NOTEBOOKS, DIARIES, AND JOURNALS

 
For me—and I venture to say, for most of you reading this blog—the initial exposure to notebooks—books meant to be written in—came with entering school. During the 14th and 15th centuries, notebooks were made by hand, often at home, by folding pieces of paper in half into bundles that were then bound. Binding involved sewing along the fold or punching holes and lacing with twine or other cord. The pages were blank, and any note keeper who wanted lined pages had to make ruled lines across each page. Making and keeping notebooks was so important to effective household, farm, and business management that children learned how to do it in school.

 

Currently, besides a stitched binding, a buyer can purchase notebooks that are glue-bound, spiral bound, or loose pages in ring binders. People keep notes on everything—food, physical activity, birds cited, blood pressure. . .

 

Today, notebooks are almost universally commercially produced. You can find them lined or blank or with printed grids, depending on your intentions. Specialized ones are available for virtually any and all needs. One can shop notebooks for elementary, middle, high school, or college. Additionally, one can find notebooks designed for particular interests.

 

Specialized notebooks often include related information, advice, etc. The Writer’s Notebook is a good example of this, providing tips and exercises to improve writing and creativity. Of the 207 pages of The Naturalist’s Notebook, the first 95 are pages of how-to. The body of the book is called a 5-year calendar-journal, though it’s set up like a diary.

 

So, segueing from notebooks to diaries: a diary is a record (originally handwritten) set up for discrete entries arranged by date, reporting on what has happened. Generally, a diary has daily entries. Although it might include anything, a diary is essentially a collection of notes, often brief, focused on “just the facts, ma’am.” A war diary would be a good example: a regularly updated official record of a military unit’s administration and activities, maintained by an officer in the unit.

 

Pre-printed diaries typically allot the same amount of space or number of lines for each day. This forces the diarist to record only the most important events of each day. The diary shown above is set up for one year, with one week on each double-page spread. N.B.: These are a woman’s diaries, and you will see weather notes in the margin of each entry, which is typical of women’s diaries.

 

One-year diaries can come in any shape or size, though the entry space is often larger than that of multi-year diaries. Typical of diaries are the inserts and write-overs caused by the relatively small amount of space allowed for each day.

 

MeditationsMarcusAurelius1811.jpg
To Myself, known today as Meditations, written in Greek by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the second half of the 2nd century CE might be the earliest recorded writing displaying many aspects of a diary. The earliest surviving diary that most resembles a modern diary was that of the Moroccan mathematician and scholar Ibn al-Banna’ al-Marrakushi in the 11th century. Needless to say, these were not pre-printed!

 

At one point, five-year diaries were very popular. They range in size from 2” x 3” up to 8.5’ x 11” and are still for sale today, priced from $5.59 to $72.00, though the price is not necessarily related to size. The major advantage of a five-year diary, in my opinion, is that it allows easy tracking of events (visits from relatives, weather, flower blooms) across years and seasons. The major disadvantage is the (usually) severely circumscribed space for each entry.

 

Today one can have a paper diary and/or a digital diary. Digital diaries are often tailored towards shorter-form, in-the-moment writing, similar to what might be posted on social media, but they avoid character limits that have the same effect as the space restrictions noted above.

 

In its original (French) meaning, the word journal (from the Latin diurnis or diurnalis)refers to a daily record of activities, but the term has evolved to mean any record, regardless of time elapsed between entries. More importantly, it is a record of significant experiences, as well as documenting thoughts, feelings, reflections, emotions, problems, and self-evaluations. In short, a journal is much more personal than a diary. Per Robert Gottlieb, journals have no deliberate shape, they simply accrete.

 

In writers’ terms, a diary is a fly-on-the-wall POV; a journal is a first person POV, showing everything through the eyes and heart of the writer.

 

If you want to buy a journal, you are not likely to find books labeled “Journal.” Instead, you buy a blank book. Your first decision is totally blank or lined. It’s a very personal decision. For an artist, this would be totally blank, a sketchbook. But some journal writers also want a totally blank page,feeling freer—unconfined, not squished between lines. Others—somehow more restricted?—prefer lines, perhaps to keep them focused, perhaps to keep their words legible.

 

Journals can be broad ranging or focused—for example, dream journals, travel journals, gardening journals. In my experience, the more broad ranging, the more likely the writer will choose an aesthetically pleasing blank book.

 

For the most part, both diaries and journals are presumed to be personal, shared with no one or only a select few. But many of both have been published. Online, international lists of published journals and diaries are readily available.

 

An exception to the presumption of privacy, The Diary of Anais Nin was her own publication.

 

But many others are published posthumously.

 

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks—numerous, informal, and not terribly organized—have been perused and edited by John Curran. He quotes lavishly from the originals but also comments and relates the notebook entries to Christie’s published works.

 

Among published diaries, notebooks, and journals, one of my favorites is Hawthorne’s Lost Notebook 1835-1841. I love this book because it has reproductions of the original hand-written notes side-by-side with readable printed versions of his words.

 

Another favorite is The Journals of John Cheever. Cheever wrote his inner life, day after day, year after year. His writings span a period from the early 1940s to a few days before his death on June 18, 1982, encompassing some three to four million words. The original journals are small, loose-leaf note books, approximately one per year, usually typed but sometimes written out in longhand, undated. The published version of his journals is, necessarily, a selection. Entries are identified by year, and each is reprinted in its entirety.

 

This printed version of his journals doesn’t draw punches, even when he made negative comments about his children or himself.

 

And now I would draw your attention to the similarities between the Hawthorne notebook entry and the Cheever journal entries. They are both open-ended and extremely personal.

 

Bottom line for writers: a rose by any other name! Call it a notebook, a diary, or a journal, record your days.

 


Voices from the Past

anne frank house
Anne Frank House on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, Netherlands [Creative Commons]
I’m a fan of history—not so much the names and dates of battles and rulers, but the lives of ordinary people. I might say it’s a sociological and/or anthropological approach to history. I was fascinated by Anne Frank—what she wrote and how she lived—long before I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam a few years ago.

 

smithsonian new anne frank
So, of course the cover of the November 2018 Smithsonian magazine caused me to snatch it up. Pages 39-88 are devoted to bringing us voices from the past, long silenced by war.

 

unforgotten smithsonian
This page summarizes the point of this coverage: Never forget, lest we repeat the devastations of the past. This month marks the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, so the publication is particularly timely.

 

voices past
The first article recounts the twisted path by which a Holocaust diary showed up in the United States. Renia Spiegel, a 15-year-old girl in a small Polish town, wrote a diary. Her diary survived her death almost by accident, and had a profound effect on the lives of others.
smithsonian anne frank
The diary was published in Polish in 2016, but is translated into English and published in Smithsonian for the first time. Renia Spiegel was a teenager, not a trained writer, but her words are as powerful an Anne Frank’s, conveying the commonplace, day-to-day against the backdrop and ever impinging horrors of WWII. The diary is a gripping eye-witness record of history in prose, poetry, and sketches.

 

becoming anne frank
Just after the diary translation, the article by Dara Horn is thought-provoking exploration of the contradictions in attitudes and behaviors that surround people’s reactions to Jews and Jewishness. It includes a quote from Elie Wiesel: “Those of us who went through the war and tried to write about it… become messengers. We have given the message and nothing changed.” Wiesel was a prisoner in Buchenwold when the camp was liberated in April 1945.
anne frank smithsonian
In Lithuania, beginning in 1940, Matila Okin kept a diary of her life and times as a Jew in wartime Europe. Her poetry was published in literary journals and her work solicited by editors, and several are included in the article, which also talks about the Catholic priest who hid Okin’s notebooks in the wall of the church before the Soviets deported him to Siberia.
voices past
The last of the articles quotes from diaries written in the Lodz Getto in Poland, but also U.S. internment camps, Bosnia during the Serbian aggression, Syria, Iraq, and considers the impact of today’s digital war diaries.

 

Bottom line: This Smithsonian makes clear that history isn’t dead—and testifies that it isn’t even past. Every writer should read it.

1968 Was a Hell of a Year

smithsonian 1968 hell year
The January-February issue of Smithsonian is a must read. Whether you lived through it or not, you will learn something new on every page. (Well, maybe not the ads at the back!) Many people living through turbulent times experience some segment of the turmoil so deeply that it changes them forever, but I’d venture to say few grasp the whole.
And if you were a child in ’68—or not even born yet—you definitely need to read this. The year still reverberates through our lives, and this issue of Smithsonian is a vivid panorama of the times.

smithsonian contents 1968
The grief and anger surrounding the Vietnam war are made clear, from the war itself to the riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Popular culture is highlighted: the Beach Boys and the Beatles in India and teen sensation Frankie Lymon. It was a year of protesting the Miss America Pageant, and getting the first pictures of earth from outer space. What Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing days before his assassination, and the legacy of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination—it’s all there. It was a year of violence, but also of innovation as the groundwork was laid for personal computers and the internet.

Issues of street violence to threats of world hunger made 1968 a year of fear and anger. Read all about it!

Reading History and Geography

I have mixed feelings here. In fourth grade, my geography book was the most exotic, fascinating thing I’d ever seen. In high school, I hated history so much that I vowed never to take a non-mandatory class. And I didn’t, avoiding history all through college. But like so many, I find both topics not just palatable but absolutely fascinating when presented in literature and/or experienced during travel.

 

Virtually any good writing set abroad gives a vivid sense of place, so I’ll put geography aside for a bit, and urge you to consider all the ways you can enjoy history.

 

nervous splendor budapest 1900 norway 1940
Consider historical events or periods of interest to you. Your reading options are myriad. I grew up in a house with few books, but we did have a two-volume pictorial history of World War II that had pictures of concentration camp survivors that are seared in my mind’s eye still.

 

At least as common is to read history by reading about people. Queens, kings, generals, popes—biographies abound. Think Queen Elizabeth, Marie Antoinette, Joan of Arc, or Catherine the Great—to name a few women. Often travel sparks an interest. I was unaware of Sisi the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, or Maria Theresa, one of the most outstanding and powerful personalities in the Habsburg dynasty.

 

dean king skeletons zahara
[Photo credit: Amazon]
I won’t belabor the point, but geography can be equally personal. Consider Dean King’s book, Bones in the Zahara. Vivid and personal, immediate and gripping. (Indeed, I recommend any of Dean King’s non-fiction books.)

 

Bottom line: History and geography can be as gripping as fiction. Try it!

First Women

Celebrating First Women

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know that Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for president? Or that she is the first woman to run for president on a major ticket? Her achievement reminds us all that women have long been making history. Some of you will remember that I mentioned Victoria Claflin Woodhull, the Equal Rights Party candidate in 1872. She was a fascinating woman—a stockbroker and publisher as well as a suffragist.

 

TO ALL THE READERS OUT THERE

Find out about other amazing first women. Lots of them are listed in references such as this.
Famous First Facts: Third Edition, book by Kane,
Famous First Facts
Lady Astor (birth name Nancy Witcher Langborne), the first American-born woman to become a member of Parliament in Great Britain in 1919.
Nancy Astor
By Bain News Service (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Harriet Maxwell Converse, the first white woman to become an Indian chief, made a chief of the Six Nations Tribe in 1891. She had been adopted as a member of the Seneca tribe. You can read a poem by Harriet Maxwell Converse at the Poetry’s Foundation website. 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the first woman to appear as a congressional hearing witness in 1869. She was trying to keep the women of DC from being debarred from voting.
Elizabeth Stanton
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, c. 1880, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sally Stearns, the first woman coxswain of a men’s collegiate varsity team, 1936.

 

Nan Jane Aspinwall, the first woman horseback rider to make a solo transcontinental trip from SanFrancisco to New York City, 1910.

 

Susanna Medora Salter, the first woman mayor, elected in Argonia, Kansas, 1887.
Susanna Madora Salter
By Unknown photographer (Kansas Historical Society) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Belle Martell, the first woman licensed to be a prize fight referee, 1940.

 

Nellie Tayloe Ross, Director of the Mint, the first woman to have her name on the cornerstone of a US government building, 1936.
 
Nellie Tayloe Ross
Nellie Tayloe Ross (1876-1977), Wyoming Governor, 1924-1926. Wyoming State Archives, photo published 1922 [Public domain]
Sybilla Masters, the first woman to obtain a patent—for a machine for cutting and cleaning Indian corn, 1715.

 

And many others, in books such as this.
Robertson's Book of Firsts: Who Did What for the First Time, book by Patrick Robertson
Robertson’s Book of Firsts: Who Did What for the First Time
Alternatively, one could go to any field of interest—from playwright to astronaut—and find the first woman in those fields.

FOR THE WRITERS OUT THERE

Consider these pioneers as inspiration. What sort of character does it take to be a first? What might daily life be like for the first woman licensed as an electrical engineer? What price might such a woman pay in terms of family or love relationships? And ultimately, is it a story of triumph or tragedy?

 

Please share other first women in the comments or on social media. Please tag me on Facebook and Twitter to continue the celebration of first women.

Love Your Research!

writing 101: love your research

I can’t imagine a writer without some tools of the trade, even if those are only a good dictionary and a thesaurus, preferably a good manual of style as well.

research books: Chicago Manual of Style, Oxford Dictionary, Thesaurus

Most of us have much more than the basics, however. I often set stories in times that are not now. Therefore, in order to get the details needed to enrich the prose and draw the reader into the period, I often rely on bits of dialogue about what something costs, or what’s being eaten or worn.

A few of my favorite references

For the cost of things, I turn first to The Value of a Dollar.

research book: The Value of a Dollar
The Value of a Dollar, Grey House Publishing

The most recent volume is 1860-2014, and new it costs $155. I first came across this book in the reference section of a library in Clifton Forge, VA, when I was researching my novel Nettie’s Books, which is set 1930-1935. I was delighted to learn that ham was 8¢ a pound back then, and that Sears was selling 25 Hershey’s 5¢ Almond Bars for $1. I wanted that book! The price of a new one was prohibitive, but by dropping back to the previous edition (pictured above), it was very reasonable. Indeed, I just ordered the one that covers 1860-2009 for $7.91 plus shipping.

As you know from other parts of this website, I collect cookbooks. But I also collect food reference books for writing, such as the two pictured here.

Being able to put waffle irons, Kool-Ade, Spam, and Jiffy Biscuit Mix in the right period is highly tempting! Among other things, such references may trigger childhood memories for readers and help draw them in.

In addition, I find it very helpful to have good references for popular culture and slang. In fact, I have several of each. I often write stories set in Appalachia some decades past, when saying an overweight woman wears clothes so tight she looks like ten pounds of potatoes in a five-pound sack can create just the right vivid image of the woman in question as well as giving insight into the speaker. A character saying, “What a hoot!” is clearly older than the one who says, “Whatever.” The two books pictured here are rather specialized ones, but more comprehensive options are readily available both new and used.

research books: "Remember That?" and "Butter My Butt and Call Me a Biscuit"
Remember That? and Butter My Butt and Call Me a Biscuit

I revel in dipping into these and other references even when I’m not researching a particular writing project. Some of my favorites don’t fall into any of the above categories, but they are great stimulants to striving for better, richer language.

research book: "Falser Than a Weeping Crocodile and Other Similes"
Falser Than A Weeping Crocodile And Other Similes

I was a reader before I was a writer (weren’t we all?) and for me, these are great reads! Advice to writers: choose research and writing tools you can enjoy.

What are your favorite research books and tools?

research: library
Photo by Tamás Mészáros

Today is the 207th Anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s Birth

Edgar Allan Poe 2 retouched and transparent bg
Edgar Allan Poe. Somewhat retouched. Original daguerreotype taken by Edwin H. Manchester on the morning of November 9th, 1848.
Poe was a writer, literary critic, and editor, the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living exclusively through writing. In spite of his prolific output, he didn’t earn enough to support himself, let alone live comfortably.
 
Complete Stories and Papers of Edgar Allan Poe
Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

 

Although Poe died at the age of forty, this book contains 119 short stories and poems and one novel. His literary criticism isn’t represented at all in this volume, nor are his essays on writing, such as “The Philosophy of Composition,” “The Poetic Principle,” and “The Rationale of Verse.” His first publications were poetry, and he published 53 of them, but his work covers a much broader spectrum: 27 tales of mystery and horror; 25 stories of humor and satire; 14 that veer toward fantasy and science fiction. His novel is an adventure yarn. “Eureka” is a disquisition on the nature of the universe, and his vision has been largely confirmed by science, for example the Big Bang Theory.

 

Despite the breadth of his writing, he is best known for poetry and suspense/horror. He is often called the father of detective fiction—preceding Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins by decades—while his contributions to cosmology and cryptography are known to relatively few. Besides being brilliant, Poe was a fine athlete. (He once set a broad jump record of 21’6″.)  But he is most remembered as a man who suffered bouts of depression, whose career and life were burdened if not destroyed by gambling and alcohol, and who was plagued by scandals ranging from his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin to courting multiple women simultaneously.

 

To this day his death is shrouded in mystery. Where had he been for the previous several days? What was he doing? Why was he wearing someone else’s clothes? And who was the “Randal” he called out for from his deathbed?

 

Nevertheless, he is celebrated and honored across the country, including an annual Birthday Bash in Richmond, Virginia.

 

 

This year the event included a panel presentation and book signing by members of two local chapters of Sisters in Crime. Among other things, we spoke about Poe’s influence on our writing.

 

Sisters in Crime at Poe Museum for Poe's Birthday Bash
Sisters in Crime
Left to right: Rosemary Shomaker, Teresa Inge, Vivian Lawry, Heather Weidner, Maggie King, Yvonne Saxon
Sisters in Crime presenting Virginia is for Mysteries at Poe Museum for Poe's Birthday Bash, Edgar Allan Poe
Virginia is for Mysteries signing table
Seated, left to right: Teresa Inge, Maria Hudgins, Vivian Lawry; standing, left to right: Yvonne Saxon, Rosemary Shomaker, Maggie King, Heather Weidner

 

This is the biggest celebration of Poe’s birthday, the events and fun running from noon till midnight. Let Poe’s lights shine on!
Poe Museum, Richmond, Virginia
Evenfall at the Poe Museum, Richmond, Virginia

happy birthday, edgar allan poe; edgar allan poe's birth

Why is Christmas Celebrated on December 25th?

Darwin's Christmas! December 25th

This post is part of a series that might be characterized as Darwin’s Christmas. I will be taking a number of our current traditions and tracing their evolution.

The logical answer would be, “We celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th because that’s when He was born. ” But in this instance, the logical answer is wrong.

 

Neither the Bible nor any other record dates Jesus’s actual day of birth. In addition, the season when shepherds would be watching their flocks by night and when the census was taken would argue that the actual birth was either spring or autumn.

 

According to Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas, early Christians weren’t bothered by not knowing Jesus’s birthday for “It never occurred to them that they needed to celebrate his birthday.” Further, according to Nissenbaum, the Church got into something of a crisis, with people tending to believe that Jesus never existed as a man. Instituting a birthday celebration was a way to counteract that trend.
The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum
The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was 336AD, during the time of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine. Perhaps he chose that date because Pagan Romans would be celebrating the Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, and “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” (birth of the unconquered sun) anyway. A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th of December.

 

One very early Christian tradition held that on March 25th God told Mary she would have a very special baby.The Annunciation is still celebrated on March 25th—and nine months later is December 25th.
Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Annunciation
The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The early Church celebrated Christmas, the Epiphany, and the Baptism of Jesus all on January 6th. In some parts of the UK, January 6th is still called Old Christmas.

 

Then, too, not everyone celebrates Christmas on December 25th even today. Some Christians use other dates or December 25th on non-Gregorian calendars. The dates below are all Gregorian.

 

January 6The Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian Catholic Church
January 7Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Rite Catholics in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
January 7 or 8–Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria
January 19–The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

 

Still, for many Eastern Orthodox Churches, Western Christian churches, and the secular world, Christmas is over.
Christmas rose, hellebore niger
Christmas rose

Christmas Eve Then and Now

Darwin's Christmas! Christmas Eve

This post is part of a series that might be characterized as Darwin’s Christmas. I will be taking a number of our current traditions and tracing their evolution.

For centuries Christmas was celebrated as a season, not a single day, and the beginning of that season was on Christmas Eve. Western Christianity and the secular world recognize December 24th as Christmas Eve. The most widely practiced Christmas Eve tradition or custom that is still practiced today is the attendance at a church service.
Church of Our Lady before Týn in Prague, Czech Republic
Church of Our Lady before Týn
Prague, Czech Republic
In predominantly Catholic countries (e.g., Spain, Mexico, Poland, and Italy) a Midnight Mass is the most important service in the Christmas season. People often abstain from meat or fish on Christmas Eve and then eat the main Christmas meal after the Midnight Mass Service. In other countries (e.g., Belgium, Finland, Lithuania, and Denmark) the meal is eaten before the Midnight Service.
wooden cutout christmas tree
Tradition  dictated that greenery such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe should only be brought into the house on Christmas Eve. We all know what’s happened with that one in the United States! In some European countries (e.g. Serbia and Slovakia) the Christmas tree is brought into the house and decorated on Christmas Eve, as well.

 

In Norway the decorating of the tree is traditionally done by the parents behind closed doors while the children wait outside. “Circling the tree” follows, where everyone joins hands to form a ring around the tree and they walk around it singing carols. Gifts are distributed afterwards.
collection of wooden christmas trees
In Germany, the Tannenbaum (Christmas tree) was traditionally decorated by the mother, in secret, with lights, tinsel, and ornaments. It was lit and revealed on Christmas Eve with cookies, nuts, and gifts under it.
christmas tree wooden cutout with bells
In the United States, the decorating of trees, houses, lawns, and people begins weeks before Christmas.
It is also common to go caroling on Christmas Eve. (Click here to read about the evolution of Christmas carols.) In the UK, if not caroling, perhaps wassailing or mumming.
figurine of three snowmen caroling
Another wide-spread custom is the hanging of Christmas stockings, preferably on the fireplace, since that’s where Santa Claus is supposed to enter. Traditionally, Christmas stockings are filled on Christmas eve.
stockings waiting to be filled on Christmas Eve
Even the Smithsonian can’t trace the origins of hanging stockings, but clearly it was well-established by the time Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”). In Tuesday’s blog, I mentioned the legend that St. Nicholas provided dowries for three pious but impoverished sisters. One version of that legend has St. Nicholas coming down the chimney at night and putting a gold ball in the toe of each girl’s stocking, recently laundered and hung by the fire to dry.

 

Of course families have their own traditions of activities, food, and decoration passed on from generation to generation. But one that is nearly universal is that the bringer of gifts now does so on Christmas Eve.
Santa Claus bringing gifts on Christmas Eve
P.S. I have focused on Christmas Eve from the Western Christian perspective. I urge you to explore more broadly, including Eastern celebrations and Jewish Christmas traditions!

Darwin’s Christmas series

How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus

Darwin's Christmas! Santa Claus - the evolution of santa claus

This post is part of a series that might be characterized as Darwin’s Christmas. I will be taking a number of our current traditions and tracing their evolution.

Icon c 1500 St Nicholas
By Bjoertvedt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Saint Nicholas, born around 280 AD in Patara (in modern-day Turkey) was a Greek Christian bishop famous for giving to the poor, perhaps giving away all his inherited wealth and traveling the country helping the poor and sick. One much-reported story is that he presented three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they could marry, rather being sold into slavery or  prostitution—which, incidentally, says a lot about women’s options then! Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of many, including archers, sailors, children, and pawnbrokers. He is typically portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes, often thin and dour. But his image, too, has morphed.
saint nicholas figurines
During the Middle Ages, on the evening before December 6th, the name day of Saint Nicholas, children received gifts in his honor. Traditionally, this was considered a lucky day to make large purchases or to get married. The Reformation opposed the veneration of saints and the giving of gifts to children moved toward December 24th and/or 25th.
Saint Nicholas came to America and underwent a sea change during the 18th century. Newspapers in New York City (in New Amsterdam at the time) reported groups of Dutch families gathering to honor the anniversary of Saint Nicholas’s death. The name Santa Claus evolved from the name, Sinter Klass, a form of Sint Nikolaas, Dutch for Saint Nicholas. In 1809, Washington Irving published his “Knickerbocker History of New York” in which he mentioned St. Nick 25 times and referred to Saint Nicholas as the patron saint of New York. Some assert that he is responsible for remaking the original old, often stern bishop into the new “jolly St. Nick.”
santa claus wooden cutout
In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a Christmas poem for his three daughters, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” This poem—now commonly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”—established the visual imagery of the modern Santa Claus and his behavior. The image was solidified in 1881, when cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on the poem to create the first pictorial representation of Santa Claus.
Library of Congress
Ta-da! We have Santa Claus: rotund, cheerful, full white beard and mustache, bright red suit trimmed with white fur, holding a sack laden with toys for lucky children. He travels by sleigh and climbs down the chimney.
Santa Claus figurine entering chimney
Everyone knows today’s mall Santas. In 1841, thousands of children visited a Philadelphia shop to see a life-size Santa Claus mannequin. Not long after, stores attracted children and parents to see a “live” Santa Claus. Our current images of Santa Claus were further popularized by the Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s
Santa Claus figurine with Coca Cola
Education is the key to everything, and in 1937, Charles W. Howard established his Santa School, the oldest continuously-run such school in the world, teaching good Santa behavior and techniques.
Santa Claus figurine on mantel
There was a time, after the popularization of Santa keeping a list of who was naughty and who was nice, when Santa was thought to deliver a bundle of switches or a lump of coal to naughty children. This has largely dropped by the wayside.
Santa Claus figurine with switches
Psychology has no clear position on whether perpetuating the myth of Santa Claus is healthy or unhealthy. On the healthy side are assertions concerning creativity and imagination. On the unhealthy side are assertions that it is disrespectful of children and undermines their trust in their parents. If this is an issue for you, Google “Psychology on Santa Claus” and make up your own mind.
Santa Claus figurine holding "Believe" sign
I will end in the spirit of the season, by noting TV producer Jonathan Meath’s observation that Santa is really the only cultural icon we have of a male who does not carry a gun, is all about peace, joy, giving, and caring for other people. Yay, Santa, in all your forms!
three Santa Claus figurines