Santa Claus’s pictures, dolls, and gift cards are everywhere during the Christmas season, but do you really know the history and origin of one of the greatest traditions in the Middle East and Western Culture? What would you say when children ask "Who is Santa Claus?" Let’s take this as an educational opportunity to look at Santa's origins, the history of his significance over time, and some of the traditions behind his name.
Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Saint Nick, or Papa Noel, is a legendary character that originated in Eastern Christian culture. He is said to bring gifts on Christmas Eve to well-behaved children like toys and candy and either coal or nothing to naughty children.
The true story began with Saint Nicholas (270 - 343 AD), who was born in the Greek village of Patra to wealthy parents who died due to the epidemic. Nicholas used his entire inheritance to help the needy, the sick, and the suffering.
One of Nicholas' legends says that he gave a dowry to three poor girls so that they would not have to work in disgraceful jobs. Bags full of gold were also left in front of their houses.
Nicholas became a bishop while he was young and became famous throughout the village for his generosity to the needy and his love for children. With this story, the tradition of giving gifts in honor of Saint Nicholas has begun.
Saint Nicholas died in December 343 AD. On the night of his death, children were given gifts in his honor. December 6 is still the main day for sharing gifts in many countries in Europe and Africa. Although plenty of countries celebrate Christmas and exchange gifts on December 24, Egyptian Orthodox celebrate Christmas Eve on December 6.
Christmas presents are a means of celebrating Christmas. The gifts are often exchanged on Christmas day, December 25, or the last day of the 12-day Christmas season. As Christianity spread to Roman countries, the custom of giving presents on New Year's Day was initiated. By 336 C.E., December 25 seems to have established itself as the day of Jesus' birth. The tradition of gifting is related to the story of the Biblical Magi who gave a gift to infant Jesus. The story of St. Nicholas slowly became part of the Christmas celebrations in countries like England. In other Christian countries, presents are exchanged early in Advent (a Christian season that starts from November 28 to December 24).
Secret Santa is a Western Christmas tradition where members of a group are randomly assigned a person to whom they give the present. The identity of the gift giver should remain a secret and should not be revealed. Derived from the Christian tradition, the ritual is known as Secret Santa in the US and the UK.
Many modifications have been added to the original version; one of them is called Thieving Secret Santa. In this version, participants bring one gift each that may appeal to any of the other ones. The gifts should be wrapped in such a way as to disguise their nature. The provider of each gift should not be announced when setting up the game. The twist here is that the players take turns, where they can either open a new gift or steal a previously opened one. This game is more commonly referred to as the White Elephant or Yankee Swap.