• 1. Describe Christmas in America before 1800.
• 2. Who originally invented Santa Claus? Why did he do that? Where did the idea of Santa giving gifts and coming down the chimney come from?
• 3. Who gave us our first visual image of Santa Claus?
• 4. Who invented our modern image of Santa Claus and why?
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.