Santa Teddy Bears and the Origins of Santa Clause

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There are those that believe that certain kinds of plush toys should only be purchased and given at specific times of the year. Santa teddy bears, for instance, are stuffed animals which imply that because they are made up to look like representations of Santa Clause, they are reserved strictly for the Christmas Holidays. Collectors and lovers of plush toys, however, may have something quite different to say about that notion.

Santa Clause as he is called today, was actually a Christian saint named Bishop Nicholas who was brought to the New World by the first Europeans; in Greenland, vikings dedicated their cathedral to him; Columbus, on December 6, 1942, named a Haitian Port for him; the city of Jacksonville in Florida, was once known as St. Nicholas Ferry – an early settlement of Spaniards. However, despite his stature, in the 16th century, St. Nicholas did not have an easy time of it as Protestant Reformers frowned upon saints of all kinds. In fact, both reformers and counter-reformers tried to get rid of all St. Nicholas-related customs although their long term success was limited in most places except in England where religious folk traditions were changed permanently. Since St. Nicholas was so loved by the common people on the European continent, they continued to place sweets, nuts, and apples in shoes, beside beds, on windowsills, and before the fireplace hearth, for him to collect.

Despite the wide belief that it was the Dutch who were the first to bring St. Nicholas traditions to New Amsterdam, there is little evidence in Dutch New Netherland, to support that theory. In Pennsylvania, however, Colonial Germans kept the feast of St. Nicholas and there are other accounts of St. Nicholas visiting the New York Dutch on New Year’s Eve (gift-giving on New Year’s Eve had been an English custom since 1558 and could still be found in New York up until 1847).

Cultural transition was rampant in the 19th century and as was the case, New York writers among others, looked to ‘domesticate’ the Christmas holiday. Old Christmas traditions were not the ones we know today – families gathering around the hearth exchanging gifts and singing carols – but rather, it was more about mobs roaming the streets drunk, damaging property and scaring the upper classes. The holiday season came after harvest time which meant work slowed down and there was more time for leisure; both servants and workers were able to take the upper hand over their employers in which they demanded money and gifts, amongst other things. At the same time, a different understanding of family life and children’s role in the world was taking place. With childhood coming to be seen as a stage in life which needed more protection, sheltering, education, and training, the holiday season became more tame, turning its attention to home and shops. To fit into the changing time, St. Nicholas also took on new attributes.

Whatever your beliefs around the origins of St. Nicholas, there is no denying that Santa teddy bears are a popular part of the Christmas culture. They’re really nothing more than traditional teddy bears made up to look like Santa Clause, generally sporting red ‘velvet’ clothing, black boots, and tiny spectacles. Despite this iconic look, don’t think for a minute that Santa teddy bears wouldn’t appreciate being seen and loved at all times of the year.

Copyright Shelley Vassall, 2010.


write by Matthew

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