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The Story Behind the Jolly Old Elf

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The photograph at right is an example of prehistoric rock art found in Lower Nine Mile Canyon has been called the “Santa Claus Panel” and you can see why. A 20th Century archeologist came up with that name, it is someone’s cute name for this Fremont culture artwork created 800 years ago or more. 

There is no evidence of a Santa Claus legend from the prehistoric canyon dwellers. However, it does remind you of our modern fable of the jolly old man and his reindeer of the Christmas season and was he a real person?

Yes, Saint Nicholas was a real person who lived from 270 to 343 AD. He was born to wealthy     parents who died from a disease epidemic in the Greek village of Patara (now part of Turkey) when he was a young boy. He used his inheritance to help the poor and sick with gifts. Nickolas became a Bishop at an early age and was known for his generosity and love of children. Children started putting out stockings hoping to receive gifts. Over the course of many years he became everybody’s favorite Saint. When Saint Nickolas died on December 6, 343 AD a tradition of a feast day and gift giving in his honor was begun.

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The name Santa Claus come from Saint Nickolas’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas. The sleigh idea originated in Scandinavia with a jolly elf delivering gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats. Many Christmas traditions were brought to North America by Dutch and German immigrants. The modern rendition of Santa Claus is the result of a Christmas story written by Clement Clark Moore for his three daughters titled “An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas” in 1822. It was published as “The Night Before Christmas” by the New York’s Troy Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823. 

That story brought us Santa’s Sleigh arriving on roof tops by eight flying reindeer (reindeer are domesticated caribou). The modern- day image of Santa Claus was created in 1881 by cartoonist Thomas Nast and based on Moore’s writing. Santa was rotund with a white beard in a bright red suit trimmed in fur for the North Pole cold. The ninth reindeer, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was the result of a 1939 book by Robert Lewis May. May’s brother-in-law adapted the story into a song recorded by Gene Autry that became the number one hit single Christmas week 1949. Autry’s recording sold 2.5 million copies and eventually 25 million copies. (Helmick is a Serve Daily contributor.)

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