“Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.” This poem, written by Clement Clarke Moore, tells the story of a visit from St. Nicholas on Christmas Eve, but who is St. Nicholas, and why does he visit on Christmas Eve?
The first historical Santa-like figure was St. Nicholas of Bari. Nicholas was the son of wealthy parents in the town of Patara in southwest Turkey. Nicholas’ parents died while he was a young man, and he distributed his inherited wealth to the needy in his hometown. Nicholas later became a priest and performed many miracles including healings. Nicholas eventually became archbishop of Myra. Nicholas died Dec. 6 sometime between 340 and 350 A.D., and his death was commemorated every year when children laid out treats and straw for his donkey, which were then replaced by toys and candy.
Moore’s poem includes the line, “And stockings were hung by the chimney with care.”
In the cold winters of ancient Europe, socks were an essential part of one’s wardrobe and were often washed and hung by the chimney each night to dry overnight. St. Nicholas of Bari heard the plight of a poor widower with three daughters. They were all starving and the widower had no money to pay for his daughter’s dowries. Desperate, the widower decided to sell one of his daughters into slavery so he could spare his other two daughters a life of desperation through marriage.
Upon hearing this news, St. Nicholas snuck into the widower’s house one night and placed a gold coin in the sock of the eldest daughter. She awoke to find the coin, which became her dowry. Nicholas eventually put coins into each of the daughter’s socks, and all three were able to be married. Rumors of this spread throughout the province, and people began searching their socks every morning for gold coins.
“So up to the house top he courses they flew, with the sleigh full of toys,” Moore’s poem continues.
In the Biblical account of Christ’s birth, three Magi from the East arrived bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the child. Many believe this to be the reason for giving gifts during the holidays, but historically, the tradition is traced back to the Roman day of Saturnalia.
Saturnalia was a holiday associated with the winter solstice. The Romans believed generosity toward one another during this season would grant them good fortune for the remainder of the year. During the early years of the church, Christian converts continued to celebrate many of the Roman holidays.
Romans also held a tradition of giving a gift on New Year’s Day, which lasted until the rule of Queen Victoria.
In ancient Scandinavia the winters were cold, bleak, dark and tough. Many people and animals died during these long, dismal days. The evergreen became a symbol of life because they did not loose their “leaves” in winter, and the Vikings began bringing them into their homes during the winter months.
In the seventh century, St. Boniface, a monk from Credition, England, traveled across Europe spreading the message of the Gospel. During one of his travels he came upon a group of men preparing to sacrifice a young boy to the god Thor. The men were standing in a circle around an oak tree.
When they refused to listen to Boniface, the monk punched the oak tree, and it fell to the ground exposing a small fir sapling. Boniface pointed out that the tree was the tree of life because it never died in the winter, and the three points of its triangular shape represented the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
It is said that the men gave their lives to Christ at that moment.
Decorations likely began during the Roman era when holly was used during winter solstice celebrations. Scandinavians used straw to make stars, crowns, angels and nativities. Vikings often decorated during the winter months to honor their pagan gods. When they began converting to Christianity, they carried the practice of decorating over to their new beliefs.
Decorations during this season began spreading throughout Europe and people eventually began decorating Christmas trees. In Germany, red apples were among the first decorations fastened to trees, followed by paper chains, popcorn, cookies, candy canes, dolls and small toys.
The legend of the candy cane comes from the choir rafters of an ancient European church with rowdy choir members. At the time, choirmasters would often give candy to children to keep them busy. However, the candy would not last long enough. One choirmaster visited a candy maker and formed the idea of making white peppermint candy sticks into the shape of a staff. The shape of the candy represents the shepherds who visited the baby in a manger, and the pure white color of the candy represented the sinless nature of Christ.
“He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle,” Moore’s poem closes. “But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight, happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”