who is this santa claus character who invades our culture every year at this time?
our modern day santa claus is derived from saint nicholas, bishop of myra in the fourth century.
st. nicholas was known for saving his people from famine and sparing the lives of those falsely accused. he was said to have given away his inheritance to those in need. st. nicholas is knows as the patron of many different groups of people --children, mariners, bankers, pawn-brokers, scholars, orphans, laborers, travelers, merchants, judges, paupers, marriageable maidens, students, children, sailors, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers, and even thieves and murderers. sounds like a good guy, right?
st. nicholas inspired the mythical figure of sinterklaas, the subject of a major celebration in the
netherlands, belgium and germany. the dutch brought this tradition to the settlers of new amsterdam (later renamed new york), who misprounced "sinterklaas" and that's how we got our american "santa claus".
in the modern day celebration in Netherlands, white people dress up in black face, wear afro wigs, and wear bright red lipstick and march around throwing candy to children. some of these "zwarte piet" act dumb and speak garbled Dutch. there is a thriving market for zwarte piet products, many incredibly offensive in their depiction of black people. (see picture in this post and more to come in the comments.)
i think it's good to know where the traditions we are celebrating come from. i hope that if we are going to continue to celebrate the myth of santa claus (and feed the myth to our children),
we can find a way to celebrate the *original* inspiration for santa claus, st. nicholas -- who gave away his wealth to the poor, defended the rights of those falsely accused, and generally threw his lot with those most despised by society.
for more info on sinterklaas and the debate about zwarte piet, see this christian science monitor article, or this wikipedia entry.