I think Christmas is everyone’s favorite time of year, especially a white Christmas! Right?! Even shopping has begun in earnest, just the day after Thanksgiving. But, many of our current holiday traditions either changed dramatically or began only in the 19th century. Writing in the “Broader View Weekly” local newspaper in December 2012, I explored the origins of many of our American Christmas traditions, and how others celebrated around the world.
December 6th is a day my/our Dutch ancestors would have celebrated Saint Nicholas Day, part of traditional European Christmas celebrations for centuries. The Dutch word “Sinterklaas” for Saint Nicholas is considered the origin of our American “Santa Claus” with Washington Irving and Clement C. Moore helping to make him who he is today. The earliest writing in America of a figure resembling our modern Santa can be found in Washington Irving’s satire of Dutch culture. In “History of New York” published in 1809, Irving writes in chapter IX: "At this early period…hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St. Nicholas eve…is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children."
Clement C. Moore immortalized St. Nicholas in “’Twas The Night Before Christmas.” In this ode to St. Nick, he appears on December 24th, Christmas Eve in America, not the original St. Nicholas Eve of December 5th in Europe. Moore’s poem, published anonymously in a Troy, New York newspaper on December 23, 1823, promotes a new appearance to the original lean St. Nicholas: “He had a broad face and a little round belly…He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…[with a] "sleigh full of Toys" [and] "eight tiny reindeer…[as] Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound." The two original reindeer names of Donder and Blixem were later changed to Donner and Blitzen. Once again, the Dutch influence in the former New Netherlands was involved as “donder” means thunder and “bliksem” means lightning.
While Irving and Moore both present the jolly gift giver as Saint Nicholas, political cartoonist Thomas Nast is considered the first to refer to “Santa Claus” in his illustration for the January 3, 1863 edition of “Harpers Weekly.” President Lincoln had requested that Nast depict St. Nicholas visiting the Union troops. Nast’s illustration shows Santa Claus sitting on his sleigh at a U.S. Army camp, handing out gifts in front of a “Welcome Santa Claus” sign.
Another treasured tradition of our modern Christmas is Charles Dickens’ short story, “A Christmas Carol,” written as a commentary on the greed of Victorian England. Available in book stores the week before Christmas 1843, it sold very well, never being out of print since. Scrooge has the distinction of being one of the most well-known literary characters. But, what do we care… Bah, humbug!
Our decorated Christmas tree comes from German traditions with Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert putting up the first decorated tree at Windsor Castle in 1841. Based on illustrations of this event published in America in 1849, Christmas trees then became fashionable on this side of the “pond.” Small candles were used to light the tree, with popcorn and cranberry strings typically used for decoration.
From the religious aspect, Christmas celebrations differed in many ways based on national origin I found it interesting to learn that Christmas celebrations were outlawed in Boston by the Puritans in the mid to late 17th century with fines for violations, while the Johnstown, Virginia settlers enjoyed their merry celebrations under Capt. John Smith. After the American Revolution, Americans looked down on English traditions, including Christmas. Apparently, Congress was even in session on December 25, 1789! In fact, Christmas did not become a federal holiday until Congress declared it such on June 26, 1870.
By the late 19th century, celebrating Christmas was made popular through children’s books and women’s magazines. Church Sunday School classes began encouraging celebrations, and families were decorating Christmas trees with everyone “knowing” Santa Claus delivered gifts on Christmas Eve, traditions which have been carried on into the 21st century.
Other popular traditions we all look forward to include decorating our homes and trees, baking scrumptious special treats, singing carols, and either making or shopping for just the right gift for each special person on our list. But, alas, the years have also taken a simple celebration in honor of Jesus’ birth and made it into a highly marketed holiday, one often filled with ostentatious materialism. Personally, I prefer to step back to the simpler traditions of my Dutch ancestry and childhood home, one without “all the trappings” and media frenzy.
With my dad being a first generation Dutch-American, we veered from Dutch tradition in some ways. We maintained Christmas Day with a morning church service and a big family dinner; but, our gift-giving was held the Saturday before Christmas, not the Dutch traditional day of December 5. My first and last adoration of Santa Claus came the Christmas I was 5 years old when Santa visited my grandparents in Clifton, New Jersey. We three little granddaughters shyly sat on his lap to share our wants. Afterwards, my grandmother took us to an upstairs window to watch Santa and his reindeer leave. All I saw was a car with red tail lights driving away between the snowbanks. At that moment, I was crushed and disillusioned, and just knew there was absolutely no Santa Claus because, despite dressing the part, he did not have a sleigh and reindeer!
After all, everyone’s favorite reindeer is Rudolph with his nose so bright! Supposedly written by Robert L. May for his daughter when her mother was dying of cancer, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was actually written in 1939 for his employer, Montgomery Ward, as a Christmas book given out free to customers. Though May’s wife did die around the time he wrote the story, he read it to his 4-year-old daughter as he worked on it simply to ensure it held a child’s interest. With memories of his own childhood, May decided on a tale with roots in “The Ugly Duckling” and the taunts he had suffered as a child. Poor Rudolph was ostracized by other reindeer for being different, having an obvious physical abnormality… a glowing red nose. No one else had one! Regardless of his defect, Rudolph thrived under his parents’ love, overcame his disability and the taunts to became a responsible young deer! And then one foggy night, Santa noticed how Rudolph’s nose shone through the dark, and asked him to lead the team of reindeer pulling his sleigh on Christmas Eve! How excited and honored Rudolph must have felt! http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/rudolph.asp
We’ve all been blessed with special Christmas memories over the years. While visiting my mom at Elderwood, she shared that her mother had always put up and decorated a large Christmas tree in their front parlor. It was a big change for her to learn that her new husband was not so inclined to such ostentatious displays due to his more austere Dutch upbringing. With limited decorations and no trees until my mid teens when my dad finally gave in to the pleading of his six kids, I have found it difficult to step out of that mold. Yet, I have enjoyed putting up a tree with lights and decorations when our three children were young. And now, since my mother-in-law gave me her ceramic tree the Christmas before she passed away, I am honored to share her generosity in this smaller and simpler display.
My favorite Christmas memory was when my husband, Ed, farmed with his dad. With finances tight, I usually sewed clothes for all of us. But, one year I also made doll beds for each of our children by taking free soda boxes from the local grocery store, gluing the bottoms together, and covering them with wood-grain contact paper. My step-mother gave our three children a Cabbage-Patch type girl or boy doll she had made, while my grandmother sewed clothes and blankets for each doll. And our kids could not have been happier!
Our local churches do not have a Christmas morning service like Ed and I grew up with, though we have enjoyed the local Christmas Eve candlelight services and singing of favorite carols. We also began a tradition of reading the Christmas story with our children before they opened gifts on Christmas morning.
And another favorite of our family has been the TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by Charles M. Schulz. With the busy holiday shopping extravaganza and commercialization, I think we sometimes lose a little of the wonder of that very first Christmas.
“Narrator: It was finally Christmastime, the best time of the year. The houses were strung with tiny colored lights, their windows shining with a warm yellow glow only Christmas could bring. The scents of pine needles and hot cocoa mingled together, wafting through the air, and the sweet sounds of Christmas carols could be heard in the distance. Fluffy white snowflakes tumbled from the sky onto a group of joyful children as they sang and laughed, skating on the frozen pond in town. Everyone was happy and full of holiday cheer. That is, everyone except for Charlie Brown…”
“Charlie (to Linus): ‘I think there must be something wrong with me. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel…’”
“Later, after a day of frustrations, Charlie says: ‘I guess you were right Linus; I shouldn’t have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I don’t really know what Christmas is about. Isn’t there anyone who understands what Christmas is all about?’”
“Linus: ‘Sure, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.’ [Walking to the center of the stage, Linus speaks:] ‘And there were in the same country Shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone ‘round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not! For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger.’ And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.’” [Luke 2:8-14]
And, for me and my family, that’s what Christmas is all about… Merry Christmas to all!