Random Musing: A look at some Christmas traditions

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Christmas tree

Today is Christmas (at least it still is in some time zones), a holiday associated with a variety of traditions. let’s look at some of them.

The holiday itself can be traced to the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, a week-long carnival which culminated with the winter solstice. In 350, Pope Julius I decided to make December 25 the date that Jesus’ birthday would be celebrated, in part to supersede Saturnalia, and in part because various other religious traditions already associated that time of year with the birth or rebirth of a god.

Dec. 25 isn’t universally embraced as Christmas day, however. Members of Eastern Orthodox churches will celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, the day after Catholics celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, when the three wise men were believed to have visited the baby Jesus.

What about decorating Christmas trees? In The Book of Christmas Folklore (1973), Tristram P. Coffin writes that one legend dates the custom to the 8th century Germany. Seems St. Bonifice dedicated a fir tree to Jesus, to rebut the sacred oak of Odin.

In Europe, the first Christmas Tree was raised in Strasbourg in 1604. Princess Helen of Mecklenburg then brought the custom to France in 1837. It subsequently came to England in 1844; and to the U.S. with German immigrants. However, it didn’t gain national recognition until President Pierce decorated the White House with a Christmas tree in 1856.

And then there’s Santa, for whom millions of children eagerly wait each year. His association with Christmas followed a circuitous route. One legend states that Santa evolved from St. Nicholas, a 4th century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. Martin Ebon relates in his 1975 book St. Nicholas, Life and Legend, a popular story that before becoming a priest, Nicholas anonymously threw bags of gold through the window of a penniless, widowed nobleman who feared he would have to sell his teenage daughters into either slavery or prostitution.

On the other hand, B.A. Robinson, writing at http://mail.religioustolerance.org/santa1.htm#, says some religious historians and folklore experts argue that Nicholas never existed— that his life story combines legends attributed to the Greek god Poseidon, the Roman god Neptune and the Teutonic god Hold Nickar.

Robinson also identifies similarities between St. Nicholas and “The Grandmother” or “Befana” from Italy, who put gifts in children’s stockings.

Robinson also writes that by the 19th century, Nicholas had been superseded in much of Europe by Christkindlein, the Christ child, who secretly delivered children’s gifts accompanied by a dwarf-like helper called either Pelznickel or Belsnickle, or with persons similar to St. Nicholas. In time all three amalgamated into the familiar image of Santa, while “Christkindlein” became “Kriss Kringle.”

The name Santa Claus— or Sinta Claes— is said to be Dutch in origin, However, Ebon cites Dr. Charles W. Jones’ article in the Oct. 1954 issue of the New York Historical Society Quarterly as stating that there is no reference to Santa Claus during the Dutch rule of New Amsterdam (New York). Instead, he identifies the first such reference as occurring in 1773, with an item in the Rivington’s Gazetteer.

Ebon argues that Jones was saying that “St. Nicholas” was an anti-British symbol adopted by the colonists known as the Sons of St. Nicholas, and not meant to be taken seriously.

While Thomas Nast— who illustrated Christmas issues of Harper’s Weekly between the 1860s and the 1890s— and Haddon Sundblom— who drew a series of Santa images in Coca-Cola Christmas advertisements between 1931 and 1964— are most often credited with creating the modern image of Santa— including his reindeer and sleigh— Ebon includes both Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore in that company.

Irving’s 1809 satirical history of New York, “From The Beginning of the World To the End of The Dutch Dynasty” contained 25 references to St. Nicholas. Moore is credited with writing the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in 1822. It also names eight of Santa’s reindeer.

According to Robinson, however, some credit Moore’s contemporary, Henry Livingston, Jr. as the poem’s author.

Rudolph, “the most famous reindeer of all” (as the 1949 song, written by Johnny Marks and recorded by Gene Autry, goes), first appears in 1939. He was conceived by Robert L. May for Montgomery Ward’s advertising department. Rudolph’s creation, Coffin argues, was the one significant addition to the legend since Francis Church’s Sept. 21, 1897 “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” editorial in the New York Sun.

The editorial replied to 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter asking if Santa were real. According to the story, Virginia stated that her father told her if something were written in the Sun, it was true.

Copyright 2013 Patrick Keating

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