In the 21st century, Santa Claus is perhaps the most recognizable secular icon of the holiday season. In December, he makes appearances everywhere, in stores and shopping malls, at parties and parades, in schools and churches.

In the 21st century, Santa Claus is perhaps the most recognizable secular icon of the holiday season. In December, he makes appearances everywhere, in stores and shopping malls, at parties and parades, in schools and churches.
His appearance is different in various parts of the world but in the United States, the traditional Santa Claus wears a red suit and hat, trimmed in white fur. He wears black boots. His white hair and beard mark his age and he's what most of us would call overweight but he's jolly as well as generous. He's known for making his Christmas Eve deliveries with a team of eight reindeer who pull his magical sleigh through the skies.  Santa's familiar look was inspired by Clement Clark Moore's well-known poem, 'Twas The Night Before Christmas'. Moore described Santa much as we view him today. An artist named Haddon Sundblom brought the image of Santa to life for a 1931 Coca Cola ad and the way most of us envision Santa today owes a great deal to Sundblom's Santa.
When I think of Santa, my late uncle Bill Puett always comes to mind. As a young child, I often got personalized attention from Santa and later I understood why. When Santa Claus is your uncle, perks are part of the program. With his generous nature and big heart, he wore the suit in a way that brought Santa to life.
Since Santa evolved from an actual saint, St. Nicholas has a saint's day. In parts of the world, the Santa tradition is focused on the date. A long-standing tradition is for children to leave their shoes out on St. Nicholas Eve so that St. Nick will fill them with candy or small gifts. We continued the custom with our children although Santa also visits on Christmas Eve. My kids must have been good because naughty children are supposed to receive coal in their shoes.
We always read Moore's poem and watched some of the classic Christmas programs that feature Santa.
But, we also talked about the actual St. Nicholas, the man behind the legend.
St. Nicholas was born in the third century in Asia Minor, now part of Turkey. His parents died during an epidemic when he was still quite young so his uncle, also named Nicholas, and a bishop, raised him.
Young Nicholas was ordained as a priest and later become a bishop. He was known for his generosity and for giving gifts, often by night. As word of his miracles spread after his death, the stories of how he left gifts to those in need.
In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas became Sinterklaas and when Dutch settlers arrived in the New World, it became Santa Claus.
Worldwide, Santa has other names. In England, he's known as Father Christmas and in France as Pere Noel. In some places, the Three Wise Men or the Christ Child deliver the gifts. In Italy, La Befana is the gift giver and in China, the Christmas Old Man is the one who gives presents to children.
I always say I still believe in Santa Claus because he's my uncle. And I do believe in the kind-hearted goodness, the overflowing generosity we so often see at the holiday season, the spirit and love portrayed by Santa Claus. I've written before about my uncle and his many years spent portraying Santa.
In my home, we will have a Christmas tree, decked with lights and all the special ornaments collected over a lifetime but we also have a nativity set up to remember the reason for this season,
As we celebrate this season of light and love and generosity, it's a time to remember St. Nicholas, the man behind the legend along with Christ, the true focus of the Christmas season.

Lee Ann Murphy writes a column for the Neosho Daily News and is a staff writer for the paper.