With my next post on Garden Rant officially due December 24, my first thought was a treatise on what Santa Claus might plant in his garden at the North Pole, where it gets about 24 hours of sun in the summer.
Would Mrs. Claus be putting The Big Guy on a home-grown diet of celery, carrots and peanut butter to better enable him to complete his world-wide deliveries in a 24-hour period? Would excited children leave a few million carrots for Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and the gang on Christmas Eve when reindeer might be a lot better off on such a journey with lettuce, cabbage, fungi, herbs and mushrooms?
Not to ignore feeding the army of elves required 24/7 to build and stuff Santa’s bags with all those My Very Hungry Caterpillar apps, long-range walkie-talkies, Hot Wheels crash tracks, LED light gloves, Star Wars Death Star kits and Barbie 2018 Holiday Dolls now required to keep grandma in good graces with the spoiled grandkids. And who’s to tend the 400-acre poinsettia greenhouse?
Good food for thought, all that.
I will get into food, gardening and climate a bit along the way here. But once again, research has gotten in my way. I had totally forgotten the ever-evolving story of Santa Claus, which along its increasingly commercial path does run parallel to the birth of Jesus, even touching it at times. But this time of year, the Santa Claus story is a lot more fun to read and write than raising rutabagas.
It begins back in the fourth century at Myra in what is now Turkey where St. Nicholas, a bishop, was born to wealthy parents in a land of cheese, grains, bread, milk and yogurt. The story goes that St. Nicholas, a kind and generous man, helped a poor villager with three daughters who did not have money for a dowry to see them wed.
St. Nicholas solved that problem by dropping three bags of gold coins down the family’s chimney. On the way down, the coins got stuck in socks hung by the chimney, with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there. Or some such.
St. Nicholas tried to keep his largesse a secret, but word soon got out; any secret gift after that was attributed to him, and he was thus declared a saint.
No good deeds go unpunished, so when the Roman Emperor Diocletian took over the area from 284 to 305, he had St. Nicholas exiled and thrown in the clink. St. Nicholas subsequently died in either 345 or 352 – no one is sure – but historians are sure it was on a December 6th. It was Pope Julius 1 who in 336 made Christmas December 25 , and so it went.
Diocletian also did a lot of historical Roman good before retiring to his palace on the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia where he tended his vegetable gardens, which even then included corn, potatoes and cabbage. And, yes, that’s where Dalmatian dogs got their names.
But St. Nicholas deservedly had some staying power after his death, being declared the patron saint to a mixed bag of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers and students – many of them surely involved in agriculture – and a lot of secret gift-giving went on in his name.
St. Nicholas was so popular that in 1087, more than 700 years after his death, his bones were stolen from Turkey by some Italian merchant sailors who took them to a cathedral in the Italian port of Bari. Even now, on December 6, his statue is taken out to sea to bless the waters and provide safe sailing.
Fast forward to the 1600s. St. Nicholas had fallen a bit out of favor in his homeland, but in England somebody had to get the gifts to the kids. Every December 6 the designated carrier became “Father Christmas” or “Old Man Christmas,” with St. Nicholas still floating around in the background. (The National Trust has ruled on the subject.)
In some countries, including Austria and Germany, the gift-giver became “Christkind,” a golden-haired baby with wings symbolizing the baby Jesus, not to forget gifts of frankincense and myrrh, both fragrant resin of trees.
Move along to the American colonies where the name “Kris Kringle” was born from “Christkind.” Early Dutch settlers moved the name further down the lexicon by combining the old stories of St. Nicholas with Kris Kringle, which became “Sinterklaas,” a man with white hair, white beard and long red cape.
So how far is that from Santa Claus?
Many European countries still celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6. The children leave their clog shoes out on December 5 to be filled with hay and carrots to be eaten by the horse pulling Sinterklaas’s sleigh. The next morning gifts could be found in those clogs – may all of them have been size 22.
All this changed forever in 1823 when Clement Moore, writer and Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature as well as Divinity and Biblical Learning at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, came up with what became “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
Suddenly our world had eight flying reindeer and a tiny sled and easy-access chimneys and a fun poem to be read as if it were solemn truth to millions of little kids who still believed in Santa Claus by parents who so wanted it to be true.
Subsequent research did indicate that flying reindeer may have been part of an ancient northern European culture that ate too many hallucination-inducing mushrooms, but Divinity Professor Moore was never accused of such.
The full-bore media image of Santa Claus as we know him came in 1863 when Thomas Nast of Harper’s Weekly offered Santa in his now familiar bright red and white suit and badly in need of Weight Watchers. Game over. Madison Avenue inevitably stepped in; millions of department store Santas and Salvation Army bell ringers followed.
One very successful commercial touch came in 1931 when the Coca-Cola company made Santa larger than life, took away the pipe and added a glass of Coke. Nothing was ever said in any of that about growing carrots for reindeer. I may write a column on that this spring.
Father Christmas image credit.