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BY VICKY KATZ WHITAKER
Rest assured, Virginia. Santa Claus--that jolly old elf--will be coming to town this Christmas Eve, his reindeer-drawn sled filled with a bottomless sack of toys and treats for good boys and girls.
Of course, it wasn't always that way. The legend of Santa is a stew of fact and fiction, a centuries-old mix of ingredients that some think reach into pagan ritual but can be documented by the story of Bishop Nicholas of Myra.
Nicholas was a devout fourth-century Christian figure whose charitable acts and compassion for the needy--especially children--brought him sainthood as his popularity spread across Europe during the Middle Ages.
The anniversary of his death, Dec. 6, 343, is known as St. Nicholas Day and is still widely celebrated in Eastern and Western Europe as the main day of gift giving and holiday merriment.
An 1821 illustration and description in "The Children's Friend," the first lithographed book published in America, shows Santa arriving from the North on Christmas Eve in a sleigh pulled by a flying reindeer.
There is also a description of St. Nicholas as a white-bearded, plump old elf dressed in fur "from his head to his toe" in Clement C. Moore's classic American poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas," commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas."
Cartoonist Thomas Nast shows Santa is his series of black-and-white illustrations for Harper's Weekly from 1863 to 1866. The last of his drawings, in color, shows Santa in a red suit.
Illustrator Haddon Sundblom depicted a plump, wholesome, grandfatherly Santa in his paintings for Coca-Cola's 1931 holiday season advertising campaign.
Inspired by the description in Moore's poem and Nast's color illustration, Sundblom would go on to paint Santa portraits for Coca-Cola ads into the mid-1960s.
All this was part of the in process that turned Santa into an American icon and commercial success.
While Santa continues to be omnipresent, the basic values represented by St. Nicholas have not been lost.
In fact, more than a million people a year visit the website created by the Michigan-based St. Nicholas Center stnicholascenter.org, a central repository for St. Nicholas-related material, notes its founder, Carol Myers.