Rezori: What you need to know about Santa

'Tis the season to be jolly and sing about Santa Claus coming to town, writes Azzo Rezori, although he notes the songs are richer when the full narrative is understood.

Before he was jolly, old St. Nick may have been the victim of identity theft

Santa Claus may be a jolly old elf, but he sure didn't start out that way.

I've told this story before. But that was many years ago, and I feel it's time to tell it again. We hear a lot about identity theft these days as if it were a modern crime. As the following account will show, it's anything but.

Silenus was the Roman god of merry-making. A bit of a nomad, really, who had several places on the calendar he liked to hang out at. One of them was December.

Silenus was the Roman god of making merry. His spirit is felt to this day. (Wikipedia Commons)
No fixed address as such. Any stretch of December would do as long as it provided the opportunity for breaking out the year's new wine and getting drunk.

He was jolly and quite rotund. Had a permanently soused look to him, including red cheeks, an even redder nose, and twinkly eyes. His traveling show, known as the Bacchanalia, was one big hoot. If it were to have had another name, it would have been something like the Caravan of Drinking Your Face Off.

Also in December, at the fixed address of 17-23, lived Saturn, the god of time. His property was really the winter solstice palace. The Romans had the name Saturnalia for it.

Talk about chalk and cheese. Saturn had a long, grim face with a long and grim beard. He never smiled, nor ever said a word. A cold draft smelling of things beyond decay swept constantly through his hallways and did the talking for him. But he knew better than not to allow humans to have a party during the closing days of the annual cycle of life. So his place, too, was a playground for year-end frolicks and tomfoolery.

Then along came the Christians. We now know there weren't enough lions in all of Rome to get rid of them, so they ended up taking over and swept out the old Roman gods, including Silenus and Saturn. The Caravan of Drinking Your Face Off was banished for good. 

The Saturnalia got a makeover and became the official residence of the Holy Family: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

As a result of all those changes, there was a lot of empty real estate in the early Christian calendar, but soon residents started moving in again. Over the years, many of the properties went to people who'd served the cause of expanding the Christian faith in one deserving way or another. Most of them were martyrs, but not all. 

And that brings us to Nicholas of Myra.

Transforming St. Nick 

Nicholas was a bishop. Tall, handsome, kind, with a soft spot for children and the poor, and so utterly without the usual snootiness of the high and mighty that he ended up becoming, among other things, the saint of thieves. 

I don't know who negotiated on his behalf after his death, but he was given the property at Dec. 6, formerly Silenus teritory and just a stone throw away from what was now the Christmas palace (on a Monopoly board that would have put him just down from Boardwalk).

Clement Moore's famous poem, seen in an edition from the 1860s, helped cement the contemporary understanding of Santa. (CBC)
Nicholas, or St. Nicholas as we should call him now, went on to become an important saint in the Netherlands. On his holy day he made his appearance in splendid bishop attire and visited schools, hospitals, and other public places. One of his roles was to reward good children with gifts and punish bad children by having his black and ugly sidekick pretend to take them away and put them to hard labour for a year.

Things might have stayed that way forever if it hadn't been for Christopher Columbus bumping into the New World while on his search for the other place he never found. Some time after Columbus and the Spanish came Dutch pilgrims, and they brought St. Nicholas with them (they called him Sinterklaas).

Everybody from the Old World knows there's such a thing as New World fever, also known as opportunism. Sinterklaas, it seems, caught it as well. Back in the Netherlands he continued with his old ways, but in the colonies his behaviour became more and more erratic, almost as if he was having an identity crisis.

He became uncharacteristically restless. He changed his address a number of times, moving all over December and, at one point, even to early January. His character started changing as well. He grew tired of his traditional role as an icon of Christian charity, preferring instead to become the patron of the trinket-giving culture that developed in the colonies as they prospered.

It took two men to unmask this new Santa. Clement Clarke Moore gave a detailed description of him in his poem The Night before Chrissmas, published on Dec. 23, 1823. Here's part of it:

        His eyes — how they twinkled. His dimples how merry!

        His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

Thomas Nast followed up with more details in a cartoon published 40 years later. Cheeks like flaming rose buds. Nose like a cherry indeed. A belly the size of a keg.

Right chubby and plump, as Moore had already portrayed him. Leaning back ever so slightly as if he was just after belting out a sonorous, pleased-with-himself ho-ho-ho.

Excuse me, but that's not St. Nicholas, nor any descendant, or derivative if you want, of the old saint. If you ask me, we've met this character before.

Remember? Jolly and quite rotund. Has a wine-soaked look to him, including red cheeks, an even redder nose, and twinkling eyes? Yes, the old pagan Silenus himself. The party animal who was supposed to have been taken care of by moral reform in ancient Rome.

Who's laughing now?  

Don't ask me how he pulled it off. But now I know what the 'ho-ho-ho!' is really all about. 

It's Silenus laughing his head off. 

Somewhere in a dim alley of history he managed to seize the New World opportunity to dispose of the old Santa and steal his identity. Did he do it with a dagger? With a rope? With bare hands? Did he steal his wallet? 

We'll never know.

Now he's not just back — he's back with a vengeance. 

Sure, the Holy Family still resides at December 25-26, and the events that brought the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem bearing gifts for the Child Jesus exclusively are still the official story line. 

But the real show is free-wheeling Silenus in his Santa disguise, showering gifts on all and sundry as if they were confetti. 

The shopping orgies that have become his trade-mark extend over three blocks by now, from late November right into early January. It's been a takeover on a scale not even matched by the Easter Bunny.

Did he at least have the decency to bring his old buddy Saturn back with him? 

Not a chance. Saturn, with his grim airs of someone who's been to the end of time and back and caught a nasty existential chill in the process, was potentially too much of a party pooper.

About the Author

Azzo Rezori


Azzo Rezori has been working with CBC News in Newfoundland and Labrador since 1987, and reports regularly for Here & Now and other broadcasts.