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FARAH STOCKMAN

The secret life of Santa Claus

A man wearing a Santa Claus costume waved from the sleigh as it was carried over the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Dec. 23.
A man wearing a Santa Claus costume waved from the sleigh as it was carried over the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Dec. 23. (AFP/Getty Images)

Who is this guy Santa, really?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about Santa, and why we let him get away with so much. Other people get arrested for breaking and entering. But Santa? He gets milk and cookies. Other old guys get questioned by police when they invite little kids to sit on their laps at the mall. But Santa gets a pass. In fact, he gets paid. And does Santa really have the right to investigate and record who has been naughty or nice? In an age of NSA wiretapping, isn’t it kind of creepy that a guy in an isolated bunker in the North Pole “sees you when you’re sleeping” and “knows when you’re awake?”

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That got me wondering: Who is this Santa Claus anyway?

According to Gerry Bowler, a Canadian historian who authored the book “Santa Claus: a Biography,” Santa is actually the alter ego of St. Nicholas, a Catholic bishop born in the third century in what is now modern-day Turkey. Drawings of him from the Middle Ages show him unsmiling, bearded, draped in red robes. Legend has it that he secretly threw bags of gold into a house, to help a man who was so poor he was forced to sell his daughters into slavery. After his death, word spread of his generosity and magical powers.

Q: How powerful was he, back then?

BOWLER: He could fly, and was often credited for rescuing sailors during shipwrecks. He became the patron saint of sailors, which was a huge job. The story that was most famous in the Middle Ages were that three boys were murdered by an inn keeper, who chopped them up and pickled them. And St. Nicholas discovered this and resurrected them. There is no doubt that in the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas was the most powerful saint in the world, aside from the Virgin Mary.

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Q: How did he move from rescuing dead kids from pickle barrels to passing out toys? That’s kind of a step down, is it not?

BOWLER: In the 1100s, groups at the margins of society — old women and children — could go around and demand hospitality and food around Christmastime. Dec. 6, St. Nicholas Day, was the day that kids would do it. Then nuns began to spread the story that St. Nicholas will come to visit poor children in the evening and leave little gifts in gifts in shoes. That’s the first appearance of St. Nicholas as a magical gift giver, who gives things that are un-asked for. After that, St. Nicholas fairs and markets popped up, where you could buy toys.

Q: So the commercialization of Christmas isn’t new?

BOWLER: Nope. It’s a thousand years old. But in the 1600s, St. Nick takes a hit. Puritans and Calvinists believed that there should be no celebrations that weren’t directly mentioned in the Bible. Christmas was abolished wholesale in New England and much of Europe. From the 1640s to the 1660s, it was against the law in England to celebrate Christmas. You couldn’t bake mince pie. You couldn’t put up greenery. In Boston, the governor required a military escort to go to celebrate Christmas, because the mobs were Calvinist and they opposed it.

Q: How did Christmas get its groove back?

BOWLER: In the 1700s, Congregationalists and Baptists started holding Christmas services again, much to the horror of Puritan ministers. But then Christmas started to be less associated with religion and more with rowdy outdoor partying. In Boston, it was a real social problem. Mobs would get together and assault churchgoers, and particularly blacks. People would bang on the lids of trash cans. A number of poets and artists got together to try to reform Christmas, to make it about gift-giving and children. Washington Irving, the first great American writer, who told the story of Sleepy Hollow, also told about Saint Nicholas riding in a magic horse pulled wagon.

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Q: So when does St. Nicholas become Santa?

BOWLER: In 1821, an illustrated poem appears that transcribes the Dutch word for St. Nicholas — Sinterklaas — into Santa Claus. That poem has him dressed not as a bishop, but clothed in fur. He’s going from house to house in a sleigh pulled by a reindeer. In the 1880s, he starts getting a wife, which as a bishop, he wouldn’t have had. But’s there is great argument for the rest of the century over what he wears, what he looks like, and how big he is. Some said he was thumb-sized. Others said full-sized. There are even a couple of examples of Santa as an African American and as a woman. It is only the 1900s where he is standardized.

There you have it. I’m not sure it explains why he sees me when I’m sleeping. But I’ll leave that investigation for another day.

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Related:

P.J. O’Rourke: Blame the commercialization of Christmas on the Three Kings

Jennifer Graham: Don’t nitpick Christmas

Alex Beam: Happy holidays, exclamation point, from the Joyes

Scot Lehigh: Holiday gifts for the political world

Ideas: The cold, smelly truth about Victorian Christmas


Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.