His coming makes the children sick with anticipation and when he arrives in the dead of night, he spoils them rotten with candy and toys.
If that’s not enough, he’s overweight and smokes. How can such an obvious candidate for a coronary be any kind of role model? But then, what kid has ever wanted to grow up to be Santa Claus?
Yet he’s a grand figure of a man, conspicuous both in consumption and in distribution. He’s a one-man economic upturn who lives in the land of the midnight sun, where the daytime is 24 hours long.
As one wag from the local business school put it, he had to take up residence there because his production schedule required more than a regulation day to meet demand. His stock, however, doesn’t appear in Standard and Poor’s, and even though he is always in red, no one, not even the elves, has ever attempted a leverage buy-out. He’s solvent.
Santa Claus came into history as a saint, but though his origins were in Turkey, he’s better known for his association with the Christmas turkey, an American bird. He’s big in size and soul, and it took Americans to celebrate him properly. Or, more precisely, it took New Yorkers to create the verbal and graphic images by which he is recognized and known throughout the world.
As with so many Americans, much of the Old World went into his making, and yet he manifests that expansive optimism and generosity that may not be the exclusive property of Americans but that has not been stinted in the American character. Representing a tradition of open-handed munificence, he is a fitting image for Christmas in America.
Washington Irving, the great New York writer, was his first American biographer. As Irving tells us in Diedrick Nickerbocker’s History of New York, 1809, St. Nicholas came to the New World as the carved figurehead on the Dutch ship Goede Vrouw. There, he was “equipped with a low, broad-brimmed hat, a huge pair of Flemish trunk hose and a pipe that reached to the end of a bowsprit.”
That’s certainly not the jolly old elf that we are accustomed to, but Irving’s picture is also not an accurate reflection of the fourth-century Bishop of Myra who, by the Middle Ages, was only slightly less popular than the Virgin and her Son.
St. Nicholas was so well-liked that, before Rome bumped him from the universal calendar of saints in 1969, he had become the patron of children, students, Russia, bankers, sailors, pawn brokers, vagabonds, and thieves. In Shakespeare’s time, traveling brigands and highwaymen were known as “St. Nicholas clerks,” and in Henry IV, Part I, one character tells such a rascal, “I know thou worshippest St. Nicholas as truly as any man of falsehood may.”