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Reflections-By Dr Rajan Philips

( This motivational article was published in Oman Observer , one of the leading Newspapers in Oman. The article is reproduced with the permission of the author )

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Santa Claus-The evolution of a popular legend


ONE of the most visible symbols of the Christmas and New Year season is Santa Claus. His plump and cheerful frame in bright red suit trimmed with white fur, with a full, white beard and carrying a sack laden with gifts for children has become an indispensable component of the festivities.

Santa Claus as we know him today is the product of a many — stranded legend that has evolved over the centuries. The primary roots can be traced to a monk, St Nicholas who was born in around 280 AD in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. He was noted for his piety and kindness towards the poor and needy. December 6 is dedicated as his Day. Let us see how his life became the possible origin for the colourful Santa who regales children at seasonal parties and shopping malls.

Tradition has it that St Nicholas’ wealthy parents died in an epidemic while he was quite young. When he grew up, he travelled the countryside to help the poor and needy, using his inherited wealth. He did this quietly by dropping small bags of gold coins down the chimneys of the poor.

One of the best-known instances is that of his saving three poor sisters from being sold into slavery by their father, by providing them with a dowry to enable them to get married. In course of time, Nicholas' popularity grew steadily. He was considered the patron saint of children, bakers, merchants and mariners. His Day, December 6th, was looked upon as a lucky time to make large purchases or to get married.

The term Santa Claus in all probability evolved from the Dutch name, Sinter Klaas, a modified form of Saint Nikolaas. Towards the end of the 18th century, Dutch settlers brought the legend to America where he became Santa Claus. Incidentally, the name has variations in other parts of the world. For instance, it is Shengdan Laoren in China, Pere Noel in France, Kris Kringle in Germany and Papa Noel in Spain.

In 1809, the well-known American writer Washington Irving popularised the Santa tale by referring to St Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book. But the modern comprehensive image surfaced from the creative imagination of Clement Clarke Moore. In 1822, he wrote a long Christmas poem The Night Before Christmas to entertain his three daughters.

Initially, he had no intention to publish the poem and had to be persuaded by his friends. It became a roaring success as it captured the imagination of children and established the lovable figure of Santa Claus who has the supernatural ability to travel across the globe in a 8- reindeer drawn sleigh and ascend a chimney to leave gifts for children.

The visual illustration of such a Santa by the famous cartoonist Thomas Nast further reinforced the image. George Webster contributed the idea that Santa's headquarters was at the North Pole. Mrs Santa Claus was created in 1889 by the writer Katherine Lee Bates.

Rudolph, the ninth and "the most famous red-nosed reindeer of all," was born over a hundred years later in 1939 in a story-poem by Robert L May, a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store, who used it as a successful ploy to attract more customers. In 1931, the soft drink giant Coca-Cola launched a massive Christmas ad campaign firmly establishing the Santa image in the unmistakable the all-red outfit with white trimmings. The ads featuring a human-size Santa drinking Coke ran for the next 35 years!

In 1994, Santa went hi-tech when he acquired a website of his own (, the first Santa specific website domain on the Internet. Santa also got an e-mail ID the same year ( Today many dedicated websites and groups and children’s e-mails addressed to him are answered promptly.

In countries like Canada and the USA there are ‘Santa Schools’ that offer thorough professional courses to turn out smart Santas for the festive season. For instance, the school founded by Victor Nevada, uses a 535 page comprehensive manual All About Being Santa for the purpose.

An institution that calls itself the International University of Santa Claus (IUSC) conducts short term but high profile workshops in many parts of the world. It offers exciting leadership training programmes based on the best selling book, The Leadership Secrets of Santa Claus.

The growth and evolution of the legend of Santa Claus must of course be seen in the right perspective. But the joy and mirth it provides to children and the young at heart is a welcome experience. In addition, the original message from the life of St Nicholas, to render selfless assistance to the less privileged ones around us, gets reinforced by the magnanimous and generous Santa Claus. If this can spur us into thoughtful deeds of kindness and compassion, our festivities gain real substance.

A few quotes:
n Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see. — Mark Twain
n When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people. — Abraham J Heschel
n Real generosity is doing something nice for someone who will never find out. — Frank A Clark
n Kind words do not cost much. Yet they accomplish much. — Blaise Pascal

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