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Celebrating Christmas: A Visit With Nicholas

Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, the Nativity of the babe in the manger whom Christians believe was the Son of God. Indeed, the very word Christmas means “Christ festival”.

Yet there can be little doubt that for many it is Santa Claus — not Jesus — who is the human face of Christmas. In fact, it is fair to say that in much of the world, Santa is better known than the Christ who gave his name to the holiday.

But how did the fat man in the Coca-Cola red-and-white suit become the symbol of Christmas? The truth is that like the Christmas story itself, the story of Saint Nicholas is a composite of history, myth, and legend.

According to tradition, he was born in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) in about A.D. 270. When young, he traveled to Palestine and Egypt. Not long afterward, he became a bishop. During the Roman emperor Diocletian’s bloody persecution of Christians in 303, Nicholas was imprisoned. However, when Constantine the Great became emperor in 306, he legalized Christianity and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. Nicholas was freed.

The scribes tell us that Nicholas’s prayers and leadership during the great tribulation led many to become Christians. Nicholas continued to serve as bishop for many years. On December 6, 343, Nicholas the man died, and Saint Nicholas the legend was born.

During his lifetime, Nicholas’s reputation for generosity and kindness gave rise to stories of miracles he performed for the poor, the weak--and children. After his death, devotion to Nicholas extended to all parts of Europe. His feast day was celebrated on December 6, but his reputation as a gift-giver later became attached to the celebration of Christmas on December 25.

After the Reformation in the 16th century, Nicholas’s cult disappeared in most Protestant countries of Europe. But his legend was united with old Nordic folktales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents. In England, he became known as Father Christmas. But in Holland, Saint Nicholas’ name and reputation persisted as “sinterklaas.”.

In the 17th century, Dutch colonists took this tradition with them to America. Later, Sinterklaas was adopted by the English-speaking majority as “Santa Claus.” The resulting image of a “jolly old elf” driving a sleigh with “eight tiny reindeer” crystallized in the 19th century. That was when Clement Moore wrote the now-famous poem “A Visit From Saint Nick.” And the red-and-white suit? That was created by a Coca-Cola adman in the 1930s.

Although greatly commercialized, the modern Santa Claus still embodies8 Saint Nicholas’ generosity and love for children. And for some, he still points to the Nativity of the babe in the manger, and reminds us of the reason we celebrate Christmas.





16世纪宗教改革运动以后,对尼古拉的膜拜便在多数欧洲新教国家销声匿迹了。但是有关他的传说却跟一个北欧民间故事结合了起来,故事中有位魔术师,他爱惩罚顽皮的孩子,并送礼物奖励好孩子。在英格兰,尼古拉成为家喻户晓的圣诞节之父。而在荷兰,圣人尼古拉的名声依旧以“Sinterklaas”的名字流传。17世纪,荷兰的殖民者将这个传统带到美洲。后来,“Sinterklaas”为多数说英语的人民所采用,并改成了“Santa Claus”。他最后的形象──“快乐的老矮人”驾着“八只小驯鹿”拉的雪橇──是在19世纪开始变得明确具体起来的。摩尔(Clement Moore)就在那时写了《圣人尼克的来访》这首闻名至今的诗。还有那件红白套装呢?那是在20世纪30年代,可口可乐公司的广告商创造出来的。


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