When I was a little girl there was no living being who could stir up as much excitement as Santa Claus. The anticipation was almost unbearable. I always wondered how he could get to all of the homes of the world, but I never doubted reindeer could fly. The thought of Santa still makes me happy and happy is good for the body and mind. Santa, what do you know, T or F?

• He first emerged as a child’s tale in Spain. • He is based on the works of St. Nicholas. • The Dutch brought the custom to America.

There are many stories of Santa, some fact and some myth. Some of the myths I wish to believe as facts, like sliding down chimneys, elves, workshops and flying reindeer. And, of course, the ageless, timeless man himself. Alas, childhood fairy tales give way to grown up knowledge. But if the magic of Santa remains, our hearts are the better for it. Just ask Kansas City’s Secret Santa. This wonderful man spreads cheer and good will to unsuspecting shoppers in need of an emotional and financial lift. Their smiles and hugs, unabashed, unfiltered, express a joy befitting the season. Our own Secret Santa distributes joy in the spirit of old St. Nicholas, a saint whose generosity with children very likely evolved into the myth of modern day Santa.

One of the oldest references which influences the lore and appearance of our modern day Santa comes from St. Nicholas, purported to be the Patron Saint of Giving. A contemporary of the emperor Constantine, he was known throughout Europe, Palestine and Eqypt for his humanitarian deeds, especially his charity toward children. Thousands of churches are named in honor of his work. He died about 350 AD and in our churches and very likely in our own Santa Claus we continue to honor him.

In addition to the influence of St. Nicholas, Santa appears to be an amalgam of various Christian and pagan beliefs and rituals mixed with societal customs of the Scandinavians, Germans, Dutch and English. Many historians think that the American version of Santa came from Dutch settlers to New Amsterdam, what is now New York state. They brought their custom of remembering and honoring Sint Nikolaas or Sinterklaas, by placing gifts into stockings hung on fireplaces on Dec. 24. The custom caught on.

One of the most popular poems in American history, "A Visit From St. Nicholas," written by Clement C. Moore for his children in 1823, is a valuable source of information about the origins of Santa in America. In this poem we are introduced to St. Nick sliding down chimneys and reindeer. Mr. Moore described St. Nick’s physical attributes which we have come to associate with Santa: round, bearded and wearing his famous red suit. His children must have been mesmerized.

The first llustration of what we know today as Santa Claus came courtesy of a political cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly. In 1863 Thomas Nast drew Santa in all of his glory in the manner in which Mr. Moore described, plump with red fur from head to toe. Mr. Nast called his creation,“Santa Claus.” St. Nicholas, the historically thin and religious man had modernized.

Although specific references to St. Nicholas, the man, are often forgotten, his spirit of giving remains, with a few myths and tales thrown in for good measure to the delight of children around the world. Here’s hoping Santa Claus has good weather, swift reindeer and a strong back. Somewhere Sint Nikolaas is smiling. Merry Christmas.

Answers: 1. F; 2. T; 3. T.

Dr. Lori Boyajian-O’Neill can be contacted at lori.boyajian-oneill@hcahealthcare.com.