Santa Claus has become so many things to us–magic, mystery, consumerism, a jolly man at malls, a scary man at malls, a myth, a wonder. Personally, I like him, but perhaps because I know this, his true origin story…
Mr. Claus and his wife Mrs. Claus lived a long time ago in a village far away in the Great North. It never got very warm there, but in the heart of winter, it was dark all day and the snow was so deep, sometimes you had to dig tunnels to visit your neighbors.
Mr. Claus was a fisherman, and a very fine fisherman at that. He had a very fine boat, and every year he brought in more fish than any other fisherman in the village. Because he was such a fine fisherman, he often had plenty of extra fish, some to trade, some to store away for the hard months of winter, and plenty to give to those in need.
Mrs. Claus kept chickens and grew a few hardy vegetables. She was also a great wood carver, and made some of the most beautiful toys in all the Great North. She spent her winters carving and painting and sewing clothes for toys, some to trade, but most to give as gifts each year to the children of the village.
Because the snow was so deep, and the nights so dark and so cold, on the darkest night of the year, Mr. and Mrs. Claus would don bright red coats and pants so they could easily be seen, and everyone in the village would light a candle in their window to help guide them, and Mr. and Mrs. Claus would bring a toy to every child in the village. They made sure, too, to bring along food for those who might be running short in the long winter.
The villagers would share what they could–a treat or a meal or a song, some gossip or a kindly ear, or they might share their woes or joys or tell a story, and it made that dark night just that much brighter.
One year, Mr. Claus left on his fishing boat. There was a great storm that blew and blew and Mr. Claus never returned. Mrs. Claus walked the shores every day, watching for her lost husband. Her little garden lay untended. Her hens were adopted by neighbors. She watched and watched and grew sadder and sadder, and when the snows came, she retreated quietly to her home and did not come out.
The villagers worried. She would run out of food, surely, with Mr. Claus gone and her garden untended. But she would see no one. So people began sending their children, because even in her great sadness, Mrs. Claus would never send away a child. And when the children visited, they brought her little gifts of food, saying always it was extra, it was something they found, that their mothers told them they must eat it but really they didn’t like it. In this way, the village made sure that Mrs. Claus always had food and company.
So the long winter of the Great North wiled on until the darkest, longest, coldest night of the year. Mrs. Claus had made no toys that year. She had no extra food to spare. But this year, groups of children, whole families, came to her home and sung her songs, and gave her food, and told her stories, and shared their woes and their joys.
As the families returned home to bed, some of the children swore they’d seen a man in a bright red suit walking the snowy paths just at the edges of their candlelight. Their parents hushed them and sent them off to bed. When the villagers woke the next morning, they were surprised to find a toy for every child, beautifully carved and painted and clothed.
The children cried with delight: It was Mr. Claus! He’d come back! But the parents knew it wasn’t so . . . or perhaps he had. Perhaps his spirit rose, the spirit of generosity, given new life by the generosity of the villagers. As years passed, every act of generosity made that spirit stronger, and as if by magic, every year, on the darkest, longest night, that spirit of generosity would rise and bring toys to children everywhere. And we call that spirit Santa Claus.