Santa is a magical creature.
Santa is a man who lived in third-century Turkey (then called Lycia).
Santa is a mythological being.
Happily, Santa can be all three …
He flies through the night sky with the greatest of ease, in his reindeer-drawn sleigh. He knows where I live, the white house on the two hills. He leaves presents under the Christmas tree (even though there’s no chimney in my house!). And he eats the sparkly sugar cookies and drinks cold chocolate milk on the coffee table. It’s magic!
Born in the third century to wealthy Christian parents in Lycia, Turkey, the boy who became St. Nicholas grew up as an orphan when his parents died in an epidemic. He used his wealth to aid the poor and needy. At one point, he became Bishop of Myra while still very young. Persecuted and jailed by Roman Emperor Diocletian, after his release from prison Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, adding his voice to that defining moment in Western history.
“Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas’ life and deeds. These accounts help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as protector and helper of those in need – and why he is the inspiration behind Santa Claus. One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands something of value – a dowry. This poor man’s daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home, providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas.”
Yes, a legend perhaps, but a real human figure behind what evolved into myth and magic.
Christmas, as it’s celebrated in the United States, borrows most of its cues from northern Europe and England, where darkness prevailed for months, where humans pined for the light of the sun, where the greenery of spring and crisp fresh tender dandelion leaves seemed like miracles after months of desolation and cold.
First published in 1823, Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” created – more than any other influence – the modern image of Santa Claus.
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (A Visit)
by Clement Clarke Moore
‘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.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.
And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.
When out on the roof there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
tore open the shutter, and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
gave the lustre of midday to objects below,
when, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles, his coursers they came,
and he whistled and shouted and called them by name:
“Now Dasher! Now Dancer!
Now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid!
On, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch!
To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away!
Dash away all!”
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky
so up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
with the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
the prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head and was turning around,
down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes – how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
and the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
and I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
and filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
Indeed, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
See you in the New Year!
Makes 3-4 dozen 4-inch cookies
This recipe yields very rich cookies, which can be made in many different shapes. Just draw a design on stiff cardboard and make whatever theme you want — Santa Clauses at Christmas, turkeys at Thanksgiving, or rabbits at Easter. That’s what my parents did, and I loved every bite.
2 cups shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
3 large eggs
5 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cream together shortening, sugars, and eggs.
Sift together dry ingredients and stir into the creamed mixture.
Roll dough on lightly floured board to 1/8-inch. Cut dough into desired shapes and place on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 10 minutes until lightly browned around edges. Cool on racks and frost as desired. (Frost after freezing.)
*There is no ginger in this recipe, but you can add it to taste if you wish to do so.