The other night I watched one of my favorite Christmas movies —Miracle on 34th Street, starring Edmund Gwenn (who won an Academy Award for his role as Santa Claus), Maureen O’Hara, and a very young and precocious Natalie Wood.
With all the hubbub on FOX News, and in particular The O’Reilly Factor, about traditional Christmas values, I found it interesting that there were absolutely no religious connotations in this heartwarming and very traditional Christmas movie—none. There was a brief two and a half minute scene referencing Christmas commercialism, but other than that, religion or the birth of Christ wasn’t even obliquely mentioned.
I was brought up Roman Catholic, and the good sisters of St. Celestine grade school made it abundantly clear from kindergarten on that Christmas was about the birth of our Savior; it was not about Santa Claus.
Nevertheless, Santa, reindeer and gifts under the tree were woven into the rich tapestry of our neighborhood culture. So I thought it might be interesting to determine just who Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, jolly old “St. Nick,” Father Christmas and the like, really are.
A quick search through cyberspace reveals the following, albeit with a more than a few inconsistencies: In the United States, Santa Claus first began appearing among the Pennsylvania Dutch in the mid 1820s in the form of Kris Kringle—but then he was also known in some circles as Belsnickle, a derivative of the German “Pelz-nickle,”—meaning “Nicholas in Furs.”
However, while Nicholas in Furs shares the same name as Saint Nicholas, the original St. Nickolas was in actuality the Bishop of Myra. He lived in Turkey some fourteen hundred years earlier, and later emerged in the popular culture as Santa Claus, Saint Nick, Sinter Klaus, and various other (lesser-known) monikers.
Meanwhile, Father Christmas seems to have first made his appearance on an enchanted white horse (a far cry from a red-nosed reindeer) flying over the houses of London on Christmas Eve.
FC, as he was known in those days, was usually seen with a wreath of holly atop his head and a long green robe on his stout frame and was the embodiment of the jovial Christmas cheer embraced by England in the 19th century. This personification was reflected in the “Spirit of Christmas Present” as depicted by Charles Dickens in his famous story, A Christmas Carol.
While one can find dozens of versions for each of these characters, the common thread seems to be that each was always a kindly old man who gives gifts to others, especially children, during the Christmas season.
Now that I’ve thoroughly muddled the origins of Santa Claus, let’s take a quick look at the origins of Christmas cards. But before embarking on that disquisition, we must first make a distinction between Christmas cards and Christmas tomes—the latter being the two and three-page letters inserted into Christmas cards recapping an entire year’s events, including a compilation of every family member’s achievements during the preceding twelve months.
Interestingly enough, Christmas cards actually started as letters sent from school children to their families around the holidays (could the tome-writers be the REAL traditionalists?). Nevertheless, Christmas cards as we know them today weren’t widely used until the 1840s.
The first cards printed specifically for use at Christmas featured the greeting, “A Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You,”—so perhaps O’Reilly is right after all—no “Happy Holidays” back in the “good old” days.
However, while Americans were mailing Christmas cards in the mid 1800s, they had to import them from Europe. That changed in 1875 when a German immigrant published the first line of U.S. Christmas cards, which spawned an entire industry to the delight of the U.S. Postal Service.
And speaking of holiday industries, where did Christmas trees come from? Like most traditions, Christmas trees have a number of different sources of origin. One has it that during the Dark Ages in Germany the pagans would perform sacrifices at the foot of a tree to Thor, the god of thunder.
But as Europe became more Christianized, many of the pagan customs were co-opted and made Christian. It is highly likely that the ritual pagan tree was combined with the Christian story of the Tree of Life from Genesis, as December 24th was often celebrated as Adam and Eve’s Day.
On an historical note, the city of Riga, Latvia is said to have made the first documented use of a decorated evergreen tree in 1510. According to legend, the tree was decorated with paper ornaments and was set on fire after a ceremony. However, it wasn’t until the late 1820s that Christmas trees became commonplace after Charles Dickens’ publication of A Christmas Carol, when their popularity exploded.
Since the mean ol’ Grinch, aka the editor, limits the number of words I can use in these commentaries, I’m preempted from exploring other Christmas traditions such as Christmas caroling, Yule logs and mistletoe (which is also known as the “vampire plant”) and will save those for next year.
In the meantime, I will use my final allotment of words to wish each of you the Happiest of Holidays AND the Merriest of Christmases.