THE ORIGIN OF AMERICAN CHRISTMAS MYTH AND CUSTOMS
B. K. Swartz, Jr.
In 1951 I took a course on American History from Professor Sooren Frankian at Los Angeles City College. When the Christmas holiday season came around he abandoned his regular presentation and gave a lecture on the origin of Christmas customs. Thirty years later, in the Christmas season of 1981, the idea of giving a special Christmas lecture to my introductory archaeology class at Ball State University intrigued me and I remembered Dr. Frankian’s lecture. I had kept the notes of that lecture, added some material I had and gave my special Christmas lecture to the class. From that time forward I annually revised and expanded the material, especially during the holiday season. Almost nothing of Frankian’s lecture now remains intact. Much of the material compiled is “popular” in nature and was then evaluated, revised and verified.
The eminent anthropologist Ralph Linton wrote an article entitled “One Hundred Percent American” in the American Mercury, Vol. 40 (1937) highlighting the idea that almost all the customs and beliefs we hold dear have foreign origins. I used my Christmas lecture to illustrate this theme. Ironically the recent book The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum (1997) demonstrates that the composite of a non-ecclesiastical Santa Claus we all know and love who brings gifts on the day of Christ’s nativity is probably a completely American construct and not of Dutch origin!
Fundamentally Christmas celebration is based on the intertwining of two ethnic patterns, Roman transition rites and Germano-Celtic Yule (jiuleis) rites-feasting and mortuary practice. First known use of the word Christes-Maess was in England, 1038. The English titled Feast Days with Mass Days. No Saint’s day listed for December 25th. Abbreviation Xmas; X is Greek Chi, the first letters of Christmas–not X blank out.
In colonial New England Thanksgiving, not Christmas, was the important seasonal holiday. Puritans passed an anti-Christmas law in 1659, repealed 1681. Christmas celebration was resisted by the Congregationalist Cotton Mather (1663-1728). First recorded post-repeal celebration was in 1686. Christmas was declared a holiday in Louisiana, 1837, and a national legal by the U. S. Congress in 1875. It was unimportant in the United States until 1880’s when the church relented. In 1885 a law was enacted giving federal employees Christmas day off. Christmas declared a legal holiday in U.S. late (1894 or early 20th century).
Though generally assumed to be an approximate conventionalized date for the solstice, the original significance of the date December 25th (25 Kisleu Jewish calendar) is unknown. We know the day had important ceremonial and social significance, apparently unrelated to solstice activities, among the Seleucids by 167 B.C. (I Macabees 1:58-59, II Macabees 6:7). In pre-Christian Rome Mithra was seasonally reborn not on the day of the solstice, but on December 25th. The Romans had another deity for the solstice, the goddess Angerona. Her festival day is December 21st.
A passage of Plutarch implies Mithraism was brought to the attention of the Romans from accounts given by Cilician pirates in 67 B.C. The Mithraic mystic cult developed in Armenia from a local late surviving version of Mazdaysnian. Mithra (originally a pre-Avestan Indo-Iranian god of contracts and broad pastures) was syncretized with the Semitic Babylonian gods of the sun–Shamash and seasonal regeneration–Tammuz (originally rendered as Dumuzi a Sumerian fertility god). After his introduction to Rome the composite Mithra, and perhaps his December 25 date of celebration, were again syncretized with Solis indigeni (a Roman sun god derived from the Pelasgean titan of light – Helios). This resulted in a composite being Solis invicta, the invincible sun. Mithra was the god of the regenerating sun and was annually reborn on December 25th. Aurelian eventually proclaimed Mithraism the official religion of the Roman Empire in A.D. 274 and Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Invincible Sun) became an official holiday.
Worship of Christianity was legally allowed in the Roman Empire by Constantine the Great, Edict of Nicomedia (Milan), A.D. 313. Now the two focal celebrations of both religions occur on December 25th, Mithra’s sun regeneration and the Christian nativity (Sun of Righteousness). According to St. Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, the “Roman Church purposefully placed the keeping of Christmas between two popular folk festivals, Saturnalia and the Kalends of January, in order to give Christians something to celebrate [undisturbed] about while others were engaged in secular merrymaking.” The December 25th date for the Roman Christian celebration was generally accepted in Western Roman Empire probably some time before A.D. 336 when parts of the Philoclian calendar were composed, but certainly before A.D. 354 when the text was completed and the act officially recognized by Bishop Liberius. The Christmas nativity gradually replaces Mithra’s birthday ceremony. It is reasonable to suppose that the conjunction of Mithra’s birthday with a holiday honoring Jesus Christ’s nativity would eventually lead to the assumption that Jesus was born on December 25th. This transference, however, is not explicitly documented.
The date of the birth of Jesus (Yehoshua-Ben-Yosef) is unknown. There was no concern of this event by Christians in the first century. In the bible there are no common narrative features and many contradictions on the birth of Jesus between Matthew and Luke. There are only two common points in the accounts, (1) Bethlehem location (which is necessary to fulfill prophecy of earlier time though there not one shred of historical evidence, i.e. the messiah is to be born in city of David’s birth) and (2) the Virgin birth of Jesus by Mary (Miriam) (actually from Hebrew “almah” – a marriageable women of child-bearing age, not necessarily a virgin by contemporary meaning). A third nativity account is given in the Pseudepigraphal gospel of James. It is considered unreliable.
To this day January 6 is the Eastern Church date to celebrate the Theopany of Christ. Before AD 381 it was a unified date celebrating both Christ’s nativity and baptism. Originally it was a nativity date established by Egyptian Christians in the 1st century and was apparently calculated from the belief Jesus died April 6, A.D. 29 (year inferred from Luke 3.23, date from Passover of that year) and “existed” on earth exactly 30 years from his incarnation). December 25th was later accepted date of Christ’s nativity by eastern Christian churches (Orthodox, Ukrainian, etc.; Armenians still do not). Chysostom states in AD 387 that the vacated January 6th had become the date of the Epiphany for the western church. This shift in dates was not due to Gregorian calendar correction.
Representation of Epiphany in Western churches was based on the manifestation of Christ by Magi (who may have been Parthian astrologers). In the Eastern churches it was based on (1) Christ’s baptism by John, and (2) his first miracle at Cana.
The twelve holy Roman days (actually nights, there are 13 days) established in 47 B.C. between the end of the Saturnalia (December 19th) and the Kalends (January 1st) eventually became the twelve holy days of the Christian Christmas celebration. They were officially adapted to the Christmas-Epiphany interval at the Council of Tours, A.D. 567. The Romans transferred the Saturnalia to the beginning of the year in the 4th century.
“Her [Holda] annual progress, which, like those of Herke and Berta, is made to fall between Christmas and twelfth-day, when the supernatural held sway” (Grimm, Jakob 1844 Deutshe Mythologie, translated by Steven Stallybrass, Teutonic Mythology, 1966 Dover: New York, 4 vols., p. 268). This passage indicates the Germans accepted the twelve days of Christmas. The Anglo-Saxons may have introduced this idea to England in post-Roman times.
|“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…..
Each Christmas eve he joys to come
Where love and peace have made their home”
William B. Gilley, A Children’s Friend, 1821.
This is the first documented reference associating Santa Claus with Christmas on December. 25th, rather than St. Nicholas’ gift giving Saint Day, December 6th.
There is a shrine dedicated to a Bishop Nicholas in Myra, Lycia (Asia Minor), its origins dating back to at least the 6th century. A Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, attended the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 (Nicene Creed establishing the trinity). That is all the first hand evidence known about Nicholas.
Before the ninth century tales of feats about Nicholas evolved. The best known states that before he was a Bishop he saved three dowerless maidens from being forced “to shameful means of earning a livelihood” by throwing in at their window on three successive nights purses of gold, thus providing each with a dowry. Hence the custom of distributing gifts and his protection of virgins becomes associated with him. In later time he becomes the saint of mariners, thieves, virgins and children.
Accounts by Bishop Methodus of Constantinople, A.D. 842-46 remake Nicholas. He was born, perhaps, in A.D. 280 at Patara and died in December 6, A.D. 342, 343 or 345. This allows him to be of plausible age at Nicaea. The exact day of his death may be an adaptation of Poseidon’s feast day to connect Nicholas with the ocean and mariners. Nicholas may have been promoted to saint status at this time and a Saint’s Day is provided.
Vladimir Duke of Russia (Kiev) visited and was baptized at Constantinople in 1003. Upon returning to Russia he made St. Nicholas his country’s patron saint (this may have been a composite with St. Nicholas of Penora who died in the 7th century). He soon becomes associated with an arctic landscape and was popular with the Lapps and Samoyeds. This may be the result of the syncretization of St. Nicholas with the Russian winter folk spirit Father Frost. Father Frost has a long white beard, is dressed in furs and drives a sled drawn by reindeer. St. Nicholas becomes the dominant saint of the Eastern Church.
Italian sailors transported his remains from Myra to Bari, Apulia in 1087. The contracted Muslim craftsmen wrote “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet,” in disguised calligraphy on the wall of the church that housed his remains. When discovered it could not be effaced.
About 80 years later a west European St. Nicholas cult was established with a center of commemoration at Metz, Lorraine, which then spreads up the Rhine and into the Low Countries and eventually England. In England, however, his identity was lost due to the Reformation and a Druid like Father Christmas was created.
St. Nicholas was removed from the Universal Calendar of Saints by Pope Paul VI, 1969. He still maintains sainthood in the Orthodox Church.
Some of his remains (including a piece of skull) and possessions were transported from Bari to the Greek Orthodox shrine, Flushing, New York, 1972. Other reputed remains are at Myra.
(1400?-1773, ecclesiastic trappings, syncretized with Woden, rotund Dutchman, not connected with Christmas)
The original Sant Nikolaas or St. Nicholas, just described, was the patron saint of sailors and navigators and, hence, admired at the Dutch maritime center of Amsterdam, who made him a hero. St. Nicholas and the Low German god Woden became syncretized as a single figure. Prior to this St. Nicholas was portrayed as a youth with black trimmed beard. The Dutch also celebrated Woden (better known as the Norse Odin) who wore a full white beard, had a magic cloak and dispensed gifts to children. Woden was an Iron Age Indo-European god who rode a horse. Children placed their shoes and hay (to feed the horse) near the fireplace. Eventually Woden merges into St. Nicholas, corrupted as Sinter Claes.
In 1442 Aragon (Spain) takes over the Norman Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (where Bari is located). In 1556 Holland is united with Spain (Spanish Hapsburgs). It became the custom for Holland’s bishops to take summer vacations in Spain, including the fictive St. Nicholas. He was overwhelmed with updating his ledgers on children’s behavior and rewards. He hires a Moorish youth named Zwart Piet (Black Pete), to keep his records. He accompanies Sinter Claes to Holland and on the eve of his feast day, December 6th, Sinter Claes rides his horse, lands on rooftops and descends through chimneys. Black Pete transported and dispensed birch rods for bad children.
In function Black Pete serves as a Dutch non-pagan version of the German knecht (servant) Ruprecht (Robert), a black sprite helping St. Nicholas as a disciplinarian of children. Ruprecht “appears in shaggy, sack on back (like later Santa Claus) and rod in hand” in the 16th and 17th centuries (Grimm, op. cit., p. 504, fn., compiled before 1844). The English counterpart of knecht Ruprecht, Robin (Robert) goodfellow is documented as early as 1489 had a loud laugh of Ho Ho Ho (W.J. Thoms 1839, in Grimm, op. cit., p. 502). Indeed numerous supernatural “little people” were associated with St. Nicholas at this time in German folklore, contributing to his eventual elfin status and collaboration with elf helpers.
Phase 1 (1773-1793)
(no description, probably an ecclesiastic bishop)
The claim that Dutch settlers, in 1626 introduced Sinter Claes to New Amsterdam (to be New York) is an invention of Washington Irving (History of New York, started in 1809). Charles W. Jones states (1954, Knickerbocker Santa Claus, New York Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 4, pp. 357-383, see pp. 367-71) that no documentary evidence has ever been found of a Dutch Santa Claus cult in New Amsterdam or in the [pre-1773, BKS, see below] British colonial period in New York. The settlers of New Amsterdam were Protestants, not Catholics, with little St. Nicholas tradition.
Santa Claus was apparently made an important figure (Saint of the City of New York) by English-Americans. The earliest known documentary record is 1773, “otherwise known as St. a Claus” Riverton Gazateer, New York, Dec. 23, 1773. This is the first known reference associating Santa Claus with Christmas. It may be a take off from a 1772 proclamation of a St. Tammany and Protecter referring to a well known 17th century Delaware Indian. There was a second meeting of: Son of that “Ancient Saint” in 1774 in New York.
There is no further reference of Santa Claus until 1793. He may have gone underground, being an anti-British figure during the Revolutionary War. He may have been the precursor of Uncle Sam who first appears during the War of 1812. Americans may have chosen the figure of St. Nicholas to oppose the British symbolic leader, St. George. It is interesting to note that in the first illustration of Santa Claus by Nast (see following), 1863 – Civil War, he is attired a star spangled jacket and striped pants.
Phase 2 – (1804-1841)
(ecclesiastic bishop to an avuncular elf)
In 1804 John Pintard and others founded the New York Historical Society, Pitard making St. Nicholas the society’s patron saint. This was a revival of the Dutch tradition of St. Nick as a gift bringer. It is not certain that Pintard was familiar with the Phase 1 American Santa Claus developments. Washington Irving joined the society the following year and attended the annual St. Nicholas say banquet. A woodcut of a long-robed Sinterklaus was present. Pintard commissioned Alexander Anderson to prepare a broadside of St. Nicholas. He is ecclesiastical but wields a birch? stick and holds bags (of coins?). This illustration was distributed to the Historical Society members in 1810. This seems to have been a conspiracy to promote a benign figure for the Christmas celebration in order to quell interclass muggings and riots in the city of New York.
Anderson broadside of St. Nicholas (1810)
Washington Irving adopts and adapts the Dutch Sinter Claes cult. Between 1804 and 1821 Santa Claus becomes an elf fully dressed in fur (from pelznichol?, see below) in an arctic landscape with reindeer and sleigh, all miniaturized. The reindeer team and arctic residence may be an Anglo-American borrowing of Father Frost (see above), and his elfin nature may be based on Pennsylvania Dutch (German)pelznichol association (see below).
|“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.”
William B. Gilley, A Children’s Friend, 1821.
This is the first mention of Santa Claus with reindeer. The word “drives” in Gilley’s poem is third person single, indicating only one reindeer. An illustration accompanying the poem shows a non-ecclesiastical Santeclaus, but with a scepter.
The classic poem A Visit from St. Nicholas [or ”Twas the Night Before Christmas] traditionally written by Clement C. Moore, was composed for Christmas 1822 in New York, published December 23, 1823 in the Troy, New York Sentinel. In this poem Santa drives a sleigh (Dutch device, not English) with an 8-reindeer team [Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen (i.e. thunder and lightning, the Dutch spelling for the former, rather than Donner, being used), portrayed in the poem.
Nissenbaum, Stephen, The Battle for Christmas, 1997 makes some interesting observations about Moore’s poem. Due to widespread practices of upper class extortion in New York during the Christmas season Moore wished to create a gift giving figure that was not threatening. Santa could not be an ecclesiastical bishop or patrician. He could not wear a robe, but a sooty fur suit. He had to be a jolly elf and plebian. He smokes a stubby pipe characteristic of the plebian class rather than the upper class long pipe described by Irving. “He looked like a peddler, a peddler just opening his pack.”
Don Foster has questioned Moore’s authorship of the poem (Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous, 2000) by making a comparative analysis of the poem to known Moore compositions. Moore did not claim authorship until the poem was published in a book in 1837. Foster suggests Henry Livingstone, a Revolutionary War veteran from Poughkeepsie, New York, may have been the author.
The use of anapestic tetrameter in the poem is similar to the tripping meter of Pitard’s poem inscribed on the 1810 broadside of St. Nicholas. Because of some structural similarities Nissenbaum offers the suggestion that the writer might be acquainted with the poem “Days of Doom,” by Michael Wigglesworth, 1662. Also, its theme of judgment day could relate to punishment of bad children.
A later book of the poem was published in 1848, illustrated with seven wood engravings by T. C. Boyd. The portrayals are unrelated to the description in the poem, i.e. Boyd’s Santa Claus is adult in size with fur forming only a jacket fringe and cap. The reindeer are fully antlered. Male reindeer have undeveloped or no antlers during the winter.
|“He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” “When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.
With a little old driver…..”
“He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot
and his clothes were tarnished with ashes and soot.”
“The stump of a pipe held tight in his teeth,”
“When out on the lawn these arose such a clatter…..
When what to my wondering eyes should appear
To the top of the porch, to the top of the wall!…..
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew…..
And away they all flew like a down of a thistle”
It appears to have been driven on to the lawn and then the team leaped on to the roof, violating Phase 1 and later fully airborne accounts.
|“Stockings were hung by the chimney with care”
“And he filled the stockings…..”
This is an Anglo-American adaptation from Dutch children having their wooden shoes filled with gifts. “Hang up a stocking on the chimney,” mentioned by Irving, 1809. The Pintard commissioned engraving by Alexander Anderson, 1810, shows a fireplace flanked by two oversized stockings. A poem, in whose meter Moore later copied his work, was published in a New York newspaper, 1815. It asks Santa Claus to bring gifts for children’s stockings. This appeal may have been the crucial factor that suddenly allowed the shift of custom. There is a variation to the legend (see above) of St. Nicholas dropping gold coins through the chimney into stockings hung under the chimney to dry by the dowryless maidens.
No Christmas tree is mentioned, not common in 1822.
The writer borrowed from Washington Irving’s text for the poem:
|“And laying his finger aside his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;”
Irving describes this same mannerism, but associated with a wink. The visit has Santa Claus winking at an earlier time in his poem. In colonial New York body language this mannerism means, “it is between you and me, and in this situation it would be “it is a dream, you know I do not exist,” and the understanding is emphasized by the wink.
|“And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath”. Irving says “Like a cloud overhead.”
A Post-Moore, Pre-Boyd Santa Claus, by Robert W. Weir (1837)
New York Historical Society
Phase 3 (1841-1885/6)
(often full-sized or even overly large, avuncular, skin-tight red attire, Victorian bourgeoisie appearance, Woden-like beard becomes full and eventually gray)
A man-sized image of Santa Claus becomes dominant around 1841. In this year a Philadelphia merchant, J. W. Parkinson, hired a man dressed as Kris Kringle (see following) to climb a chimney outside his shop.
Thomas Nast, the well-known political cartoonist for the Harper’s Illustrated Weekly, drew illustrations of Santa Claus from 1863 to 1886. In the Christmas season of 1866 he compiled a montage of drawings of Santa Claus. George P. Walker made five of these drawings into color lithographs illustrating a poem in a widely distributed children’s book Santa Claus and His Works, ca., 1870 under the pseudonym George P. Webster. The poem steals in form, meter and style from Moore’s poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, but with different content.
Santa is portrayed as an overly fat, jovial, white bearded elf, wearing a spotted red-brown, skin-tight suit, the base of the jacket trimmed in white ermine lined with spots or attachments just below a red sash. This is the earliest portrayal of Santa Claus in red. Medieval Greek Orthodox Bishops (which is what St. Nicholas was) wore red vestments He wears what Walker calls a “queer cap.” It is red, circular with a fur-like rim and a smooth-surfaced conical top tapering to a tassel at the apex and a sprig of holly is on the front. In one of these lithographs he holds a long pipe (cf. Irving).
|“He is round at the waist, but what care we have for that.
Tis good natured people who always get fat.”
“But Santa Claus comes in his queer looking hat.”
Walker has Santa’s sleigh pulled by deer–not reindeer:
“His deer from the mountains, all harnessed [to his sleigh] with care.”
Unlike Moore, Walker has the team airborne:
“With his queer looking team through the air he will go, and alight on a roof, now all white with snow, and into a chimney will dart in a trice, when all are asleep but the cat and the mice; then will fill up stockings with candy and toys.”
Moore’s Santa is elfin, but does not employ elves; he works alone. Walker does not mention elves in Santa’s workshop:
“He goes to his shop and labors once more, and all the long year with his paints and his glues. He is making new toys, little children, for you.”
Nast emigrated from Bavaria and was familiar with pelznichol (see Kriss Kringle following). Elves and Santa’s workshop are probably post-Civil War (replacing the void of Black Pete’s absence?) and probably originated with Nast who was familiar with industrious dwarves of German mythology who are busy making things.
Walker’s verse, 1870, indicated that Santa Claus lives near the North Pole:
“In a nice little city called Santa Clausville, with its houses and church at the foot of the hill, lives jolly old Santa Claus…..”
“His home through the long summer months, you must know, is near the North Pole, in the ice and snow.”
“I told you his home was up north by the pole, a palace of ice lives this happy old soul.”
In a Nast cartoon Santa Claus is sitting on a wooden trunk addressed “Christmas Box 1882, St. Nicholas, North Pole.” This continues the arctic cast of Santa Claus. There was enthusiastic acceptance of Santa Claus by Finns during Russo-Finnish War, 1939. They maintain Santa’s winter quarters are at Rovaniemi, Finland, not the North Pole.
Features of Santa mentioned by Walker and have not persisted to the present are his dog, named Watch, and his spyglass.
“With his dog standing behind him, and spy glass in hand, he looks for good children all over the land.”
Nast illustration (1866) of Walker’s (1870) Santa Claus
Phase 4 (1885/6-Present)
(white fur-trimmed red suit, black belt and boots, sometimes miniaturized until 1931)
In 1885, Louis Prang (see Christmas Cards), established the presently clad Santa Claus with black boots and belt, a bright red non-flannel white fur-lined suit and a white tufted tassel hat, in Christmas card illustrations. By the 1920’s the red suit becomes standardized.
About 1890 Santa Claus’ modern Christmas role becomes established. The first store Santa Claus was James Edgar, Brockton, Mass., 1890. Mrs. Claus created by Katherine Lee Bates, Sunshine and other Verses for Children, 1890 (ref?), violating sainthood celibacy restrictions. Letter to Virginia (O’Hanlan), Francis P. Church, New York Sun, 1897–“Yes Virginia. There is a Santa Claus.”
The image of Santa Claus now becomes varied and often elfin, rejecting Nast’s robust figure. The Oz illustrator W. W. Denslow drew Santas of Munchkin-size. Arthur Rackham, an artist and illustrator of children’s books drew Santa as an elf. Norman Rockwell drew full-sized Santas for the Saturday Evening Post.
Archie Lee of the D’Arcy Advertising Agency proposed a realistic, modern appearing Santa Claus with red cheeks and wrinkled face, but appearing vital and young, for Coca Cola. This image was painted in oil by a commercial illustrator Hadden H.Sundblom, starting with the 1931 holiday promotion. The original model was Lou Prentice, a retired salesman who died shortly thereafter. This is the Santa Claus we know today.
Straw and carrots are left for the reindeer. Hay was left for St. Nicholas’s horse before 1821. These items were, at one time, left for the Magi’s camels. Americans leave milk and cookies for Santa Claus. In England sherry and mince pie are left.
Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was created Robert L. May, promotion pamphlet, Montgomery Ward, Chicago, 1939. The song composed by John Marks, October, 1948. The song becomes a hit with Gene Autry’s 1949 rendition. Rollo and Reginald were names also considered by May.
Pipe association lost soon after the release of the U. S. Surgeon General’s Special Advisory Committee report in l964 connecting smoking with lung cancer.
Norman Rockwell Santa Claus
Sundblom Santa Claus (1931)
St. Nicholas cult was overcome by the Reformation in Germany since it not mentioned in Bible, but reaction eventually produced a secular figure. St. Nicholas was replaced by the figures pelznichol (fur Nicholas), perhaps borrowing in turn his fur outfit from Father Frost, and Kristkindlein (Christ Child). In America the Pennsylvania Dutch called pelsnichal belsnickel. Originally Kristkindlein was Christ Child, then a messenger.(p) Kristkindl is portrayed as a radiant veiled child figure with golden wings, wearing flowing white robe and a sparkling jeweled crown, and carrying a small Christmas tree or wand.
Belsnickel, sometimes posing as Santa Claus in furry disguises, sometimes with whiskers, may have been Donner (Lower German thunder god better known as the Norse Thor) rather than Woden (see 1869 Harper’s Illustrated Weekly sketch), hence being the devil, pagan and anti-Christian.
Kristkindl corrupted to Kriss Kingle in the U.S. Amalgamated with St. Nicholas, Kriss Kringles’s Book (added “r”), Philadelphia, 1842. Unlike Santa Claus early Kriss Kringle did not fill socks, but put presents on the tree.
Father Christmas is a Post-Reformation English equivalent of Santa Claus. St. Nicholas reference and ecclesiastical trappings are completely removed. He is portrayed as a giant, wearing a scarlet or green fur-lined robe, has a crown of holly, ivy or mistletoe, carries a Yule log and a bowl of punch. He distributes gifts on Christmas Eve. The “Ghost of Christmas Present” in Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, 1843, is Father Christmas.
The account of the Seed Tree (or “tree of all germs”) in Paradise, described in the Avesta, becomes the story of the Tree of Life (Genesis 2:9) in the biblical Garden of Eden. With the introduction of Christianity in northern Europe the beliefs of sacred trees in Germanic mythology incorporate the concept of the Tree of Life. This association is explained by the English missionary Winfred (later St. Boniface) in northern Germany during the early 8th century. The fir tree commemorates the Holy Child. Winfred chanced upon a group of heathens at an oak tree. They were preparing to sacrifice a little prince to the god Thor. He stopped the sacrifice and cut down the “blood oak.” As the oak fell a young fir tree appeared–the tree of life representing Christ.
Decoration maybe was based on the Paradise Tree (apples–the serpent) from the popular mystery play about the “fall of man,” which was being performed by 1415. December 24th was Adam and Eve’s Day in the early Christian calendar. The play ends with foretelling Christ’s coming and incarnation–Christmas tie to Nativity? Another medieval mystery play setting was the Weihnachtspyramide, a wooden pyramid. A wooden pyramid “of green brush wood,” with candles was present for a Moravian Christmas in Bethlehem, Pa., 1747. These two devices were probably the origin of the Christmas tree.
Estonians claim to have displayed evergreen Christmas trees since 1441. An evergreen tree was decorated on Christmas Eve in Riga, Latvia, 1510. There is no continuity of this event and later developments.
“No burgher shall have for Christmas more than one bush of more than eight shoes’ length,” Forest Ordinance of Ammerschweier, Alsace, 1561. Clearly Christmas vegetation, probably decorated, was being put in homes by this time. The first recorded tree referred to as a Christmas tree was at Strassburg, Alsace, in 1604. It was called a Paradise Tree (see above). Christmas trees are common throughout Germany, from Alsace-Lorraine area, by early 19th century.
Christmas trees were in England by 1789, became common by 1829, and popular after Dickens’ Christmas Carol (1843). In 1848 Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert (of German Saxe-Colburg, Gotha, background) had a four foot high tree at Windsor Castle. It had candles, ornaments, ribbons and trinkets. A widely dispersed engraving of the tree pictures Albert, Victoria and their children. Modified copies of this engraving (removal of queen’s tiara and alteration of ornaments) appeared in U.S. illustrated magazines including Godey’s Lady Book, 1850. An immense Christmas tree was present at the Crystal Palace Exhibition, London, 1851.
Prince Albert Christmas Tree Engraving (1848)
Possibly the Christmas tree may have had limited occurrence in America by Upper Rhine Pennsylvania Dutch as early as 1710. According to legend Christmas trees were introduced to America by Hessian troops, but there is no documented evidence. Washington crossed the Delaware without resistance, 1776, since the Hessians were supposedly celebrating Christmas. Hessians are credited with introducing the tree to children at Newport, R.I. Another undocumented reference is that in 1804 U. S. soldiers stationed at Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) hauled trees from the surrounding woods and placed them in their barracks for Christmas.
The Pennsylvania Dutch probably introduced the Christmas tree to America. First documented occurrence was Matthew Zahm, Lancaster Co., Pa., 1821. It was popular in New England after widespread distribution of a penny pamphlet reprint of a page in Retrospect of Western Travel, Harriet Martineau, 1838.
Commercially cut trees were in Philadelphia markets by 1848 and tree cutting in the Catskills by Mark Carr, 1851 created a market in New York City. The artificial Christmas trees, made of wire and covered with feathers, appear in Germany in the 1800s. The first artificial brush trees were manufactured by the Addis Brush Co in 1930s. A Christmas tree at the White House, Washington, D.C., was decorated by Franklin Pierce (friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne) in 1856. The annual lighting of the Christmas tree at the White House began in 1923. The tree was cut and sent to President Calvin Coolidge from Middlebury College in his native state of Vermont. National Living Christmas Tree was planted at Sherman Square near White House, 1924.
A communal Christmas tree was displayed on Mt. Wilson near Pasadena, California in 1909. General Grant redwood in Kings Canyon National Park was dedicated as the official Nation’s Christmas tree, 1926.
The Christmas tree is not present to this day in Mediterranean countries–Italy, Spain, rare and recent in Greece (Olive tree used by Byzantines).
CHRISTMAS TREE LIGHTS
There is information that Neo-Babylonians practiced a lighting ceremony commemorating the rebirth of Tammuz (see Date sec., para. 2) symbolizing the return of light and heat at the time of the winter solstice. This ceremony was transferred to the commemoration of Mithra after syncretization with Tammuz by the Mazdaysnians. Lighting was probably achieved by use of oil lamps, but when the ceremony became establish in Rome, dipped tapered candles, a method and form devised by the Romans, was used. This “Feast of Light” (a phrase used by Josephus) was transferred to the celebrating of the Christian Nativity, when this celebration replaced that of Mithra’s rebirth.
Christmas tree candles common by mid-19th century. They were possibly adapted from tree ring (candle circle around tree) or candle pyramids, important features of Paradise Mystery Play (see preceding). Use of candles in floor trees evolve from table trees in the late 19th century. They were a fire hazard. Bayberry candles may be English. Bayberry is a coastal plant. Bayberry candles are popular in New England.
The annual lighting of the Christmas tree at the White House began in 1923. The tree was cut and sent to President Calvin Coolidge from Middlebury College in his native state of Vermont. National Living Christmas Tree was planted at Sherman Square near White House, 1924.
First electric lights in a tree were at home of Edward Johnson, Thomas Edison’s assistant, New York, 1882. The first publicly lighted tree was at the home of Edward Johnson, Thomas, Edison’s assistant, New York, 1882. The first publically lighted tree was at Reading, Pa., 1886. Strung telephone switchboard lights, New England, 1895, were commercially sold by Ever-Ready Co., General Electric, 1903. President Grover Cleveland first used Christmas tree lights in the White House, 1895.
OTHER CHRISTMAS TREE DECORATION
The 15th century Klausenbaum was a craft guild tradition. The tree was wrapped in paper and decorated with apples and candies. A star or angel was placed atop the tree by the beginning of the 17th century.
Metallic angel hair used on Christmas trees in eastern U.S. cities by 1830’s. Fiberglass angel hair developed in Germany about 1880. Used as garlands in Europe, individual stands in America.
Glass blowing of Christmas tree ornaments develops as a cottage industry in Lauscha, Thuringia, Germany, in the 1840’s. These ornaments become common in America in the 1870’s and include glass globes (Paradise Tree apples?). Ornaments are kept from year to year.
Patent for tree stands was issued to Hermann Albrecht and Abram C. Mott, Philadelphia, 1876.
Thin silver sheeting was produced in Germany about 1610. Silver tinsel (icicles) developed in Nuremberg, Germany, 1878. They tended to tarnish and lead foil was substituted. They became popular in the U.S. in the 1920’s. Concern of lead poisoning led to the substitution Mylar after World War II.
Metal “Rope” garland becomes popular about 1890. It originates from manufacturing process of extruding silver-plated copper, developed for decorating military uniforms, Germany, 1610.
Hooks replace string for hanging ornaments, 1892.
Plastic foam is post World War II.
Mistletoe, Connected to Germano-Celtic tree worship (see Christmas Tree section above). Mistletoe is a common parasite on oak and ash trees. It remains green throughout the winter, thus symbolizing renewal. Kissing under mistletoe bough or sprigs was a custom of the English servant class in the 18th century until 1850 when it begin to spread to the upper classes. Dickens describes the activity in the Pickwick Papers, 1837.
Holly, used on festive occasions in Rome. Ivy was a common alternative, especially in England. Wreaths with berries originate with the Roman Christians. According to legend Christ’s “crown of thorns” was of holly, the berries turning from white to red after crucifixion. Advent candles (four, one each Sunday before Christmas) in a wreath occur in Hamburg 1839, made by Lutherans. This custom may date back to 600 and may be the basis of the Advent Calendar? Commercial holly available today was hybridized by Kathleen Meserve on Long Island, New York in the 1950’s. It is hardier than wild forms with brighter berries and glossier leaves. Also, unlike English holly, it can survive temperatures as low -20°F. It is called Meserve Holly.
Poinsettia, introduced to U.S. from Mexico by Joel Roberts Poinsett, Charleston, S.C., in 1828, while he was Minister to Mexico. It was considered to be the “flower of the blessed night,” representing the star of Bethlehem to Mexicans in the 18th century. It is a common decoration in Mexican Nativity processions. The poinsettia as a potted plant was promoted by Albert Ecke, Hollywood, California, in the early 1900’s.
Yule log (usually of oak or ash), is a burning rite, probably of some antiquity, recorded in Germany in 1184 and later in the Italian Alps, Balkans, Scandinavia, France and Iberia. The ceremony is flourishing in Devon, England, by the 1630’s and becomes associated with Father Christmas. Goose as Christmas food is probably a part of this complex too.
The Christmas food we eat today is a blend of two feast patterns. The first is the Winter Festival Feast, a la Dickens This pattern was Germano-Celtic in origin in Europe and centered on the solstice celebration. In America this pattern became established in the Mid-Atlantic states in Virginia (Episcopal control) and New York Dutch (not Pennsylvania Dutch which have sausage, smoked meat, ham, etc.). The second food pattern is the Harvest Bounty Feast. It has a reformist background and its origins are from the post-Henry VIII Harvest Home Ceremony. Pilgrims in New England established this tradition and by the 19th century the celebration was transferred from autumnal thanksgiving harvest time to winter Christmas time. The bulk of the colonial Atlantic south (Maryland to Georgia) had little celebration, Christmas being disdained by Scotch- Irish Presbyterians.
Winter festival food (original Christmas food at Jamestown, 1608) is oysters, fish, “meat,” wild fowl and bread. Eggnog, originally egg grog (post-1750) is a later colonial Virginia concoction. It was made by adding rum to the French drink lait de poule. Traditional winter festival food is boar, roast, mince (meat) pie, plum pudding (raisin “hearts,” no plums), sugarplums (originally greengage plums boiled in syrup and cornstarch, crystallized by cooling, but now considered to be chocolate coated cordials. The term survives from Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas poem “with visions of sugarplums dancing” and The Nutcracker Suite “Sugarplum fairy”). Goose also in complex (see above). Wassailing (salutation drinking from a bowl), is an Anglo-Saxon (at least the term) – Wass Hael, “Be in health.” The bowl to be kept full from Christmas Eve until the Twelfth Night.
Harvest bounty food (supposed original food at Plymouth Rock, 1621) is turkey, pumpkin, corn, lima beans and cranberries. The only food items that have any documentation at the original meal, however, are venison and wild fowl (turkey?). Turkey was domesticated in Mesoamerica and was in England by 1524 and then to New England by early colonists and crossbred. Some original Pilgrims may have eventually known of domesticated turkey. To show the split in food pattern, Puritans banned mince pie in colonial and commonwealth Massachusetts. They believed the devil was baked in. It is now tolerated for Thanksgiving.
By the 19th century these two basic food traditions were blending in Europe and America. Though Dickens, Christmas Carol (1843), conveys a Winter Festival food tradition, Tiny Tim’s family served fowl, and turkey is mentioned at end of the story. An ideal New Yorker (city) Christmas meal in 1875 was turkey stuffed with oysters.
Hubbard (winter) squash (Andes) is later food item and now thrives in the cool climate of New England. The “Irish” potato was domesticated in the Andes highlands and was introduced to America from Ireland after the Irish famine of 1845-46. The sweet potato was domesticated in northern tropical South America. It probably was introduced to the southern U.S. by Caribbean slaves in the early 18th century. To this day it is not popular in New England. The yam we are familiar with is not a true yam, but a variety of sweet potato.
The circumstances of the birth of Jesus are unknown (see Date section, para. 5). Biblical accounts are contradictory about the type of locale of Jesus’ birth. In Luke 2.11 it says “laid him (Jesus) in a manger” (feeding trough). There is no mention of a stable. In Matthew 2.11 it says the Wise Men enter a house. In biblical times a typical house had an attached room for animals. Though Joseph and Mary may have been turned away from an inn (Luke 2.7), they were probably not outdoors when Jesus was born as is assumed in modern creche scenes. There is tradition that Christ was born in a cave near Bethlehem, according to the pseudepigraphal gospel of James, and by Justin Martyr in the 2nd century.
Though the evidence of a pastoral setting for Jesus’ birth is not clear it was assumed by some as early as A.D. 343, the earliest recorded manger scene. There are Medieval manger scenes in caves, houses and churches, and occasionally in stables or with shepherds. The ox and ass legend is no earlier than 3rd century and was added in art representation by 1498. It is based on non-gospel biblical accounts: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib” (Isaiah 1.3). “In the midst of ‘two animals’ [actually ‘the year,’ Septuagint mistranslation] thou shalt be known” (Habakkuk 3.2).
St. Francis of Assisi, in Greccio, Italy, 1223, initiated the tradition of the more elaborate nativity pageant with animals in a grotto. Pastoral nativity pageants (in stable with shepherds) are post-Medieval and develop in south German areas, probably from Moravian German putz (decoration). In Luke (2.16) shepherds do visit the scene. Shepherds were also present at birth of Mithra (see Date sec., para. 2). Luke may have transferred this tale to his gospel account. There is no connection of the Magi with a manger and no mention of camels in the gospels. The idea of camels may come from “crossing the desert” from “the east.”, but two the gifts are materials suggesting southern Arabian origin. Though three Magi are shown in nativity scenes it is not known how many there were suppose to be.
Madonna portrayals are common in Renaissance Italy and were copies of Isis with Horus representations in Egyptian art from the Middle Kingdom and later.
In the Eastern Church Mary is not portrayed sitting with the child in her lap, but lying down, recovering from the biological act of childbirth. It is not considered a virgin birth.
The pre-Carol song “Glory to God in the Highest” was ordered to be sung by Roman Christians, Bishop Telephorus of Rome, A.D. 129.
Choros was a Greek circle dance. Carol music was in Western Europe well before 1020. The prototype was the French Carole, a secular ring dance. Carols evolved despite the Edict of Rouen (7th century) banning caraulas (dancing and leaping songs). They developed in the vernacular,outside the church and were spread by traveling minstrels. They were adapted as religious music Carol laudi (pious lyrics) by St. Francis of Assisi, in the 13th century, cf. French noel and German weihnachslieder. The word “carol”was in the English language by 1300 as a song bearing both a burden and refrain. The traditional Yule carol almost disappears during the Puritan repression in both America and England, but persisted in rural areas. It was revived in 19th century. Dickens’ Christmas Carol, 1843, further associated carols with Christmas. “The First Nowell,” English, is one of oldest known carols. “Angels We Have Heard on High” was composed around 1290.
Major traditional carols written and composed in the U.S. are “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” Edmund H. Sears (Wayland, Mass.) and Richard Willis, 1850-51 (New York), “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” John H. Hopkins, Jr., 1857 (Williamsport, Pa,) and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Phillips Brooks and Lewis H. Redner, 1868 (Philadelphia). “Away in the Manger,” is an American folk carol. “Go Tell it on the Mountain” is a black American carol collected by Frederick Jerome Work (1820-1942).
Wasseil songs have separate origin as Christmas music.
Gift giving was common during the Roman Saturnalia. Nuns in France started giving gifts to the poor on the eve of St. Nicholas’ Saint’s Day, 13th century. Gift giving was repressed by the medieval church.
Post-Medieval gift giving was rationalized as part of Christmas in post-Medieval times by the Catholic church on the basis that (1) it associates St. Nicholas with Christmas, and (2) gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were gifts given to Christ by Magi. Protestants honored the Weihnachtsbaum (spruce), symbol of gift giving on Christmas day.
Gift giving in colonial America was based on class differences, the poor accosting the rich and demanding food, drink and money. In the 1820’s, borrowing from the New York Dutch, gift giving was transferred to gifts for the children from parents. Moore’s poem may have been a factor in this. This started Christmas commercialization. Christmas shopping was encouraged to overcome the 1839-40 depression.
Boxing Day, England, Feast of St. Stephen, December 26th is a legal holiday. Church alms boxes open to collect money for the poor. A Christmas bonus is given by businesses to its employees in England.
Salutation – “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” were present in 17th century correspondence. Merry is probably of English origin and was introduced to America in Dickens time. In Moore’s poem (l822) the reader is addressed at the end with the phrase “Happy” Christmas. Merry originally meant “short (of time)”, or time is short when you are enjoying yourself.
The precursor of the Christmas Card was elaborately penned school compositions for the student’s family. The key factors permitting the development of the Christmas Card were the 1840 British penny post and the invention of the steam press.
Christmas cards were first printed (1000) in London, England. They were designed by John Calcott Horsley of the Royal Academy for Sir Henry Cole in 1843 and were sold at Felix Summerly’s Home Treasury Office. The greeting was “A Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” A portrayal of a child sipping wine in a toast on the central panel caused a stir with temperance groups. Cards were first mailed (to friends) by W. C. Dobson (Queen Victoria’s favorite painter) in 1845. First mailings in U. S. were in 1846. Louis Prang, a Boston lithographer, marketed multicolored Christmas Cards in Europe in 1865, and in the U. S. in 1875. He made Christmas Cards popular. Mailing was expanded with the “penny post card,” 1893. Half-tone engravings appear in 1900. The home photograph card begins in 1902 by Eastman Kodak.
The first Christmas seals were circulated by Einer Holboell, Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1903. In the U.S., Miss Emily Bissell distributes Christmas seals, Wilmington, Delaware, Post Office, 1907. The proceeds were to fight tuberculosis.
Bells. The kinds of bells that relate to Christmas are, (1) cup form Church bells, which appear ca. AD 400 in Italy, and (2) bells on traveling animals, a practice that goes back to antiquity. Bells are transferred from St. Nicholas’s horse to Santa Claus’s reindeer. There is no reference to Christmas in “Jingle Bells,” recorded by J. S. Pierpont, Boston, 1857. The first Salvation Army donation kettle was present at Oakland ferry in 1891. The associated hand bells are not mentioned at this time.
Colors. Colors may come from a composite of St. Nicholas’s Greek Orthodox Bishop vestment (red) and Woden (English Father Christmas source with green robe). The green of Woden would represent the Celto-Germanic idea of evergreens surviving through the winter and representing the renewal of life.
Candy cane. Candy canes are replicas of shepherd’s crooks. It was children’s candy originated by a Cologne cathedral choirmaster in the 1670’s. It is ideal in form to hang on the branch of a Christmas tree. In 1859 Amalia Eriksson, Granna, Sweden, devised the manifacture of alternating red (peppermint) and white striped rock candy in 1859. According to Nancy Baggett (All-American Dessert Book, Houghton Mifflin 2005) candy canes became popular in the United States in the 1920s when Bob McCormack of Albany, Georgia produced them in large numbers. His ingrediants were corn syrup, sugar, peppermint flavoring and starch. In the 1950s his brother-in-law devised a machine that enabled him to undertake mass production
INDEX TO EARLIEST KNOWN ORIGINS OF AMERICAN CHRISTMAS CUSTOMS
Note:- American origin locations generally not indicated.
Advent candles – 600?, at Hamburg 1839
Airborne reindeer and sleigh – 1870, Walker
Candy cane – 1670’s, Cologne
Christmas cards – 1843, England, Horsley
Christmas carols – well before 1020, Europe
Christmas seals – 1903, Copenhagen, Holboell
Date (December 25th) – before 336, Rome
Egg Nog – after 1750
Epiphany – 387, Rome
Ho Ho Ho (Santa’s laugh) – 1839, England, Thoms
Holiday – 1837, Louisiana
Holiday, federal – 1885
Lights (oil lamps?) – ca. 600 B.C., Neo-Babylonia
Lights, dipped tapered candles, Rome
Lights, tree, candles – common by mid 19th century
Lights, electric -1882, Johnson, public 1886
Lights, strung (switchboard) – 1895
“Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” – 17th cen., Europe
Mrs. Claus -1890, Bates
Name, Christes-Maess – 1038, England
Nativity scene – 343, Roman Christians
Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, historical record – 325, Nicaea
Poinsettia -1828, Mexico, Poinsett
Reindeer and sled – 1821, Gilley
Reindeer, team of eight and sleigh – 1822, Moore
Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer – 1939, May (hit 1949)
Saint Nicholas invented – 842-46?, Methodus, Constantinople
St. Nicholas cult in Western Europe established – ca. 1160’s, Metz, Lorraine
St. Nicholas removed Universal Calendar of Saints – 1969, Paul VI
Santa Claus (earliest documentation) – 1773, New York.
Santa Claus (with Christmas nativity celebration, documented) – 1821, Gilley
Santa Claus as an elf – 1822, Moore
Santa Claus, man-size – perhaps 1841, Parkinson
Santa Claus in red attire – 1870, Nast
Santa Claus near North Pole – 1870, Walker
Santa Claus at North Pole – 1882, Nast
Santa Claus in current dress – 1885, Prang
Santa Claus standardized realistic portrayal – 1931, Sundblom
Stocking at fireplace – 1809, Irving
Store Santa Claus – 1890, Edgar
Tree, Paradise – before 1415, Europe
Tree, evergreen, decorated on Christmas Eve – 1510, Riga, Latvia
Tree, Christmas in U.S., Pennsylvania Dutch – 1710?; doc.1821, Zahm
Tree in White House – 1856, Franklin Pierce
Tree, communal – Mt. Wilson, 1909
Tree in White House, annual lighting – 1923, Calvin Coolidge
Tree, National, General Grant – 1926. Kings Canyon NP
Tree decoration, angel hair (metallic) – by 1830’s
Tree decoration, angel hair (fiberglass) – 1880?, Germany
Tree decoration, glass globes – 1840’s, Lauscha, Thuringia
Tree decoration, tinsel -1878, Nuremberg
Tree decoration, metallic garland – 1890?, Germany
Tree decoration, plastic foam – post-World War II
Twelve Days (Saturnalia to Kalends) – 47 B.C., Rome
Twelve Holy Days (adapted to Christmas) – 567. Tours
(A) Visit from St. Nicolas (poem) -1822, Moore
Wreath – Roman Christians
Yes Virginia. There is a Santa Claus (editorial) – 1897, Church
Yule log – Germany (HRE) – 1184