Friday, December 16, 2005

Happy Holidays, Part II

From "Wake the Echoes," Kingston Times, December 15, 2005:
Last week we established that Christmas is a Mister Potato Head reconstruction of older holidays, traditions, and even birthday celebrants. The Puritans banned it and the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists closed their churches on December 25 to signal their disapproval of this clandestine celebration of ancient Rome’s Saturnalia. Even the ubiquitous tree and church decorations at Christmas have their roots in the Saturnalian greening of the temple (in old church calendars, Christmas Eve is marked Templa exornantur — churches are decked).

Far from the remembered cry of “restoring Christ to Christmas,” or the current bandwagon to restore Christmas to seasonal marketing, the Colonial period in America was marked by a widespread revulsion against the holiday’s grafted origins and its wintry wantonness, as if Oliver Cromwell ruled the New World. The abstemious tract author Hezekiah Woodward had written thus of Christmas in 1656: “The old heathens’ Feasting Day, in honor of Saturn, their Idol-God, the Papists’ Massing Day, the Profane Man’s Ranting Day, the Superstitious Man’s Idol Day, the Multitudes’ Idle Day, Satan’s — that Adversary’s — Working Day, the True Christian Man’s Fasting Day....”

All this began to turn with the century, as the former colonies directed their vitriol against not Christmas but John Bull. Still needing heroes and traditions, however, New Yorkers especially reflected on their region’s Dutch heritage, older than that of the English, more tolerant and fun-loving. In 1804 the New-York Historical Society was founded with Nicholas as its patron saint. Five years later Washington Irving, as “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” went a step further, reinventing St. Nick to become the prototypical American Santa Claus. (Coincidentally, ten years later Irving would transplant the German legend of Peter Claus to the Catskills, rename its protagonist Rip Van Winkle, and reinvent the Hudson Valley.)

Irving’s History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty was published on St. Nicholas Day, December 6, 1809. In it he made dozens of references to a pipe-smoking elf who brings gifts down chimneys. Describing the love of the Dutch for Saint Nicholas, Irving wrote:

And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream – and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees in that selfsame wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children; and he came and descended hard by where the heroes of Communipaw had made their late repast. And the shrews Van Kortlandt know him by his broad hat, his long pipe, and the resemblance which he bore of the bow of the Goede Vrouw. And he lit his pipe by the fire and he sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air and spread like a cloud overhead.... And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then mounting his wagon he returned over the tree tops and disappeared. (Book II, Chapter V)

The phrase “laying his finger beside his nose” would reappear soon enough. Irving’s Diedrich Knickerbocker further observed:

... in the sylvan days of New Amsterdam the good St. Nicholas would often make his appearance in his beloved city of a holiday afternoon, riding jollily among the tree tops or over the roofs of the houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites. Whereas in these degenerate days of iron and bass he never shows us the light of his countenance nor ever visits us, save one night in the year; when he rattles down the chimneys of the descendants of the patriarchs, confining his presents merely to the children in token of the degeneracy of the parents. (Book III, Chapter II)

Finally, the ironist contrasted the Peter Stuyvesant years with those of Anglicized New York:

The good old Dutch festivals, those periodical demonstrations of an overflowing heart and a thankful spirit, which are falling into sad disuse among my fellow citizens, were faithfully observed in the mansion of Governor Stuyvesant. New Year was truly a day of open-handed liberality, of jocund revelry and warm-hearted congratulation—when the bosom seemed to swell with genial good-fellowship — and the plenteous table was attended with an unceremonious freedom and honest broad-mouthed merriment, unknown in these days of degeneracy and refinement. Paas and Pinxter [Easter and Whitsuntide] were scrupulously observed throughout his dominions; nor was the day of St. Nicholas suffered to pass by without making presents, hanging the stocking in the chimney, and complying with all its other ceremonies. (Book VII, Chapter IX)

In 1821 William B. Gilley of New York published a sixteen-page booklet titled A New Year’s Present for the Little Ones from Five to Twelve, Part III was published with eight wood engravings. Sold for 25 cents colored and 18 cents plain, it was the first work to depict a fur-clad Santa Claus in a sleigh drawn by (a single?) reindeer. The booklet’s author is unknown but is worthy of credit:

Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night,
O’er chimney tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.
The steady friend of virtuous youth,
The friend of duty, and of truth,
Each Christmas eve he joys to come
Where love and peace have made their home.
Through many houses he has been,
And various beds and stockings seen;
Some, white as snow, and neatly mended,
Others, that seem’d for pigs intended.
Where e’er I found good girls or boys,
That hated quarrels, strife and noise,
I left an apple, or a tart,
Or wooden gun, or painted cart;
To some I have a pretty doll,
To some a peg-top, or a ball;
No crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets,
To blow their eyes up, or their pockets.
No drums to stun their Mother’s ear,
Nor swords to make their sisters fear;
But pretty books to store their mind
With knowledge of each various kind.
But where I found the children naughty,
In manners rude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,
I left a long, black, birchen rod.
Such as the dread command of God
Directs a Parent’s hand to use
When virtue’s path his sons refuse.

On Christmas Eve of 1822 another New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore, is said to have read to his children a series of verses; the poem was published anonymously a year later in the Troy, New York Sentinel as “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” It is more commonly known today by its opening line, “‘Twas the night before Christmas.” In 1837 Moore claimed authorship, but today there is reason to believe that the real poet may have been Henry Livingston, Jr., of Poughkeepsie. In either event, the poet gave St. Nick eight reindeer (and named them all), and he devised the now-familiar entrance by chimney. This Nicholas was still a tiny figure, however, like Irving’s — the poem describes a “miniature sleigh” with a “little old driver.”

The finishing touch to Santa Claus as we know him today was provided by Thomas Nast, the Bavarian-born caricaturist famous for bringing the Boss Tweed Ring to heel with his scathing illustrations for Harpers Weekly. His biographer Albert Bigelow Paine recorded that to the boyish Nast had come “the German Santa Claus, Pelze-Nicol, leading a child dressed as the Christkind, and distributing toys and cakes, or switches, according as the parents made report. It was this Pelze-Nicol — a fat, fur-clad, bearded old fellow, at whose hands he doubtless received many benefits — that the boy in later years was to present to us as his conception of the true Santa Claus....” Nast supplied such enduring details as Santa’s workshop at the North Pole (although reindeer could hardly have grazed there, so maybe the workshop was really in Finnish Lapland) and Santa’s list of the good and bad children of the world.

Surely among the best children in the world was one Virginia O’Hanlon of 115 West Ninety-Fifth Street in New York City. Her letter to the editor of the New York Sun, and his fervent reply, are as fresh today as when they were first printed on September 21, 1897. Virginia had written:

Dear Editor,
I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”
Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

Francis Pharcellus Church at first “bristled and pooh-poohed the subject,” wrote Edward P. Mitchell, his editor in chief, “but took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk.” Church replied on the editorial page that day, and his reply was reprinted annually for the remaining fifty-two years of The Sun’s life:

We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus? Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Sinterklass, Sint Nicolaas, or Sancteclaus; Jesus, Horus, Dionysus, or Tammuz; September 15, December 6, or December 25; Saturnalia, Feast of the Nativity, or Multitudes’ Idle Day; Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa.

Happy holidays to all.

--John Thorn


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