We love the Christmas season. As we've noted with most cultural traditions, though, Christmas holds different meanings for folks depending on their time, place and circumstances.
During the Fourth Century, a Christian bishop living in what’s now Turkey bestowed generosity on people around him and laid the foundations for many modern trappings of Christmas. The real St. Nicholas, though, was known more for his gifts to the poor and sick throughout many years than for lavishing gifts on children at year end. Legends tell of him paying dowries for young women so they could marry instead of being sold into slavery. Also, saving falsely accused prisoners from capital punishment.
Gifts of this nature were undoubtedly more consequential for the beneficiaries than the baubles our children today associate with Christmas. And the old legend of St. Nicholas died in much of Western Europe after the Reformation, as Protestants ceased to venerate Catholic saints. The one Western culture that continued to honor the Feast Day of St. Nicholas was the Dutch, who often referred to the saint as "Sinterklaas."
According the tradition that had evolved over centuries, Dutch children would place their shoes near a windowsill on the evening of Dec. 5 (the Feast Day of St. Nicholas is actually Dec. 6) and the next morning they’d find that Sinterklaas had visited and filled them with small gifts. This tradition remains virtually unchanged in Holland, where legend holds that Sinterklaas lives out most of the year in Madrid but comes to visit Dutch children in late November and early December.
Sinterklaas made the trip across the Atlantic to New Amsterdam with the early Dutch settlers, but was later folded into the cultural melting pot that is America. After the Brits captured the settlement on lower Manhattan Island in the late 17th Century and renamed it after the Duke of York -- New York, as it is known today -- the new English settlers were soon taken with Sinterklaas, even if they couldn't quite pronounce his name correctly. Instead, it came out a garbled "Santa Claus."
The English Protestants in America had little patience for celebrating a day dedicated to a Catholic saint, however, and folded the new American "Santa Claus" tradition into Christmas Day.
A poem published in 1823 by New York professor Clement Clarke Moore called "A Visit from St. Nicholas" circulated the idea that Santa Claus was a jolly, heavyset man who slid down the chimney to deliver presents. Moore composed the poem while travelling through a snowstorm on a sleigh and infused Santa Claus with the attributes of his surroundings, including the physical traits of a local Dutch handyman. Today, the poem is still revered under a different name -- "’Twas the Night before Christmas."
Over the past two centuries, the legend of Santa Claus and the experience of Christmas have continued to evolve in uniquely American ways – especially via film and commerce.
The increasing commercialization of Christmas is obvious to everyone, as the dowries and bails once paid by St. Nicholas have ultimately given way to American Girl dolls and shopping-mall photo shoots with Santa. Christmas is now at least partly the time when steep price cuts lead to long lines and spiking sales volume for local retailers.
But our generations have also found special meanings of Christmas in film. For Baby Boomers like Ron, "It's A Wonderful Life" celebrates George Bailey, suddenly suicidal in a crisis not of his making. George's guardian angel intervenes to show him how many lives he's enriched and how much poorer and more depraved the world would have been without him. Meanwhile, the whole town is praying for him and then rallies to his rescue. It’s the ultimate “what goes around comes around” morality tale, something Boomers relish.
Gen Xers like Geoff enjoy Ralphie's wish for a Red Ryder BB gun in "A Christmas Story" and all the lovable funny mishaps that can occur on Christmas day. A nice counterpoint to Boomer tastes.
Most importantly, we note that Christmas is about people and family, and we’re again looking forward to spending time with ours.
No matter what Christmas traditions you observe, we wish you a joyous season.
Ron Knecht is Nevada's elected Controller. Geoffrey Lawrence is Assistant Controller.