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Christmas 101

Did you ever wonder why we do what we do at Christmas time? Here's a brief glimpse at the history behind three of the most common North American Christmas traditions/images.

Did you ever wonder why we do what we do at Christmas time? Here's a brief glimpse at the history behind three of the most common North American Christmas traditions/images.

Santa Claus

The basis for the Christian-era Santa Claus is Bishop Nicholas, who lived in the fourth century A.D. in what is now Turkey. A very rich and generous man, Nicholas often gave joy to poor children by throwing gifts through their windows. The Roman Catholic Church made St. Nicholas the patron saint of children and seafarers.

After the Reformation, European followers of St. Nicholas dwindled but the legend stayed alive in Holland where the Dutch spelling of his name — Sint Nikolaas — eventually transformed to Sinterklaas. On Dec. 6, which is the name day for Nicholas, Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the fireplace and Sinterklaas would reward good children by placing treats in their shoes. Dutch colonists brought this tradition to America with them in the 17th century and here the Anglican name of Santa Claus emerged.

As early as 1773 the name appeared as "St. A Claus." in the American press. More detailed descriptions of Santa came in 1809's History of New York by Washington Irving and 1823's A Visit From Saint Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore. This poem is more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas.

Illustrator Thomas Nast further elaborated on the American image of Santa Claus by depicting a rotund Santa for Christmas issues of Harper's magazine from the 1860s to the 1880s. In 1931, Coca-Cola introduced a series of advertising illustrations that depicted Santa with a big, white beard, black boots and big red coat, exposing nearly everyone in America to the modern Santa Claus image.

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Christmas stockings

There are numerous legends and theories about the origin of the custom of hanging stockings for Santa Claus to fill, according to

One explanation is that the tradition has its roots in the 16th century Dutch custom whereby children would leave their clogs by the fireplace filled with straw for the reindeer or donkeys of Saint Nicholas and a treat for Santa himself. In return, Santa Claus used to leave treats for children.

Another legend has it that Saint Nicholas began the tradition by helping a kind nobleman who'd lost his wife and was left in old age with three daughters of marrying age and no money to pay for dowries. Knowing the man wouldn't accept charity, St. Nicholas climbed quietly down the chimney and placed three purses of gold in each of the girls' stockings, which had been left to dry over the fireplace.

According to yet another theory, at about the end of the 19nth century, illustrator Thomas Nast and writer George Webster cooked up a story about a visit from Santa Claus that became very popular. It was in this story that Christmas stockings were first mentioned as being hung from a chimney, thus giving birth to the tradition.

Christmas trees

Late in the middle ages, Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show hope for the forthcoming spring. In 16th-century Germany, fir trees were decorated, both indoors and out, with apples, roses, gilded candies and coloured paper.

Legend has it that theologian and Protestant reformer Martin Luther first adorned trees with light in about 1500. On a December evening, Luther set up a small fir in his home and decorated it with candles lighted in honour of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert brought the tradition to England from his native Germany. When he put up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1848, the Christmas tree became a tradition throughout England, the United States and Canada.

Compiled from,, and