Is it Santa, St. Nick, Kris Kringle or Jesus? They all point to December and the celebration of Christmas in one way or another. The tale of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named Saint Nicholas, who lived in the area we now know as Turkey. According to legend he traveled the countryside giving away all his wealth to the poor and the sick. His popularity spread, and he became known as the protector of children. Saint Nicholas died December 6th; by ancient tradition, this date is the most popular to make large purchases or to get married.
Saint Nicholas made his first appearances into American culture towards the end of the 1700s, when a New York newspaper reported that the Dutch gathered to celebrate the anniversary of his death. His nickname was Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of the Dutch translation of Sint Nikolaas. Wooden blocks were distributed with etchings of stockings filled with toys, and fruit hung over fireplaces. In 1809, Saint Nicholas was referred to as the Patron Saint of New York. Over the years his costume flourished with everything from the original bishop’s robes to blue tri-cornered hats with red, yellow or green coats and stockings.
The gift giving centered on children became an important part of the Christmas celebration. New York stores started advertising Christmas shopping specials in the 1820s with ads that featured the newly popular Santa Claus. One Philadelphia shop heightened the allure of shopping by having a life-sized Santa model in the window – thousands of children and their parents flocked to see this demonstration.
In the early 1890s the Salvation Army needed extra funds to cover the cost of the free meals they provided to needy families. They came up with the idea of dressing unemployed men in colorful Santa Claus suits and sending them into the streets of New York to solicit donations. That familiar practice has been carried on ever since.
Throughout the world there are other Santa-inspired gift givers. Kris Kringle delivers presents to well- behaved Swiss and German children while a jolly elf named Jultomten delivers Scandinavian gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats. Father Christmas visits the English to fill stockings with treats, and Pere Noel fills the shoes of French youngsters. In Russia legend has it that an elderly woman named Babouschka purposely gave the three wise men wrong directions to Bethlehem so they wouldn’t be able to find the baby Jesus. Later she was filled with remorse and tried to undo the damage but she couldn’t find the men. To this day, on January 5th, Babouschka visits Russian children leaving gifts at their bedsides in the hope that one is Jesus and that she will be forgiven. In Italy a similar myth exists about a woman called La Befana, a kindly witch who rides a broomstick down chimneys and puts toys in the stockings of lucky children.
In “Calendar of Christianity” Allan Hauck wrote that if Santa Claus has become too commercial perhaps it is because we have forgotten that his historical origin is the beloved Bishop of Myra, Saint Nicholas, who obeyed Christ’s command that we help all those who are in need.
At about the same time as Saint Nicholas ministered, Pope Julius decided to establish a date for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. As the actual time of year of this event was unknown the Pope assigned the date as December 25th. There had long been a pagan midwinter festival at this time of year and the Pope hoped to use the holiday to Christianize the celebrations.
Santa still appears in shopping malls and visits children Christmas Eve. Concerts and various Christmas programs are performed throughout December, and nearly every school and church holds a pageant with youth or adult performers
One such recurring program which truly brings out the story of the nativity is the Advent Journey and Marketplace as performed every other year by the congregation of the Listowel Mennonite Church.
An amazing band of over 100 volunteers prepare the background, ready the costumes, bake cookies and bread, make candy, weave threads, package condiments, and a myriad of other designs to make the Bethlehem Marketplace seem real.
Guests are guided by a Centurion who accompanies individual groups as they hear the prophecy of Isaiah, witness Mary’s encounter with the angel, and watch the Census Taker counting each visitor for Caesar.
When you arrive at his humble abode the Inn Keeper invites you to enter for refreshments, and then gives you a sack of 50 coins to spend at the shops. As the marketplace is approached the group is stopped at the gate by the Tax Collector. Some of your coins must be used to pay taxes before you can enter.
This is where the real fun begins, as you lose yourself in a time warp and go back to the first century to barter for your goods. In the Marketplace all vendors and helpers are dressed in period-correct costume.
Twenty-two years ago the program was delivered at what was thought a one-time Sunday afternoon and evening performance. Costumes were fashioned from curtains, towels, sheets, burlap bags or anything which would suffice. The pageant was a huge success and the volunteers of the church decided to continue. Some of the original costumes and scenery props are still being used. With each performance new ideas arise to make the delivery more meaningful.
As guests visit from year to year (and most want to return a second and third time) they become familiar with the mood and feel more relaxed in bartering in the marketplace for the 15 minutes allotted. A scribe will write your name in Hebrew, a beggar asks for alms for the poor and is dragged away. There is no script for the vendors; it’s all ad lib with the visitors. The more shoppers barter and engage with the vendors the more fun it becomes for everyone. For those not comfortable with bartering the enjoyment comes from watching others. Each vendor or tradesman is working on his own craft and little gifts may be purchased from your bag of coins. What is made during one performance is stockpiled and distributed during the next.
After time spent in the marketplace, the Centurion leads to the shepherds, who tell the amazing story of their journey following the star. The pinnacle of the evening ends with the nativity scene in the stall with Mary, Joseph, a real baby Jesus, plus live sheep and a donkey.
This is truly an amazing experience and it comes at a time when most of the festive season parties, shopping, and dances are over so that it doesn’t interfere with other venues. The original event 22 years ago was scheduled for the Sunday afternoon and evening before Christmas. It was soon evident that it spoke for itself, and even that first year additional performances had to be arranged.
The Marketplace is great for kids and a terrific congregational mix as they all work and pull together to make things so “real”. It’s a big commitment for the performers, but it’s also a great learning experience provided for the community.
To join the indoor walking tours this year at 465 Maitland Avenue South, Listowel, there are three dates: Friday, December 18th, Saturday December 19th and Sunday December 20th. Tours begin at 7:00 p.m., last tour is at 9:00. Tours last approximately 45 minutes. On Sunday there will also be an afternoon journey commencing at 2:00 p.m. with the last tour at 4:00.
For the genuine spirit of Christmas, mixed with a dose of fun, this is a venture which will bring back parts of the nativity that you may have forgotten.