Friday, December 16, 2005

Christmas Eve, 1862, by Thomas Nast: a family apart and nation apart. Look for Santa and his reindeer at the top.

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

Thursday, December 08, 2005

St. Nick before he became chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.

Happy Holidays

From "Wake the Echoes," Kingston Times, December 8, 2005:
There is a campaign underway to “restore Christmas” to the national retailers who, sensitive to our nation’s diverse religious and cultural traditions, have frequently substituted “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” for narrowly Christian felicitations in this month of the equinox. The American Family Association is leading a boycott of Target for not using “Merry Christmas” in its advertising. Bill O’Reilly — the Fox anchor who so amused the judge hearing the case by suing Al Franken for stealing his words “fair” and “balanced” — returns to the linguistic fray, offering on his website a chart of stores that use the phrase “Happy Holidays,” along with a poll that asks, “Will you shop at stores that do not say ‘Merry Christmas’?”

This red-state vision of a liberal Grinch is silly stuff, of course. It was not so long ago that clerics overwhelmingly disapproved of how America had “taken the Christ out of Christmas” to make the birthday of the Savior into the economy’s savior. Now our corkscrew friends on the right are hell-bent on reuniting Christ with commerce.

Their attempt to impose homogeneity on our country’s December festivities is a little late, as Christmas is but one of many holidays associated with the harvest or the solstice. In fact, just as the Jesus of legend is a composite of other savior heroes, from Horus to Tammuz to Dionysus and more — Dionysus was born of Zeus and the virgin Semele; Horus was born to the virgin Isis-Meri on December 25 in a cave or a manger; Tammuz was born to the virgin Mylitta in a cave on December 25 — Christmas is an amalgamation of pagan festivals. Unmentioned in the New Testament and invented a good deal later, Christmas has been from its onset more a secular and political celebration than a religious one.

So maybe the red-staters are right to storm the barricades by decking the hall at the mall ...

Them’s fightin’ words to some, I recognize, so let me recount briefly how Christmas came to be our nation’s principal holiday, one so powerful that it transformed the way American Jews celebrated Hanukkah, sparked a new African-American holiday in Kwanzaa, and provoked nonbelievers to institutionalize the Seinfeldian anti-Christmas of Festivus. In the second part of this story, next week, we will focus on the two New Yorkers who created Santa Claus as the world knows him today — Washington Irving and Thomas Nast. But first let’s trace the early evolution of the infant Jesus, St. Nicholas, and Christmas itself from ancient times to the New World.

Contemporary scholars, working from textual evidence in the Bible, astronomical charts, and supporting historical documents — including such documented events as the tax decree of Caesar Augustus, the death of Herod, a lunar eclipse in 4 BCE and the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces in 7 BCE—offer a birthdate for Jesus as early as April 17 (why, they ask, would shepherds be herding in the middle of winter?), or as late as September 15, in either 5, 6 or 7 BCE. (Yes, paradoxically, Christ was born before the Christian era.)

The Magi would have arrived at the inn at Bethlehem with their presents for the Christ child on the day the star stopped over that town—by modern calculation, December 1 in the year 7 BCE. In today’s Greek and Russian orthodox churches, however, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day, for it is believed to be the day that the three wise men found Jesus in the manger. Unanswered in all Christian scenarios is whether Jesus was a newborn in December or January, or a child of six to eight months, as historians think more likely.

It was Pope Julius I (with a reign of 337 to his death in 352) who chose December 25, almost certainly in an effort to co-opt the still robust pagan festival of the Saturnalia. In Rome, slaves would become masters for a week and peasants were in command of the city. Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast accompanied by gift-giving — particularly clay dolls — that honored the empire’s children. Likewise early Church leaders, unable to stamp out the widespread pagan “Yule” (midwinter) customs in the Celtic and Teutonic regions, pragmatically put a Christian spin on them.

Isaac Newton observed that “the heathen were delighted with the festivals of their gods, and unwilling to part with these ceremonies,” and that the Church, “to facilitate their conversion, instituted annual festivals to the Saints and Martyrs: hence the keeping of Christmas with ivy, feasting, plays and sports came in the room of the Bacchanalia and Saturnalia; the celebration of May Day with flowers in the room of the Floralia; and the festival of the Virgin, John the Baptist, and the divers apostles in the room of the solemnities at the entrance of the sun into the signs of the zodiac in the old Julian calendar.”

The end of December was when fresh meat was plentiful as most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter; also, most wine and beer made in the fall was fully fermented and ready for drinking. By placing the Feast of the Nativity, as Christmas was first called, at the same time as traditional winter solstice observances, Church leaders increased the chances that their new holiday would be popularly embraced (Easter was the high holy day of the early Christian era; the birth of Jesus was not marked). However, they had no control over how it was to be celebrated. By the Middle Ages, even though Christianity had largely replaced paganism, on Christmas believers attended church, then celebrated in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today's Mardi Gras. In an original Christmas tradition that survives as Halloween’s trick or treat, the poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. Not only was an inversion of the natural order in which the rich had to answer to the poor a key element of pagan festivities, it was later invoked by the Church as an argument against gambling — that in its redistribution of wealth it inspired pagan sentiments.

Now on to St. Nicholas, whose historicity underwent a similar makeover to that of Jesus. Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna lived in what is now Turkey in the 4th century A.D. The legend came down over the years that that he was rich, generous, and so loving toward children that he would anonymously throw gifts in through their windows. The unsanitized story, though, was that Nicholas threw gold into the window of a pious but impoverished Christian so that he could provide his three daughters with dowries; the father had been had been ready to sell them into prostitution to support the rest of his household. The life of St. Nicholas, listing all his miracles, was recorded by Methodius, Bishop of Constantinople, in 842, and about a decade later the clergy of Cologne Cathedral were commemorating the saint’s death day (the feast day of December 6) by giving fruit and cookies to the boys of the cathedral school.

Nicholas became patron saint of a motley crew: seamen, merchants, archers, children, prostitutes, lawyers, pawnbrokers, prisoners, pharmacists, the city of Amsterdam and the whole of Mother Russia. He came to the New World in 1626 as the figurehead on the Dutch ship Goede Vrouw (Good Wife). The seafarers named their village Niuew Amsterdam, celebrated Kerstrydt (Christmas), and erected a statue in the square to St. Nick. (Even today, Sinterklaas or Sint Nicolaas) celebrations in the Netherlands on December 6 feature the arrival of St. Nick, or Sint, on a steamer from Spain, accompanied by his helpers the Zwarte Pieten, or Black Peters, who are sooty from going down chimneys and because they are Moors. A fragment from a poem of the Middle Ages attests to the antiquity of this tradition: “Ride he may to Amsterdam, / From Amsterdam to Spain / Put your finest tabard on, / So may you ride to Spain / With little apples from Orange.” The Pieten would climb on the roofs and shinny down the chimneys while Sint stayed on his white horse atop the roof and tells them which child has been good or bad. Accordingly, the Pieten would bring the children toys to play with or switches to be beaten with.)

The Puritans, who had preceded the Dutch by landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620, took the Bible as their sole inspiration for religious truth, and as the birthdate of Jesus was nowhere to be found, they declined to observe what they saw as an illegitimate celebration. On Christmas the church was closed and the able-bodied were set to work. In 1621 Governor Bradford wrote in his diary of a confrontation with some young men who wished to mark the day as a holiday:

One ye day called the Christmas-day, ye Govr called them out to worke, (as was used), but ye most of this new-company excused them selves and said it wente against their consciences to work on ye day. So ye Govr tould them that if they made it mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away ye rest and left them; but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in ye streete at play, openly; some pitching ye barr, & some at stoole-ball, and schuch like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and tould them that was against his conscience, that they should play & others worke. If they made ye keeping of it mater of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but ther should be no gameing or revelling in ye streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly.

In 1651 the State of Massachusetts made all observation of Christmas, “by forbearing of labor, feasting or in any other way,” a crime. But the English, who likewise banned it and the Dutch version of St. Nicholas upon their wresting control of New Amsterdam and renaming it New York, later came to accept the pleasures of the festival of the saint on December 6th, but with no connection to Christmas. As late as 1855, New York newspapers reported that Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches were closed on December 25 because “they do not accept the day as a Holy One.”

But the tide had begun to turn against the naysayers in 1804, when the New-York Historical Society was founded with Nicholas as its patron saint. In 1809 Washington Irving revived St. Nicholas in his History of New-York by “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” describing the figurehead on the ship Goede Vrouw, as being ...”equipped with a low brimmed hat, huge pair of Flemish hose and a pipe that reached to the end of the bowsprit....” When Irving became a member of the Society the following year, the annual St. Nicholas Day dinner festivities included a woodcut of the traditional Nicholas figure (tall, with long robes) accompanied by a Dutch rhyme about “Sancte Claus.”

Next week, Irving, Nast, Clement Moore ... and more, up to the present day.

--John Thorn