This is because your child turns to you to answer all their burning questions about the great big world around them. And children posses a literally never-ending supply of questions. With Elle’s rudimentary language skills, you would think we, her parents, would have a little more time to study up on things like how a cell phone works or why the sky is blue. At Elle’s age, a large vocabulary isn’t necessary to ask questions about every little thing, though. All she needs to say is, “Why?”
Why? must shoes be placed on the correct feet? Why? does daddy have to go to work? Why? can’t we color on the walls?
Why? has become my nemesis. Because there is often no end to the explanation of why.
This became clear this week, decorating our Christmas tree. Elle proudly pointed to the Santa Claus her grandma had tucked onto the tippy-top of the tree.
“Santa Claus!” she explained.
“Yes, that’s Santa Claus,” I said.
I wasn’t expecting to be stumped by a question lobbed at me by my 2-year-old. But there I was, standing in a halo of Christmas lights’ glow, completely perplexed. Why is there a Santa Claus on top of the Christmas tree?
Of course, Santa Claus brings toys to good boys and girls on Christmas. He lands on the roof in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and he climbs down a chimney with a bag full of goodies, which he tucks into kids’ stockings. Elle knows all about this, thanks to us singing “Up on the Rooftop” a hundred times this week.
The other Christmas story, which hasn’t been quite as easy to explain, has to do with the birth of Christ Our Savior. (I suppose we need to get “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” on our sing-list. Although, those lyrics aren’t quite as straightforward as “Up on the rooftop reindeer paws, out jumps good ol’ Santa Claus, down through the chimney with lots of toys, all for the little ones’ Christmas joys...”
I know both the stories. But why are they together? What does Santa Claus have to do with Christmas, really?
As I pondered this conundrum, Elle moved on to more important things, like ripping the jingle bells off of a low-hanging ornament.
But I can’t move on so easily. I’m a parent, and so I actually have to know this kind of stuff. If the question doesn’t get raised again this year, surely it will next winter when we start singing about reindeers and erect another tree in our living room.
So with minimal Internet excavation, I uncover this about that jolly fat man in the red suit, and all the other seemingly random Christmas traditions we subscribe to.
St. Nicholas was a Christian priest, born in 280 AD, who later became a bishop. He was rich, and spent his time traveling the country, giving gifts to those in need. St. Nicholas did not like to be seen when he gave away presents, so children were told to go to sleep quickly or he wouldn’t come.
The gift-laden stocking come from a story about a poor man who had no money to give to his three daughters on their wedding day – so St. Nick dropped bags of gold into the girls’ stockings, which had been left to dry by the fire.
St. Nicholas died in 343 AD, but over the centuries, his popularity grew. The name Santa Claus was derived from the Dutch “Sinter Klass” pronunciation of St. Nicholas. Early Dutch settlers in New York brought their traditions of St Nicholas with them, and as children from other countries tried to pronounce Sinter Klass, it soon became Santa Klass, which eventually became Santa Claus. The old bishop's cloak was soon replaced with the red suit seen in modern images.
Reindeer and a flying sleigh came into the picture in the early 1820s with the poem “An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicolas,” now known as “The Night before Christmas.” The poem is also credited as starting the tale that Santa would gain entry to homes via the chimney.
Christmas trees didn’t enter the American Christmas tradition until late in the 1800s. They were first introduced by the German settlers of Pennsylvania in the 1830s, carried from the pre-Christianity belief that plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter (especially on the winter solstice, which falls just days before Christmas.) The majority of American homes didn’t hop on the Christmas tree bandwagon until later in the century, following an illustration in the London News featuring the popular royals, Queen Victoria and German Prince Albert, standing, with their children, around a Christmas tree.
The pieces of Christmas – Santa Claus, stockings, a tree – now make some sense, at least to me. The next challenge: Figuring out how to put all of that information into a few simple sentences a 2-year-old can understand.
We may have to wait until next Christmas for that explanation…