1. What was Christmas in America like in the early 19th century?
2. Who invented the idea of Santa Claus? Why did he invent Santa Claus?
3. Who made Santa fat and short and happy? Why?
4. Which big company created the Santa we know today? What is he really a symbol of?
If you went back to colonial America 350 years ago, you would notice that there were no holidays. There was no Christmas and there was no Easter. There was no Halloween and no Valentines Day.
Take the example of Christmas. In New England, the celebration of Christmas was illegal. In Massachusetts there was a fine for celebrating the holiday. In the southern colonies of Virginia and Maryland, it simply wasn't celebrated.
Let us jump ahead to 1800. Christmas is no longer illegal. But Christmas was definitely different than it is today. Christmas was not centered around the family or children or giving presents. There were no Christmas trees with ornaments and lights. There were no Christmas cards; and there was no kissing beneath the mistletoe. Nor were there Christmas songs. Most amazingly of all, there was no Santa Claus or St. Nicholas.
What there was in 1800 was a drunken street carnival, a loud combination of Halloween and New Year's Eve. The poor would demand entrance into the homes of the rich and aggressively beg for food, drink, and money. Sometimes things would get out of control and there would be robbery, vandalism, sexual assault, and plenty of drinking. In 1828, a particularly violent Christmas riot in New York led the city to establish its first professional police force.
Christmas celebrations in 1800 had their origins in the midwinter worship of Saturn and Bacchus, not Christ. By the second century, the Romans were regularly feasting, drinking from December 17, the first day of Saturnalia, to January First. They also decorated their houses with evergreen boughs.
In the fourth century, Christians began to celebrate Christ's birth on December 25, the winter solstice on the Roman calendar. The church agreed to let the holiday be celebrated more or less as it always was. The Christmas celebration that arose in Medieval Europe was an occasion for crazy behavior, spending of money, public sexual behavior, and violations of social order. In medieval and early modern Europe, at Christmas the people often elected a "Lord of Misrule" to rule over these annual revels. In one episode in 1637 in England, the crowd gave the Lord of Misrule a wife in a public marriage service conducted by a fellow Christmas celebrator pretending to be a minister. The newlyweds had sex on the spot, in front of everyone!
The Puritans who moved to America from England were Christians of the controlling type. They were particularly upset by two Christmas practices: One was mumming, the exchange of clothes between men and women. Even worse was the outbreak of rioting, drunkenness, and sex. It was this celebration that the New England Puritans tried to kill.
But despite the Puritans' best efforts, Christmas in America became an excuse for dangerous fun. At Christmastime, men drank rum, fired guns wildly, and costumed themselves in animal fur or women's clothing, crossing species and gender. In New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities, they formed parades, which involved beating on big pots, blowing on trumpets and horns, and setting off firecrackers.
Then, during the early 1800s, Christmas became a cultural battleground. During the early 1800s, Protestant Christians challenged the popular Christmas. They called for a shorter, more refined, more family-centered celebration at the end of the year.
As the historian Stephen Nissenbaum has shown, a small group of New Yorkers were primarily responsible for creating a new kind of a Christmas. The first was Washington Irving, a famous writer. Irving had long complained about the lack of American traditions, heroes, and distinctively American holidays. He became the inventor of Santa Claus. He took several legends about a Dutch St. Nicholas and built on them to create an American tradition.
In his 1809 History of New York, he described celebrations of St. Nicholas in what was then New Amsterdam. Although such celebrations never happened, the book became a best seller of its day, read not only in the finest houses of New York City but in primitive wooden houses on the frontier. After its publication, the St. Nicholas legend traveled fast.
In 1822 Clement Clarke Moore provided the first description of Santa Claus that we know today. He became famous for a 56-line poem written to amuse his children. By penning the poem that begins "Twas the night before Christmas," Moore Americanized the Old World St. Nicholas, turning him into jolly Santa Claus, a plump, happy elf with a sleigh full of toys and eight flying reindeer. He moved St. Nicholas's visit to December 24, not December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas' day.
Moore mixed a number of European legends together: the gift giving of the Dutch St. Nicholas, the Norse god Thor's sleigh pulled by flying goats, the chimney descent of a mythical visitor in Germany, and the French and Italian practice of hanging stockings. The name was an Americanization of the Dutch nickname Sinter Clas.
It is remarkable how long it took before our modern symbols of Christmas became fixed. The first painting of St. Nicholas by an American artist did not appear until 1837. In the early days, Santa Claus didn't necessary give children presents; he was often pictured holding a wooden rod in his hands, and he punished children with a whipping. In 1839, there was even a Broadway production: Santa Claus: Or, The Orgies of St. Nicholas.
While Clement Moore had given the country a written description of the ideal St. Nicholas, it was the political cartoonist Thomas Nast who developed the visual image of Santa Claus. When he was just 21-years-old, Nast gave Santa his familiar shape: fat and jolly, with a stocking cap and a long white beard. Previously, Santa Claus was often depicted as tall, thin and domineering - often with black hair and a stiff hat.
Nast's first Santa Claus appeared during the Civil War in 1863 as a morale booster for Northern soldiers. His drawings showed Santa arriving at a camp of Union soldiers in his reindeer sleigh, wearing a special suit decorated with the stars and stripes. But it was not until 1886 that a Boston printer named Louis Prang introduced a Christmas card that showed Santa in a red suit. Around the same time, a store in Brockton, Massachusetts, had the first department store Santa.
It was during the Great Depression of the 1930s that the Coca Cola Company created the image of Santa Claus that still lives today. Coke hired a Chicago artist to create a Christmas advertising campaign. The artist, Haddon Sundblom, produced a new archetype for Santa Claus. America during the Great Depression needed a strong symbol of happy consumerism, and Sundblom gave him to us. He looks like a kindly uncle who enjoys his work. He steals from the refrigerator and takes time to play with the family dog.
The essential point is that the modern family Christmas is not a timeless tradition - an ancient, venerable tradition steeped in religious significance. It was something that was invented just 150 years ago.
Allen Iverson’s Crossover Appeal
The player has entered basketball’s hall of fame. But what does his life really mean?
VANN R. NEWKIRK II APR 5, 2016
If I close my eyes, I can still picture it. The defender pulls up his shorts and enters a crouch, his arms stretching seven feet from Allen Iverson’s ankle to the passing lane to the right. Then, too quick to even notice, Iverson feints left and stops, putting the defender off balance for just a millisecond. By the time the defender is back in position, with his weight now on his left foot, Iverson does it. A lightning-fast hesitation move turns the defender in the wrong direction. By the time he recovers, Iverson is already in his shooting motion. Pure.
That night in 1997 was the night I became an Allen Iverson fan. What he did to that defender, Michael Jordan, the greatest player of all time, made the box score unimportant. He had done the impossible. He had made God bleed.
19 years later, Iverson was put in the basketball hall of fame with other famous players he had defeated. Along with a class of NBA giants including Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming, Iverson was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame yesterday. But with that, comes a reflection. Perhaps more than any player––including Michael Jordan and LeBron James––Iverson has been at the center of a culture war that still controls the sport.
I remember the first name brand pair of basketball shoes I owned. My grandmother, on a secret mission to avoid strict orders from my father, took me to the mall. The display case at the front of the store had them, a puffy pair of white and red sneakers with thick air-filled bubbles in the heels. They were Iverson’s signature shoes, the title “Question” a play on words on one of his nicknames, “The Answer.” I begged my grandmother to buy me a pair, and even though the only pair available was two sizes too big, I packed them in my bag with a sock stuffed inside each shoe so I could change into them at school away from my father’s watching eye. At school I stepped into the Iverson culture war.
“You think you a rapper with them Jordans on?” My gym teacher pointed to my shoes, which I had already explained were Iversons and not Jordans. Like most gym teachers I’ve ever had, he was a big white man whom I suspect played football somewhere at some point. He pointed again. “That’s what’s wrong with sports.”
I don’t remember my response, but I remember my profound feeling of unease, standing there as I was, examined by my white gym teacher in front of mostly white classmates. I’ve loved basketball and hip-hop for as long as I can remember, and the idea that one could be corrupting the other left me with the impossible task of trying to decide which piece of me I loved more.
Basketball itself was facing the same dilemma. Iverson’s rise to fame––and my childhood as a basketball fan––came during a sort of uneasy peace between the NBA, black culture, and its most popular form, hip-hop. Jordan’s marketing came on the wings of hip-hop, and his shoe line has become an integral part of the art’s DNA. By the time Iverson was drafted in 1996, the short shorts and white socks of basketball past had been replaced, Phi Slama Jama alumni were winning rings, and Scoop Jackson was raising hell at SLAM magazine. Hip-hop––some version of it––was very much at the center of basketball and has been since.
But there were lines and taboos that made hip-hop expression sanitized in the NBA. The league’s marketing displayed the popular elements of hip-hop while cleaning away much of the racial issues and social commentary that are its soul. Basketball was black––but not too black. Jordan’s brand was propelled by hip-hop, but he kept a distance from it himself and maintained a clear sense of apathy toward most cultural issues. The NBA, then as now, steered away from big social concerns and crises. Party rap was all fun and good, but more and more music became hardcore tales of life in the American wastelands, following the country’s obsession with jail and violence.
Iverson’s generation of artists and athletes represented the first group of black people who had been raised entirely on the phenomenon of hip-hop in all its diverse forms. His contemporaries—Shaq, Kobe, Chris Webber, Ron Artest—all represented some aspect of this new paradigm, but Iverson, with his durags, tattoos, baggy clothes, jewelry, braids, and crossovers, embodied it in a form that couldn’t be denied. It was impossible to pay attention to Iverson and ignore the deep history of poverty and inequality that animated his every step. His flashy superhero alter ego of “AI” was glitzy gold over sandpaper, a facade of pride laid over a foundation of pain. Iverson was the tough gristle of black America that the NBA machine couldn’t digest.
The isolation-driven, flashy merger of basketball and hip-hop in streetball showed up in his game, and like many of his peers (and many black youth, including me) he even tried his hand at rapping in 2000. The result was terrible––a profane, misogynistic, homophobic blur of clumsy lines. The NBA was horrified, and pressure from its then-commissioner David Stern killed the next album. There were other things too. An ugly history of possible domestic abuse and neglect, drinking problems, and money problems. But, as is true for all hip-hop fans, for me and for many people like me, he was the scowling specter of a secret identity that had to be buried in order to succeed. Despite his considerable and numerous warts, Iverson was an icon to some part of us. Not a role model, but a persona who represented a kind of freedom to be that we may never have.
That freedom had become a full-on liability by 2005. After the infamous “Malice at the Palace,” in which multiple players fought each other and fans in an extended brawl, the league needed to change its image. Lingering unease about the “thuggishness” the NBA promoted via hip-hop spilled onto talk radio. Iverson wasn’t present at the brawl, but in the eyes of many, his presence seemed to hang over it. The dress code the league passed seemed to be directly targeted at him. No jerseys, no durags, no jewelry. And so the NBA closed the book on Iverson. I felt like it had closed the book on a part of me as well.
That dress code would in some ways hand official ownership of the NBA’s image to LeBron James, who’s been much more socially active than Jordan, but has adopted much of his careful balancing act between owning the PR advantages of hip-hop while keeping his distance from its rougher elements in wider society. The NBA today is a machine, a fully realized version of the American consumerist relationship with black culture. The deep roots of marginalization have tied blackness, basketball, and hip-hop together as tightly as soccer and samba in Brazil’s favelas. And just as soccer federations mine the global sport of poverty and marginalization for immense profit, so the NBA extracts, purifies, and sanitizes black culture and talent for a wider audience. Iverson was the diamond it couldn’t quite polish.
More than a decade after the NBA unofficially denounced Iverson, his legacy is being reconsidered. Iverson was ostensibly inducted into the Hall for his basketball ability, his prolific scoring, and the way in which he took a talentless Sixers team to the Finals. But the moments I remember most are those that blend sports and culture, and that can’t be so easily quantified. I remember the crossover, the shooting sleeves, the tattoos, the braids, the shoes.
Is Iverson’s entrance into the Hall of Fame a mean that Allen Iverson is accepted in all his completeness, or––like the current consumerism of the NBA––is it an attempt to digest parts of a phenomenon while ignoring others? Is it possible to celebrate a player—one with no championship rings and a ball-hogging, shot-happy game that history looks on less and less kindly—for what he did without celebrating what he meant?
I ask this as I think back to those games in that middle-school gym. I think we lost most of them; it turns out I am, and have always been, an absolutely awful basketball player. Basketball and hip-hop were my secret gardens, and Allen Iverson highlights watered that garden. There was the electricity of doing what I loved how I loved. I would reach down and touch my shoes after each game. I’ve always had my answer.
1. What does this article say about how the NBA treats black culture?
2. According to the writer, how were the politics of Michael Jordan, Alan Iverson, and Lebron James different?
3. Why is Iverson so important for this writer? What made him special?
KEY PASSAGE: "The deep roots of marginalization have tied blackness, basketball, and hip-hop together as tightly as soccer and samba in Brazil’s favelas. And just as soccer federations mine the global sport of poverty and marginalization for immense profit, so the NBA extracts, purifies, and sanitizes black culture and talent for a wider audience. Iverson was the diamond it couldn’t quite polish."
marginalization = marginalization
soccer = basketball
marginalization = marginalization
soccer = basketball
samba = hip hop
favela = poor urban black areas.
Int'l Soccer organizations = NBA