“Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus,” my son sings from the back seat, “right down Santa Claus Lane…”

It’s a week before Christmas, and we’re heading over to my in-laws to celebrate Christmas with them, and my six-year-old son is so excited he’s about to burst.  Oh, and we also just saw Star Wars: Rogue One the night before, so he’s also on a Stat Wars bender. Honestly, listening to him sing half the lyrics off-key had been a nice change of pace.

“Right down Santa Claus… dad?  Dad?  Daddy?”

“Yes?” I ask.

“What does Claus mean?”

Yeah.  You know where this is going.


This one actually turned out to be shockingly simple.  I checked a couple of sites – Behind the Name and BabyNamesPedia and AllBabyNames – and all of them agreed.  “Claus”, pronounced KLAWS, is simply a shortened form of the name Nicholas.  “Claus” has no specific meaning in and of itself, but the name “Nicholas” is a Greek name meaning “victor of the people”.  Interestingly enough, other shortened forms of Nicholas include Nick (“jolly old Saint Nick”) and Colin.

No, I have no idea how you get “Colin” out of “Nicholas”.  But imagine how things would have changed if calling him “Santa Colin” had caught on.  At bare minimum, the Beach Boys would have had to rewrite their Christmas song, because “The Little Saint Colin” would not have scanned.

Merry Christmas, everyone!





How Old Is Santa Claus?

Last weekend, we had several of my son’s friends over to help us decorate our Christmas tree and then bake and decorate and eat cookies. While the cookies were baking, I heard two of the kids talking. “How old is Santa?” one asked. “A hundred?”

“More like a hundred and fifty!” the other said, breathlessly, clearly stunned by the idea that something or someone could be that old.

Well. How could I ignore that question?

Saint Nicholas

Most of us, I believe, know that Santa Claus started out as Saint Nicholas. But, be honest here, how many of us know all that much about that particular Saint?

All right, all right. I don’t know that much about Nicholas.

Nicholas was born in the late third century CE, with bio. saying he was born “sometime circa 280” and Wikipedia giving his date of birth as March 15, 270. Both sources state he was born in the city of Patara (now Arsinoe), which is found on the southwest corner of modern-day Turkey. Catholic Online adds that he was at the Council of Nicaea, and that he was the Bishop of Myra (not too far from Patara, all things considered) at the time of his death – traditionally given as December 6, 343.

Traditionally, Nicholas was quite wealthy and he used that wealth to benefit the residents of his home town. Here’s how Catholic Online relates the story the Saint is most famous for:

An opportunity soon arose for St. Nicholas and his inheritance. A citizen of Patara had lost all his money, and needed to support his three daughters who could not find husbands because of their poverty; so the wretched man was going to give them over to prostitution. Nicholas became informed of this, and thus took a bag of gold and threw it into an open window of the man’s house in the night. Here was a dowry for the eldest girl and she was soon duly married. At intervals Nicholas did the same for the second and the third; at the last time the father was on the watch, recognized his benefactor and overwhelmed Nicholas with his gratitude. It would appear that the three purses represented in pictures, came to be mistaken for the heads of three children and so they gave rise to the absurd story of the children, resuscitated by the saint, who had been killed by an innkeeper and pickled in a brine-tub.

Interestingly enough, we know what he probably looked like. Nicholas’ remains are buried in the crypt in the Basilica de San Nicola, and some detailed measurements and x-rays of his skull were made in the 1950s. Based on thise measurements, and some forensic anthropology and coloration based on people from the region, this is what he would have looked like:


Note that broken nose. Tradition holds that Nicholas was caught up in the Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, which makes sense – he was a Bishop at the time, after all. He’s also believed to have done time for assault, having slapped Arius in the face at the Council of Nicaea. He also had the temple of Artemis in Myra destroyed, and intervened in several civil cases to get the decisions of bribed judges overturned. As a Saint, Wikipedia lists him as the patron of children, coopers, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, repentant thieves, brewers, pharmacists, archers, pawnbrokers, Aberdeen, Galway, Russia, Greece, the Hellenic Navy, Liverpool, Bari, Siggiewi, Moscow, Amsterdam, Lorraine, and the Duchy of Lorraine.


Yeah. Among other things. The Wikipedia list is fairly short, really. The St. Nicholas Center lists him as the patron of 113 different people and professions. My favorites include lovers, pirates, robbers and thieves, and women who want to get married. I don’t have any idea how accurate any of this is, though, as I can’t find an official listing of Saint Nicholas’ responsibilities.

So Santa’s a little more than 100 – 150, isn’t he?

Just a little. Taking Wikipedia’s stated birth date (March 15, 270), he’s a sprightly 1,746 years old.

Can you come with me, daddy?

It’s Father’s Day tiday, and we’re at church. The service is over, and we’re in the Great Hall taking part in the monthly potluck lunch when my so asks me if he can go to the bathroom. Of course, I say yes. Then he looks at me and asks his question:

“Can you come with me, daddy?”

For a moment, I consider saying no. I’m in a conversation, after ai, and the church isn’t very big. He knows how to find the bathroom by himself. But he’s staring up at me with his big blue eyes, and I sigh and say yes.

As soon as I say yes, he smiles big and wide and grabs my hand and we’re off. The “whole way” (maybe a hundred feet) he’s chattering to me about five year old things, right until I ask him why he wanted me to go with him.

“In case I get scared,” he tells me.

Wait. Where’s all the research?

This is a different entry, folks. There’s no crazy facts, no research, nothing like that. Just a Father’s Day musing on being a father.

My own father died over 20 years ago and, although the pain of that loss has faded over the years, there hasn’t been a day that I haven’t missed him. I’ve got a lot of memories of him, naturally, and there’s one in particular I’m thinking of right now.

I was about my son’s age -five, maybe sux – and I’d had a particularly vivid nightmare. A monster if some sort, with purple skin the texture of a football, had wanted to cut off my skin with safety scissors and eat it. I woke up screaming and crying, and this time it was my dad who came to see what was wrong. I told him I’d had a bad dream, and asked if I could sleep in his bed.

He said no. But then he said he’d stay with me so the bad dream wouldn’t come back.  Then he tucked me in, and sang to me until I was asleep.  He kept his promise, too – the bad dream didn’t come back.

As a grown-up, I know that he probably went back to bed once I fell asleep. It was late, after all, and he had to get up early to go to work. But, despite needing sleep himself, he was there when I needed him.

He always was. Right up to the day he was too sick to do it any more. And then it was my turn to be there for him, until he wasn’t there any more.

So, can I go with my son?  In case he gets scared?  Yes. Yes, of course I can. As long as he needs me. Because I want to be as good a father for him as my dad was do me.  As long as I can.

Happy Father’s Day, everyone.

How Big Is The Easter Bunny?

Once again, we have a question without a specific context that I remembered to write down. I do remember that my son was talking excitedly about Easter, particularly since the tradition from my wife’s side of the family is that you get presents at Easter. Unlike my side of the family, where you just get a lot of candy. And I think we may have just watched a movie about the Easter Bunny as well. And that’s when he asked me:

“How big is the Easter Bunny?”

Which is, when you get right down to it, a good question. I mean, he’s got a handle on how big Santa Claus is, and how big the reindeer are, and on the size of a leprechaun and a turkey and so forth. But the Easter Bunny? Not really. And I’m not sure either – is he (or she, for that matter) human-sized, or the size of a regular rabbit. Making him the size of a regular rabbit seems to present some logistical difficulties for delivery, but then again we’re talking about a magic rabbit that delivers candy. If we can accept that, then we can accept the ability of a rabbit-sized rabbit to do the work.

Why is there an “Easter Bunny”?

This is one of those questions that doesn’t have a specific answer. There’s lots of theories, but no “smoking gun” that tells us where the Easter Bunny came from in the first place. Wikipedia says that “Originating among German Lutherans, the “Easter Hare” originally played the role of a judge, evaluating whether children were good or disobedient in behaviour at the start of the season of Eastertide.” builds on this a little, stating;

According to some sources, the Easter bunny first arrived in America in the 1700s with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and transported their tradition of an egg-laying hare called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws.” Their children made nests in which this creature could lay its colored eggs.

When trying to dig further into this, I found any number of unsourced claims that the Osterhase tradition ties into Mother Holda or Ostara, claiming the rabbit (and, frequently, eggs) as symbols of these goddesses. The Catholic Encyclopedia concurs to a degree – it doesn’t make mention of Germanic/Teutonic mother goddesses attended by armies of torch-bearing rabbits, but it does state that “the rabbit is a pagan symbol and has always been an emblem of fertility”. So, despite a paucity of discoverable online primary sources, it seems quite reasonable to assume that the Easter Bunny is a co-opted pagan tradition.

How big is the Easter Bunny, then?


“Osterhase” means “Easter Hare” in German, and from what I can find the most common hare in Germany is Lepus europaeus – the brown (or European) hare. This animal ranges from 24 to 30 inches (60 to 75 cm), has long ears with black tips, and yellow-brown to grey-brown fur with grey underbellies. They lead a solitary lifestyle, except during mating seson, and are nocturnal. They can also run up to 35 mph in a straight line, and can swim well if need arises.

So how big is the Easter Bunny. Well, assuming it’s a larger than ordinary member of the species, it could be as much as three feet long. It’s probably delivering only one basket at a time, though, so it’s a good thing he’s fast.

Oh, European hares are also coprophagous, consuming eating their “green, soft fecal pellets” to maximize the nutritional content of the vegetation they consume. So, you may want to look askance at any green jelly beans you get in your basket this year.

When Is Easter?

My son actually asked this question shortly after New Year’s Day. Christmas was still fresh in his mind, particularly since he’d received gifts on three different days – once at Christmas with his maternal grandparents, once at Christmas with his paternal grandmother, and once on our own family Christmas morning. Add to that the fact that we let him try to stay up to see the New Year (he started winding down about 9 pm, so we pretended it was the New Year for him and then put him to bed), and he was pumped for the next holiday.

“When’s Christmas?” he asked, jumping on my chest.

“Not for another year,” I answered.

He looked disappointed at that. “what’s next?” he demanded.

I scratched my head at that, because there really aren’t that many holidays right after New Year. Not holidays that get small children excited, anyway. “Uhm.. there’s Valentines Day,” I say. “And then Easter…”

He lit up at that, mostly (I think) because he remembers getting a basket full of candy last year. He’s five. He loves candy. “When’s Easter?” he asks, bouncing up and down.

“Uhm…” I tell him, not remembering the date. “That’s… complicated.”

What Is Easter?

Easter, of course, is something you’ve probably heard of whether you’re Christian or not. It’s the Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of their Savior, Jesus Christ, as described in the synoptic gospels of the New Testament. Here’s the description of the event from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 24:

  1. On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.
  2. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
  3. but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
  4. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.
  5. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?
  6. He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee:
  7. The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ”

The word “Easter” does not appear in the Bible, of course. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, Easter derives from the Old English word Easterdæg, which comes from Eastre, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *austron-, meaning “dawn”. That word comes from the Proto- Germanic *aust- (“east, toward the sunrise”), which derives from the Proto-Indo-European *aus-, meaning “to shine”. We get the word ‘aurora” from the same root.

The “Venerable Bede“, a historian from the 7th century CE, told us a little about the origin of the word “Easter” for the religious holiday in De ratione Temporum, chapter 15:

In olden time the English people — for it did not seem fitting to me that I should speak of other people’s observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s — calculated their months according to the course of the moon. Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans (the months) take their name from the Moon, for the Moon is called mona and the month monath.

The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June, Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blodmonath; December, Giuli, the same name by which January is called. …

Nor is it irrelevant if we take the time to translate the names of the other months. … Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time. Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance. Thrimilchi was so called because in that month the cattle were milked three times a day…

Just how “pagan” the Easter traditions are is a matter of significant dispute, but the name certainly derives from a pagan goddess. Nothing but the name of that goddess is known, though, with some scholars speculating that Eostre may actually have been invented by Bede. Whether the traditions have pagan roots or not, though, the holiday is most certainly a Christian one now.

When Is Easter?

Like I told my son, this is complicated. Catholic Answers says:

On the Gregorian calendar (the one that we use), Easter is the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon, which is the first full moon on or after March 21. Easter thus always falls between March 22 and April 25.

And what’s the Paschal full moon? Well, according to the same source:

Theoretically, the Paschal full moon is the first full moon occurring on or after the spring equinox. However, this day can be reckoned in different ways. One way is by looking at the sky, which yields the astronomical spring equinox. But since this shifts from year to year, most people follow the calendrical spring equinox, which is reckoned as March 21.

Now, the spring equinox in 2016 happens on March 20, and the first full moon after that date is March 23. So, by the astronomical calendar, Easter falls on March 27. Conveniently, in 2016, March 27 is also the first Sunday following the first full moon after March 21. So by either method Easter is March 27, 2016.


The date for Easter has to do with the timing of the Biblical account of the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus celebrated Passover was arrested the same night, and crucified the next day. The Biblical account has him rising from the dead three days later, “after the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week”. The first day of the week, in modern calendars, is Sunday.

Based on this information, the original date of Easter was set at the first Sunday after the start of Passover. Passover, of course, starts on the 15th day of Nisan. According to the Jewish Calendar article on Judaism 101:

The Jewish calendar is based on three astronomical phenomena: the rotation of the Earth about its axis (a day); the revolution of the moon about the Earth (a month); and the revolution of the Earth about the sun (a year)….

The Jewish calendar, however, coordinates all three of these astronomical phenomena. Months are either 29 or 30 days, corresponding to the 29½-day lunar cycle. Years are either 12 or 13 months, corresponding to the 12.4 month solar cycle.

The lunar month on the Jewish calendar begins when the first sliver of moon becomes visible after the dark of the moon.

Nisan is the first month of spring in the Jewish calendar, and so Passover starts on the evening of the 14th day (making it the 15th day in this system). Why? Because Nisan 1 is the new moon, and the full moon is 14 days later. So the early Christian holiday that became Easter started on the first Sunday on or after Nisan 14 – the first Sunday on or after the first full moon following the first new moon of spring.

Clear as mud, right?

So, why is the determination slightly different from the original “first Sunday after Nisan 14” method? Well, Catholic Answers says it best:

Christians didn’t like being dependent on the pronouncements of rabbis for how to celebrate Christian feasts, so they came up with another way of determining the date. They decided that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after (never on) the Paschal full moon.


Saint Patrick

My son loves holidays, something that shouldn’t be surprising to hear. He is, after all, five. So one day, he looks at me and asks “who is Saint Patrick?” I start trying to formulate an answer, and he hits me with more questions before I can respond: “What are his colors? Is he short?”

“What?” I ask, now feeling slightly baffled.

“Why does he get money?”

It takes me a moment to get up to speed. My son, it turns out, thinks Saint Patrick is a leprechaun. And that makes a certain amount of sense, I guess. At least, it does if all you really know about Saint Patrick’s Day is shamrocks and leprechauns and the color green, that is.

To be honest, I don’t know much more than that. Oh, sure, I know there was a historical figure named “Patrick”, and I think he’s the one that brought Christianity to Ireland. Maybe? And he’s said to have driven all of the snakes from Ireland. So, to be honest, I know nothing about him at all.

Who is Saint Patrick?

St Patrick Shamrock Image

Interestingly enough, it turns out that Patrick wrote a memoir, called – in a straight-forward fashion – Confessio. A lot of the Confessio appears to be concerned with his feelings of unworthiness as a sinner, but there are some biographical details. It begins:

My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae[Nota]. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time. At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others.

He goes on to describe how, once he was taken to Ireland, he was a shepherd for six years. He escaped, fled some two hundred miles, and escaped on a boat. Then, “It happened again after many years that I was taken a prisoner.” He doesn’t say a whole lot about that, other than to say that he was a prisoner for 60 days. Finally, he made it home to Bannavem Taburniae, but started having dreams of returning to Ireland once more (presumably not as a slave, though).

The Confessio is, frankly, quite terrible at providing chronological details. For example, Patrick mentions being a Bishop, but gives no context for when that happened. Also, he gives nothing resembling a date for any of these events – the “Notes on the Translation”, however, state that “his arrival in Ireland is often dated as 432, and his death occurring in 461.” His Confessio does, however, verify that he returned to Ireland as a missionary.

Interestingly enough, Patrick was never canonized. According to the “Ask a Fransiscan”:

St. Patrick died around 461 A.D. The first saint formally canonized by the pope—for which we have a record, anyway—was St. Ulrich, bishop of Augsburg, Germany, in the year 993.

For most of Christianity’s first 1,000 years, canonizations were done on the diocesan or regional level. Relatively soon after very holy people died, the local Church affirmed that they could be liturgically celebrated as saints.

That was the case with St. Patrick, whose feast has not been dropped from the Church’s universal calendar. Because it usually falls on a weekday during Lent, the opening prayer at Mass can be for St. Patrick, but everything else comes from the Lenten weekday prayers.

If St. Patrick is the patron of a diocese or a parish, the feast can be celebrated with greater solemnity. If March 17 falls on a Sunday, the feast is not observed liturgically that year. Patrick’s admirers find many other ways to celebrate!

What was Patrick the saint of?

According to, Patrick is the Patron Saint of engineers, Ireland, and Nigeria. Which leads to two questions: why engineers, and why Nigeria?

  • says that he’s the Patron Saint of engineers because he “introduced some elements of Roman Technology to Ireland and was responsible for the initial construction of clay churches, featuring arches.”
  • As far as Nigeria is concerned, the New World Encyclopedia says that “Nigeria was evangelized primarily by Irish missionaries and priests from Saint Patrick’s Missionary Society known as the Kiltegan Missionaries.”

Are there colors associated with him??

Green, and sometimes red, are the colors associated with Saint Patrick’s iconography in the Middle Ages and later. Specifically, these were the colors associated with his chausable. Clearly, in modern times, he’s far more associated with green than red.


This is yet another of those questions I don’t quite remember the context for. I do recall that – around St. Patrick’s Day last year – his preschool did a thing where the teachers messed up the classroom while the kids were out on the playground, and then told all of the children that a leprechaun messed the room up. The kids then made “leprechaun traps”, which they set out overnight. The next day there were no leprechauns in the traps, but each one had a “gold coin” (really a chocolate coin” in it.

My son was enamored, and I suspect that set off the following questions.

“How small is a leprechaun?” he asked.

“They’re small,” I said, holding my hand a foot or so off the floor. “ABout so big.”

“Are mice their friends?”

That left me nonplussed. I’ve read a whole lot of myths and fairy tales in my time, but nothing about leprechauns that I remember. Certainly nothing about leprechauns that included mice.

What is a Leprechaun?


The exact definition of a leprechaun is, well, it’s not precisely exact. It’s not like we can subject them to DNA analysis to determine where they fit in the phylogenetic tree, after all. However, in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, W. B. Yeats classifies them among the “solitary fairies” – one of a group of fairies that live a solitary lifestyle and are distinct from the gregarious “trooping faeries”. He says:

“The name Lepracaun,” Mr. Douglas Hyde writes to me, “is from the Irish leith brog–i.e., the One-shoemaker, since he is generally seen working at a single shoe. It is spelt in Irish leith bhrogan, or leith phrogan, and is in some places pronounced Luchryman, as O’Kearney writes it in that very rare book, the Feis Tigh Chonain.”

The Lepracaun, Cluricaun, and Far Darrig. Are these one spirit in different moods and shapes? Hardly two Irish writers are agreed. In many things these three fairies, if three, resemble each other. They are withered, old, and solitary, in every way unlike the sociable spirits of the first sections. They dress with all unfairy homeliness, and are, indeed, most sluttish, slouching, jeering, mischievous phantoms. They are the great practical jokers among the good people.

The Lepracaun makes shoes continually, and has grown very rich. Many treasure-crocks, buried of old in war-time, has he now for his own. In the early part of this century, according to Croker, in a newspaper office in Tipperary, they used to show a little shoe forgotten by a Lepracaun.

The Cluricaun, (Clobhair-ceann, in O’Kearney) makes himself drunk in gentlemen’s cellars. Some suppose he is merely the Lepracaun on a spree. He is almost unknown in Connaught and the north.

The Far Darrig (fear dearg), which means the Red Man, for he wears a red cap and coat, busies himself with practical joking, especially with gruesome joking. This he does, and nothing else.

Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde, writing in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland repeats Yeats’ etymology, stating that “Leprehaun, or Leith Brogan. means the “Artisan of the Brogue.””. This meaning is generally regarded as “folk etymology“, in which unknown words are replaced by a more familiar word. Modern linguists trace the meaning of leprechaun from the Irish lupracan, which comes from the Old Irish luchorpan, meaning “a very small body”. That word comes from the Proto-Indo-European *legwh- (“having little weight”) plus corpan (a diminutive of corp “body”).

In other words, leprechauns are solitary shoemakers with an inordinate amount of wealth, who sometimes go on benders and sometimes play gruesome practical jokes.  The “red cap” thing is particularly disturbing, because it brings the Scottish Redcap to mind.  And nobody needs an iron-shod lunatic dying their hat in human blood as a cobbler.

Wait, shoes?

Yeah, shoes. Despite the word “leprechaun” meaning something along the lines of “small body”, leprechauns are kind of like the elves in the Irish version of The Shoemaker and the Elves. Except that they live by themselves, wear clothes, and don’t make shoes for humans. But they were worth looking out for anyway. As Lady Wilde put it, “the Leprehauns knew all the secret places where gold lay hid”. If you were clever and quick enough to catch one, you could get them to bargain their gold for their freedom.

You had to be careful with trying to get gold out of a Leprechaun, though – they don’t appear to have minded you trying to get their gold, but they loathed bad manners. Like all fairies, to quote Lady Wilde again, “the Leprehauns can be bitterly malicious if they are offended, and one should he very cautious in dealing with them, and always treat them with great civility, or they will take revenge and never reveal the secret of the hidden gold.”

What about the rainbows?

I found one source for a story involving leprechauns and rainbows. It was on the web site of a local news station in Washington state, though, so I can’t vouch for how authentic it is. It’s the story of a poor husband and wife, and the leprechaun who promises to grant them a single wish. The couple argues about what they should wish for. The leprechaun gets disgusted with their behavior and says “For this, I will not grant any wish of yours. But, since you are in need, I will give you a hint. I have hidden a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. All you have to do is find it.”

The Oxford Dictionaries says that “at the end of the rainbow” is used to refer to “something much sought after but impossible to attain”, so that would make sense in the context of a leprechaun hiding wealth (and in the context of the story).

So how small are they? And are mice their friends?

This is tricky at best. Lady Wilde describes them as “little” and able “to sit under the hedge” and “under a dock leaf”. I couldn’t find any specifics on the gap beneath a British hedge, but I did learn that “dock” is Rumex obtusfiolius, a plant that grows between 20 and 51 inches (50 and 130 cm). So that gives us a leprechaun height between 10 inches and two feet.

Sadly, I can’t find anything about whether or not they are friends with mice.