her family on the occasion of divorce, the husband’s faithlessness, or any other distasteful misstep. Without dowries the young ladies were simply not marrying material, and the other options in that day were unsavory, it is said. Well, as the maidens and their pauper-papa bemoaned their penury, who should show up but Saint I’m-Wealthy-and-Nice.
Bachelorettes Strike Gold
Nicholas is said, by one account, to have left three bags of gold just inside the door of the man’s home the night before the suitors (who were in love, but not so much so that they were delusional) were to say their conditional fare-thee-wells. By another account the bags of gold are stealthily dropped into the daughter’s stockings as they are drying before the fire in the wee hours, and in yet another version the gold bags come flying in through a window of the guy’s demure little shack. In any case, our custom of receiving gifts from Santa has its provenance in this story of Nicholas’ gifting this timely dough to the three previously hopeless bachelorettes.
It’s also suggested that the pawnbroker’s symbol of three gold balls descends from this tradition (you know what I mean), as does the old-timey idea of giving oranges for Christmas to profoundly disappointed kids on the prairie, who even then were obliged to put on brave faces and act delighted. “Wow, cool. An orange.” etc. Nowadays the orange has been replaced by the less worthy Apple line of products, but that is a carol for another christmas. By the time Nicholas of Myra died in 345, he was a rock star of kindness and charity and mercy.
And how exactly did that Turkish guy become the morbidly obese, red velvet-swaddled, maniacally laughing Santa Claus we all know and love today? Haddon Sundblom.
Miss December? There’s Always Next Year.
You heard me. H-a-d-d-o-n S-u-n-d-b-l-o-m. The commercial artist was hired by the Coca Cola company to cook them up an ad campaign that would more efficaciously move their soda pop to the masses over the winter holidays, when Coke sales (and those of other soft drinks) experienced a perennial slump due to the cold weather.
The year was 1931. Yes, Santa Claus (a murmured, European immigrant-accented version of “St. Nicholas”) had been portrayed as a dour, bearded fellow in American popular culture before, but it wasn’t until Sundblom got the commission that Kris Kringle’s garb took on the corporate colors of the Coca Cola company. That’s right. It’s no coincidence Santa’s ensemble is the same color as a Coke can. It’s also worth noting that Sundblom’s very last professional assignment as an illustrator was in 1972. December, to be exact; the cover of Playboy Magazine’s Christmas issue that year. No, that ain’t Santa you’re looking at. And it certainly isn’t St. Nicholas.
Happy Holidays, pals. Hug everyone you see.