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( Originally Published 1909 )
I have now told you all that is known of the story of Saint Nicholas during his lifetime and even after his death. I think you will agree that we have not yet gone very far in identifying Santa Klaus, the modern Saint Nicholas, with the historic saint who was once Bishop of Myra.
It is true that some learned men have thought to find in the legend of the three maidens an answer to a couple of problems that bother the inquiring mind.
First they explain that the three purses of gold, which, in pictures by the old Italian masters, figure as three golden balls, and which were looked upon as the special symbol or sign of the charitable Saint Nicholas, are the origin of those three gilt balls which swing over a pawnbroker's shop in token of that wellspring of human kindness which has earned for him the affectionate title of "uncle."
If you have a fine sense of humor you will see that the last sentence is sarcasm. And if you have small love for clever explanations that don't explain, you will reject this theory of the origin of the pawnbroker's sign and prefer to believe that it sprang from the gilt pills which adorned the shield of the great Medici family of Italy. Medici means doctors. Both the name and the shield were reminders that the family earned their first fame as physicians many years before they became the greatest princes and money changers of Europe.
But the other theory, what of that? The other theory is more to the point. It assumes that the Saint Nicholas who was Bishop of Myra is the Santa Klaus of modern Christmas, whom he pre-figured in the fact that he appeared in the night-time and secretly made valuable presents to the children of a certain household.
Here is some appearance of truth. In the first place there can be no doubt that Santa Klaus and Saint Nicholas are the same name. Indeed to this day our Christmas saint is known either as Santa Klaus or Saint Nicholas, Klaus in Dutch being "short and sweet" for Nicholaus, and, as such, the same as our Nick for Nicholas.
But, after all, there seems to be little likeness in other respects between the saint of the legend and the modern patron of the Christmas season. What connection is there between a single case of charity, performed at no particular time, with the splendid and widespread generosity of Santa Klaus, who every Christmas eve loads himself down with presents for the little ones he loves, and finds means to distribute them all over the land in a single night?
As the answer is not apparent on the surface, let us turn to the other legend. We shall have to confess however that the story of the three school boys miraculously restored to life after they had been cut up and salted down, helps us even less than does the story of the three purses. It is simply one of a whole group of stories wherein Saint Nicholas appears as the friend and benefactor of children. In this respect only does he resemble our Santa Klaus.
In all the characteristics which modern painters and story tellers, in America, in Holland and in Germany, have bestowed upon the jolly saint of the Christmas season he differs entirely from the slender and even emaciated Nicholas, clad in the robes of a bishop, with a mitre on his head and a crozier in his hand, whom the early painters were fond of depicting.
So the legends of Saint Nicholas afford but a slight clew to the origin of Santa Klaus,alike indeed, in name but so unlike in all other respects.
Let us turn elsewhere. In Germany and to a certain extent in America the name Christ-Kinkle or Kriss-Kingle is looked upon as another name for Santa Klaus. But in fact history teaches us that is a far different Being, though the two have been welded into one in the popular imagination.
A very small knowledge of German reveals the fact that Christ-Kinkle is simply a "corruption" or mistaken pronunciation of the German word ChristKindlein which in English means Christ child. Now the connection of the Christ child with the gift-giving season is obvious enough. In the first place He is the hero of Christmas day itself. Born a human child He ever preserved a great love, for young people.
"Suffer little children to come unto me," He said, "for of such is the kingdom of Heaven."
The old masters were fond of painting Him as a child among children. In nearly all the famous pictures which Raphael, the greatest of Italian artists, painted of the Holy Family or of the Madonna and Child, the infant Jesus is accompanied by the infant Saint John as friend and playmate.