Thursday, December 6, 2012
Happy St. Nicholas' Day!
Fairies were once feared and regarded to be unpredictable creatures, who could range from malevolent to merely capricious pranksters, but hardly ever in the history of fairy lore were fairies the beneficient, wish-granting characters they are painted as today, nor were they necessarily miniature and winged.
St. Nicholas was not fearsome in the sense that he was evil or unpredictable, but he was held in awe by his followers. According to legends, he not only had the power to predict and prevent disasters, but to restore the innocent to life, as well as take a life as punishment for crime.
Read my post from last year on the stories of the three girls rescues from prostitution or slavery, which is thought to be the origin of the tradition of hanging stockings, or the story of the three murdered students St. Nicholas brought back to life (which includes gruesome details, much like the fairy tale Robber Bridegroom).
St. Nicholas was also associated with stories involving the number three-three generals or three students saved from death, three episodes-a characteristic of folk tales as well.
Throughout the Middle Ages, it became common for plays to be performed on his feast day enacting scenes of his life and miracles. Though the plays could get a bit bawdy at times, or light-hearted poking fun at an image usually regarded with supreme reverence, the happy ending justified the rest of the play. Already we see a beginning of a transformation of attitudes-from fear and awe of his earlier worshipers, to a figure of celebration and fun.
Though there may be some remnants of folklore in the Santa Claus traditions we currently have (the Swedish Jul-Bocken, or Christmas buck, that bore presents, relate to Santa's reindeer, and his fur coat is similar to that of Pelz-Nicol in southern Germany) Santa Claus as we know him is the product of three specific men in New York in the nineteenth century.
Washington Irving wrote a spoof history of the Dutch immigrants that included references to St. Nicholas, thus reminding the American population of this once-venerated figure in Europe. Influenced by this, Clement Clarke Moore wrote his famous "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (now more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas") in 1822. Thomas Nast's illustrations of Santa Claus transformed him from the once thin (literally, thin enough to fit through a chimney) to the rotund figure we see in so many commercials, shopping malls, and storefronts around this time of year. Rather like Charles Perrault did to Cinderella, the elements we now think of as ageless really sprang up due to these three men-building toys in the North Pole, records of good and bad children, receiving and answering children's letters, and driving his reindeer-none of these ideas were associated with Santa previous to New York in the early nineteenth century.
To put this in perspective, as Santa Claus was becoming more and more a jolly children's figure, the standard fairy tale versions we know were being created-the Grimm brothers' collection first published in Germany in 1812. The relatively new phenomenon of children's literature was affecting the images of folk tales and saints alike, transforming them into "child-appropriate" in such a way that their earlier histories have become all but erased from present knowledge.
*All information from Martin Ebon's Saint Nicholas: Life and Legend