America is bombarded every Christmas with images of Santa Claus. People who may be uncomfortable with the religious connotations of Christmas may be quite comfortable with the image of Santa. They don’t know that they still haven’t escaped the religious significance of jolly Santa, because the Santa image comes from St. Nicholas, a saint of the early church who was born around the year 280.
Legend has it that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. Dec. 6, the day of his death, became his feast day, and that’s how he and his gift-giving became connected with Christmas. He came to be revered especially in Holland, and it was the Dutch who brought his popularity to New York.
In 1822, Clement Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a long Christmas poem about St. Nicholas for his three daughters, titled, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” now known everywhere by its opening line, “T’was the night before Christmas ….”
In 1939 Robert L. May, an advertiser for the now defunct Montgomery Ward department store chain, wrote a story about Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. The story reflected May’s childhood, because he had often been taunted as a small, shy child. May tested his story of Rudolph with his 4-year-old daughter Barbara, and she loved it, but the people at Montgomery Ward were hesitant about it at first until Denver Gillen, a man from Ward’s art department, provided a sketch of Rudolph.
Then the story got accepted and became a hit across America. Montgomery Ward gave away 2 1/2 million copies of the printed story in 1939 and another 3 1/2 million copies when the story was reissued in 1946 right after World War II. Robert May received no royalties from his story, but being in debt from medical bills from his wife’s terminal illness (she died about the time May created the Rudolph story), he persuaded Montgomery Ward to give him the copyright in 1947.