By Elizabeth Keys
PAWNEE, Okla. —
As principal at Stillwater Middle School, Steve Davis, had a front row seat to exactly who was naughty and nice. Now retired, he gently maneuvered around the question of legendary half-truths playing Santa Claus in the Oklahoma Historical Society’s “Santas From Around the World” tour.
“I’ve been good,” Brylyn Weaver, 7, assured Davis. “Can you bring me a Karaoke machine?”
Linda Davis smiled saying the children’s wide-eyed wonder was the best part of playing the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Santa. She and her husband have enjoyed the last four years of volunteering with the historical program. They were dressed in Scottish tartan plaid from the Wallace clan which was first recorded in 1843. The Christmas tree by the Davis’ perch this year was decorated by PEO Chapter DU with marguerite flowers inside the bulbs.
Events around Oklahoma were developed and coordinated by Martha Ray, the historical society’s retired director of homes.
“Volunteer Santas are dressed authentically from their particular time period and country of origin,” Ray said.
The vintage Kris Kringles included Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, Old Glory Claus, Grandfather Frost, Pere Noel and Santa Claus.
Bill Kenney played the role of Saint Nicholas. The kind fourth century Bishop of Myra, which is now Turkey, was loved across Europe for his benevolence and miraculous deeds, Kenney said. By the year 1100, Nicholas became one of the most revered saints and on Dec. 6, the anniversary of his death, he was honored by gift giving and feasting. This also was the time when “supernatural” gift-bringing began with Saint Nicholas mysteriously entering homes on the eve of Saint Nicholas.
Chan Ray disguised himself as Sinterklaas who was popular in New Amsterdam which is New York today. In the 1600s, the Dutch brought their Saint Nicholas Eve traditions with them when they immigrated to the New World, Ray said. The name Sinterklass which is Dutch for Saint Nicholas evolved into Sainty Claus and then Santa Claus after years of mispronunciation by English speaking children. In the early 1800s, his image was altered from that of a Bishop by American author Washington Irving to become “a jolly Dutchman with a pipe, wearing baggy pants and a broad brimmed hat.”
Howard McKinnis dressed as an Old Glory Santa from 1863 sporting red, white and blue stars and stripes with his full-length beard. His character was inspired by the first interpretation of Santa Claus by political cartoonist Thomas Nast who created a pen and ink sketch in “Harper’s Weekly” magazine at Christmas time during the American Civil War. In the magazine illustration, the Union Santa was depicted as spreading cheer to the federal soldiers which stirred feelings of homecoming and family, McKinnis said.
More political use of Santa traditions occurred during the Communist Revolution in 1917 when Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost appeared in Soviet Russia, said Richard Cartmell. Nadya Cartmel,l dressed as Grandfather Frost’s daughter, said Kolyada or Father Christmas was intended to be replaced by this secular character from pre-Soviet Russia.
Soldiers during World War I received comforting visits from Pere Noel in the form of supplies and moral support in France, Ray said. John Prince dressed as the French Santa who was a kind gift bringer who traveled about the countryside by donkey.
He would leave gifts in the shoes placed by the fireplace or nativity scene by good boys and girls. Sometimes children left treats for Pere Noel and his donkey.
The first French immigrants to Canada brought their Pere Noel customs with them to celebrate Christmas in their new, adopted homeland.
Many artists and illustrators created images of Santa with Victorian Santas typically carrying a Christmas tree which reflected the German heritage of Prince Albert. Clement Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nick” standardized thoughts about Santa traditions.
Ray said the appearance of our modern day Santa was introduced by Norman Rockwell’s illustrations in the “Saturday Evening Post” and in ads for pop by the White Rock Beverages Co. in 1915.
In 1931, the Coca-Cola Co. introduced a new advertising campaign which associated its product with Santa Claus. Coca-Cola hired commercial artist Haddon Sundblom to create images of Santa until the mid-1960s. Throughout history, folklore described conditions to Santa’s gift bearing with the possibility of lumps of coals or sticks instead of toys.
In modern times, tales have spun Santa helpers in the form of elves derived from old Norse culture. Ray said in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland, green-clad elves with pointy ears, long noses, and jaunty hats are described as hired workers making toys in a North Pole workshop.
Warren and Spencer Oestmann, brothers from Yale, and Erica Wells, 8, of Pawnee, portrayed elves during the “Santas From Around the World” tour but said they weren’t sure if elves were helping Santa nowadays.
Wells thought the jolly reveler with a full, red, fur-trimmed coat probably could use some help checking up on “all those boys and girls” as she sang “he knows when you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake!”