Every month we bring you stories of seniors in California and across the country who are leading inspiring lives. This month, we’re talking about the most famous senior of them all, Santa Claus. Santa Claus started his career in the late 3rd century in the Middle East, and today is a beloved figure in holiday traditions in cultures all over the world. Whether you call him Santa, jolly old St. Nick, Sinter Klaas or Father Christmas, this anthropomorphic personification of the spirit of giving is this month’s inspiring senior in the news. Caretakers, loved ones and home care aides know all about the spirit of giving, in December and all year long.

Santa’s career started in Turkey around 280 C.E., when he was born to Christian parents and became a really nice guy named Nicholas. He was widely admired for his kindness and strong faith, supposedly giving away all the money he inherited from his family, roamed around Turkey caring for the sick and the poor, and donating a dowry for three poor sisters so their father wouldn’t sell them. He joined the church, to follow in his uncle the Bishop of Patara’s footsteps, and later became a bishop himself. He performed many miracles, and became a saint by the 6th century. (Becoming a saint was a pretty informal process back then, but there is no question that he was a kind, generous and pious man, known as a benefactor to children, sailors and the poor.)

After Nicholas of Patara’s death, St. Nicholas’ career really took off. Veneration of St. Nicholas spread throughout Europe and even Russia, and by the Renaissance, he was the most popular saint in Europe, Holland in particular. The Dutch call him Sinter Klaas, a short form of Sint Nikolaas. Sinter Klaas, known as a giver of gifts to children, with a celebration in December, extended his brand into Christmas in the Middle Ages. When the Reformation swept Europe, his popularity declined, but he remained strong in Holland. The Dutch brought him to the New World when they settled the city of New Amsterdam in the 17th century. They celebrated him on his feast day, December 6th, which was the date of his death, and only in the early 1800’s did his celebration mash up with Christmas.

Now, Santa has franchises around the world, under different names. In France, he’s Pere Noel; in Germany and Switzerland he’s Kris Kringle; in England he’s Father Christmas. In Russia, as Babouschka, and Italy as La Befana, he gender-bends as women who bring gifts to children. In America, in the early 1800’s, a combination of American business creativity and a young country’s hearkening back to the old country cemented Santa Claus’ place as the symbol of gift giving at Christmastime. By 1881, he had the red and white suit, the sled, and the reindeer, fully formed as the Santa we know today. But where do all the elements of Santa’s persona come from? The website Unmuseum.org has some theories:

  • “Gifts: From St. Nicholas and the Magi
  • Beard: St. Nicholas is traditionally seen as bearded, as were the Magi
  • Costume: The general form of the cloak probably derives from St. Nicholas, although the traditional costumes of the three Magi also may have contributed. The fur linings probably are add-ons to fit the Northern American Myth.
  • Reindeer: Santa must use some form of transport. He comes from the North, so why not reindeer? In Scandinavia and Germany Santa comes on the 24th of December, knocking on the door like normal people.
  • The Stocking and chimney: In England and America the visit is a secret and is done at night. Why he comes in via the chimney probably stems from Clement C. Moore’s enormously popular poem.
  • North Pole: The home of the American Father Christmas. Also, the fact that Christmas is so very much Winter’s festivity must contribute.
  • Cap: Probably from the bishop’s mitre of St. Nicholas.”

Science can’t explain Santa Claus, can’t explain how his sled holds toys for all the children in the world, and can’t explain how he stops at every chimney on the planet in one night. Obviously he gets help from his alter egos, but Santa Claus relies on every one of us to help, too. December is the season of giving, and we wish all of you the best and brightest of the season.