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The real Santa story

I was raised Catholic. I was forced to sit through Catholic mass once a week, I was baptized and confirmed Catholic, and I even went to Catholic school for 13 years (K-12). Whether or not it is a direct result of my Catholic education, I now identify as an atheist. Would it be different if I attended public school? I'll never know.

We watched a lot of videos in grammar school about various Bible stories, since it's a good way to convey complex religious teachings to small children. I distinctly remember one about Saint Nicholas of Myra, who who all now know as St. Nick, Kris Kringle, and Santa Claus, among many other names. By historical accounts, Nicholas was a Greek born in Asia Minor in c. 270 CE to wealthy, Christian parents. Orphaned as a teenager, he was raised by his uncle and used most of his inheritance to help the poor and charity.

While any story about how this man became a fat, red-suited immortal who flies a reindeer-drawn sleigh once a year to climb down chimneys and deliver toys to all the children of the world is at best a stretch, there are at least some that try harder than others. In the classic 1970 claymation file, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, for example, Kris Kringle is an orphaned baby (at least they got the orphan part right) who is found and raised by a village of toy-making elves. The presumably German neighboring town has a ruler, Burgermeister Meisterburger, who bans toys. What a convenient setup for our protagonist! Through a series of comical, magical events, the different origins of Christmas are revealed. For example, the kids eventually have to hide Kris's toys from inspectors, so they put them in their stockings drying by the fireplace. Everything from the first Christmas tree to how the reindeer learn to fly is explained in a cute, family film.

I'm certainly not trying to criticize the writing and production of these childhood classics. They're great family movies. However, they're the kind you have to take just as that: fun, magical movies. In the animated movie I remember from Catholic school, the story was much more believable. One of the long lasting legends about Nicholas of Myra has to do with a poor man who didn't have enough money for dowries for his 3 daughters. Unable to be married, the women would have to become prostitutes to make money. Nicholas overheard this man's plight and gave him 3 bags of gold to use as dowries. Wishing to remain anonymous, as well as wanting to not humiliate the man in public by giving him charity, he went at night and threw the bags in the open window. Accounts vary, but one says that he gave one bag of gold the day before each daughter became of age. Some accounts say that the man caught on, and by the 3rd time had locked the windows, forcing Nicholas to send the bag of gold down the chimney, supposedly landing in a stocking that was hung to dry. Another says that this man waited for Nicholas on the 3rd time to catch him and thank him.

While these are all just legends and fantasy, I did like feigning some relation to reality when watching the Saint Nicholas movie. What was even more interesting as I grew older and learned more about the origins of Christmas was its relation to the pagan festival of lights, as Jesus's birthday was actually in the spring, among many other non-Christian origins. I feel that this mix of traditions and backgrounds that culminates into what we now call Christmas shows that it is no longer a religious holiday, but hopefully one that all can enjoy.