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Many people are familiar with the tradition of putting out food for Santa. The origins of this tradition are complex and rather interesting, and it may be fun to keep them in mind if you celebrate the convention of putting out food for Santa on Christmas Eve. Santa himself is quite an interesting and complicated character, since he is an amalgamation of several figures both historical and mythological.
There are several explanations for the gift of food, one of which dates back to pre-Christian times. Many pagan cultures in Europe had a tradition of offering food to the ancestors on particularly significant dates of the calendar, such as the winter solstice. These food gifts were meant to please the ancestors, in the hopes that they would bless their living descendants. Several other cultures retain this tradition, as can be seen at the Day of the Dead in Mexico and on religious shrines throughout Asia. As Europe converted to Christianity, this tradition was undoubtedly retained, although the explanation for it may have evolved.
Offerings of food are also related to Saint Nicholas, the saint who is often associated with Christmas. Saint Nicholas was a bishop who lived in the third century. He is remembered for being generous and kind to children and the downtrodden, and worship of Saint Nicholas is an important part of religious practice for many Orthodox Christians. Part of this worship includes a traditional feast on 6 December, St. Nicholas Day. On St. Nicholas Eve, children put out food and drink for the saint and his attendants, and these offerings are exchanged with gifts overnight.
During the Protestant reformation, the gaudy celebration of Saints days from Catholic tradition was frowned upon. However, many people still wanted to celebrate the feast of Saint Nicholas, since he was a beloved saint and winter is an excellent time for a feast. As a result, people gradually began associating the tradition with Christmas, retaining the lavish feast and exchange of gifts on Christmas day, and the tradition of setting out food for St. Nicholas the night before was continued as well.
The evolution of Saint Nicholas into Santa Klaus can be attributed to a mispronunciation. Dutch speakers call St. Nicholas Sinterklaas, and this name slowly became corrupted into “Santa Claus” or just “Santa.” The generosity and kindness of Saint Nicholas are also present in Santa Claus, and many countries who continue to worship St. Nicholas worship Santa Claus as a separate entity. Since Santa Claus was derived from Saint Nicholas, however, it should come as no surprise that some charming traditions are common to both, such as the offering of food for Santa.
In addition to food for Santa, some people also like to put out food for his reindeer. Both Santa and his reindeer make a long journey every year to ensure that everyone gets presents, and it is not unreasonable to assume that the reindeer get hungry, as well as Santa. Although the traditional food for Santa in many countries is milk and cookies, people who prefer to set out other foods can be assured that their gifts will be accepted with pleasure. In fact, he may appreciate unusual or creative foods, since even Santa probably tires of cookies eventually.