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Was Santa Claus a Real Person?

For many children living in the United States, especially those who have behaved well all year, the most exciting part of Christmas is the discovery of wrapped packages tucked under the Christmas tree and sweets hidden in stockings hung by the fireplace. Kids are often told that the gifts were left by Santa Claus during his annual nocturnal journey around the world in a sleigh pulled by nine flying reindeer. How have so many people agreed on this story?

Whether or not you believe that Santa Claus is a real person who enters every child’s house by way of a chimney to leave presents, the legendary figure and the tradition of gift giving can be traced back to the Dutch colonists. When they settled in what is now New York City during the 17th century, they brought their legend of Sinterklaas and the custom of leaving presents for children on the eve of December 6. From there, such 19th-century literary works as the poem known as The Night Before Christmas and a mid-20th-century Coca-Cola ad campaign transformed Sinterklaas from a saintly bishop to the white-bearded, red-capped Santa Claus that Americans recognize today.

But who is Sinterklaas, the elder gentleman dressed as a bishop who brings Dutch children gifts in early December? He is based on St. Nicholas of Myra, who, according to Christian tradition, was a bishop in that small Roman town during the 4th century. Nicholas’s reputation for generosity and kindness gave rise to legends of miracles he performed for the poor and unhappy. According to one story, Nicholas restored to life through prayer three children who had been chopped up by a butcher and put into pickling barrels. Another story describes how a young Nicholas secretly provided marriage dowries by dropping gold down the chimneys of three girls whom poverty would otherwise have forced into prostitution and that the gold landed in a stocking left to dry on the fireplace. Nicholas’s death on December 6 is now celebrated as his feast day. His alleged remains were removed from his church at Myra in 1087 to Bari, Italy. The site subsequently became a popular destination for pilgrims, partly because his shrine developed a liquid substance thought to have healing properties.

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