Symbols are tools of the trade for us writers. A good symbol can add deeper meaning to a novel, making a good story even better. (I will be offering a writing course discussing symbols early next year. Stay tuned.) As we are exploring all things Christmas here at TWH, I thought it might be fun to learn about the origins of some familiar Christmas symbols.
Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop, was famous for giving gifts to children. His feast day, December 6, became a children’s holiday in Holland, though they refer to him as Sint Nikolaas, or Sinter Klass. English colonists living in New York–the former Dutch colony of New Amsterdam–called him Santa Claus because the Dutch name was too hard to pronounce. The English then began celebrating the feast day on December 25.
The German version of Santa Claus, Kriss Kringle, developed in the 1600s. German Protestants recognized the birth of the Christ Child (Christkindl) as the time to give gifts. Christkindl eventually became Kriss Kringle. In the Netherlands and Germany, their Santa often rode through the sky on a horse to deliver presents.
Our modern American version is largely due to Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” (think, ‘Twas the night before Christmas) which created quite a stir after it was published in 1822. Stores were quick to capitalize on the popularity of the Santa Claus figure, using him in their Christmas ads, and in the late 1800s, political cartoonist Thomas Nast, inspired by Moore’s poem, gave Americans their first glimpse of the Santa Claus we know today, adding in the red suit with white-trimmed fur, North Pole workshop equipped with elves, and Mrs. Claus.
Stockings. Legend has it that St. Nicholas placed homemade food and clothes in the children’s freshly laundered stockings as they hung by the fire to dry. In one account, he heard of a poor widower who worried about his three beautiful daughters and their slim chances of marriage due to being impoverished. Knowing the man would not accept charity, St. Nick slid down the chimney and placed gold coins in the girls’ stockings as they hung by, you guessed it, the fireplace.
Candy canes. The story goes that a confectioner created the candy cane to represent Jesus. The shape of the letter “J” stood for Jesus as well as His role as the Good Shepherd. The color white symbolized purity and Christ’s lack of sin. The color red symbolized His blood shed for us on the cross. The peppermint flavor is similar to hyssop, a Middle Eastern mint that is mentioned in the Bible.
Another version of the story told of a German choirmaster who wanted to keep children quiet during Christmas Eve mass. He decided candy might help him achieve his objective, so he asked a local candy maker to put a bend in the candy to remind the children of a shepherd’s staff and to make the candy white to reflect the sinless life of Christ. There is no mention as to whether his method worked.
The next post will include a few more symbols. Tune into tomorrow for Day 5.