He is an icon familiar to children around the world, yet Santa Claus remains a man of mystery, an enigma with a number of aliases. One of those alternate monikers, Old St. Nick, can lend a little clarity to the issue, but for families in Fort Dodge, Santa is much more than a name, a personality or a myth.
"Everyone loves Santa," said the Rev. Dan Rupp of Holy Trinity Parish. "He's a great figure. He represents the spirit of giving and God's love of all people."
However, it is commonly asserted that the jolly, chubby man from the North Pole who slings a bag of toys for good little girls and boys over his shoulder each year is actually a character derived from stories about St. Nicholas, a man from the third century who served as an ancient church bishop and lived in a seaport town in southern Turkey.
-Messenger photo by Dawn Bliss
The Rev. Dan Rupp reads a story about St. Nicholas, the historical Christian figure from whom the current popular Santa Claus depiction is derived.
"St. Nicholas is one of my favorites," Rupp said. "Everybody loved the guy, and of course that lent to the way his story spread. The Vikings adopted him as a hero and a friend. They liked the stories about him, and they liked what they heard about how he watched over voyagers and sailors."
Nicholas gained fame among the northern sea faring folk after he survived a storm at sea while returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. According to a book about the saint by William J. Bennett, Nicholas prayed and remained calm during the chaos, impressing the sailors as the ship then smoothly drifted into the port town where Nicholas had been born.
Many stories surround St. Nicholas, Rupp said. How accurate or truthful they are is difficult to tell since he lived so long ago and tales of his adventures were relayed so far and wide.
"It's all a little murky," Rupp said. "Of course, that fits in well with today's Santa, doesn't it? He's a mysterious character, too."
What is known about St. Nicholas is that he was voted Bishop of Myra as a fairly young man and he had a reputation for interceding on behalf of the falsely accused. It has also been determined that he came from a wealthy family.
But as a boy he lost his parents to plague and decided to live simply as Jesus instructed, giving away nearly all of his inheritance to the needy and sick -all of it that is except three bags of gold.
Turns out God had specific plans for those bags, Rupp said. St. Nicholas learned that the oldest daughter of the village pawn broker needed a dowry to marry and avoid being sold into slavery. God told Nicholas to give her one of the bags of gold, so he went to the pawn broker's house while everyone slept and tossed the gold in through the open door so the family wouldn't know who gave it to them. St. Nicholas wanted them to thank God and not an individual.
It wasn't much later, Rupp said, that God told Nicholas the middle daughter of the pawn broker was in the same situation as the first had been, so Nicholas took them the second bag of gold. However, this time the family had locked the door with the hope that whoever was giving them the gold would have to knock, and they would be able to thank him. Instead, St. Nicholas tossed the bag through an open window and some of the gold landed in stockings hung near the fireplace to dry.
The youngest daughter of the pawn broker soon required a dowry, as well. St. Nicholas took his third and final bag of gold to the house, but he found both the door and the windows locked. His only option to give them the present yet remain anonymous was to toss it down the chimney.
Each December, Rupp presents this story of St. Nicholas to the children of the Webster County parish, and he said he strives to balance the more secular and often commercialized white-bearded, red-suit wearing fellow with that of the historical bishop by explaining the situation in a way that highlights the birth of Jesus and focuses the season on its religious meaning.
"I tell the children God lets St. Nick come back each year to share in the most important gift given to us," Rupp said. "This is why St. Nicholas comes back not on his feast day, which is earlier in the month, but on Christmas when we celebrate that God has given us the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ."
Santa, who holds court daily in the center of the Crossroads Mall through Christmas Eve, agreed with this approach of explaining his current role during this holy time. In fact, he said, he hopes clergy and ministers use the Santa mystique as a way to further young people's religious knowledge and faith.
"I like to feel like I help in filling up the churches," he said. "Some of the children may not know about Jesus when I ask whose birthday we are celebrating, but when I explain it, a bit of Christianity ends up in the conversation."
Taking the time to have a conversation with Santa definitely does more than provide the opportunity for a souvenir picture and a candy cane, said Larry Jessen, mall manager.
"It's important for the little kids to see and talk to Santa," he said. "It helps them to believe in the larger concepts of the season when they have the physical representation, that symbol. For the parents, it's a chance to listen when their children are telling Santa what they'd like for Christmas. The parents get a chance to hear what's going on in their little ones' heads."
Maybe children hop up on Santa's lap with a list of stuff they would like to find under the tree on Christmas morning, but that is not the real lesson they walk away with, said Chris McCrady, of Fort Dodge. She recently took her granddaughter, Halie Opande, 6, to see Santa after attending Opande's school winter concert.
"Coming to visit Santa is one way to learn the lesson that the season is more about giving than receiving," McCrady said. "We talk about how Santa represents generosity and helping others and that we should all follow that example."
Former Algona natives, Randy and Jennifer Erpelding, were back in the area from their home in Virginia to visit family and friends, but encountering Santa gave their children, Jayden, 8, and Makayla, 6, a chance to not only participate in a special experience, but also share it with their grandmother who was at the mall with them.
"Visiting Santa is a family tradition," Randy Erpelding said. "It's something we do together, but it's also a chance for us to teach our kids the full understanding of the real meaning of Christmas, that the season celebrates Jesus Christ."
Jennifer Erpelding agreed, adding that the smiles Santa prompts on her children's faces serve to reassure her.
"I just love that they still believe in the magic of the season," she said. "They have faith in the messages of brotherly love, peace and salvation. I want them to always have such faith."