Norman A. Rubin
(At Christmas time we imagine a jovial figure dressed in red driving a sleigh filled with toys and gifts pulled by a herd of reindeer streaking over rooftops. Or could that he is a really figure from the past and not as we envisage him to be.)
Since the earliest history of man almost every European culture has marked the winter solstice with a major festival for the rebirth of the earth. As the moment in time when, provided the appropriate rituals are performed and celebrated the earth will be reborn anew from the quietus of winter, its significance is manifest. Many are aware that this which lies behind our Christmas and New Years celebrations.
The lack of significance is indicated by the fact that no attempt was made to Christianize the festival until the middle of the fourth century. In the seventh century when the Puritans of England actually banned it with
other festivals of this kind there was no outcry.
The truth is our present festivities of the holidays are almost entirely a nineteenth century innovation in which three elements came together. One, the English writer, Charles Dickens with his Christmas stories, most famously ‘A Christmas Carol', was the native element. The second was Germanic, in the form of the Prince Consort of the throne of England who, in 1840, set up a Christmas tree for his children at Windsor Palace. The other element was American, though it was to combine with a relic from pagan Britain.
The American contribution to the element of Santa Claus came by a circuitous route, which in the early of colonization of America was called Saint Nicholas. The Dutch who colonized what was called New Amsterdam, now New York, had imported a custom from their home country of Holland. The sixth of December is the feast of their Patron saint. Nicholas of Myra. The day was traditionally marked by a figure in red and white Episcopal vestments visiting every household in which there were children. If the youngsters had been good throughout the year, they were rewarded with small presents. If not they were liable to a mild form of punishment at the hands of Klaubauf the assistant who accompanied St. Nicholas.
In 1822, Clement Moore, professor of Greek and Hebrew at New York State University, charmed by the custom, wrote a fifty-six-line poem ‘The Visit of St. Nicholas', with its now famous line:
"T'was the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse..."
The poem was intended solely for his children, his audience, when he first read it, numbered a lady who arranged for its anonymous publication in a local paper. The story was later taken up by Thomas Nast, a magazine illustrator of Bavarian descent. He was the person who turned St. Nicholas, his name now abbreviated to Santa Claus or Klaus (from the Dutch Sankt Nikolaus) into the cheerful, rubicund, bearded figure that became the personification of Christmas.
Soon popular throughout the United States, Santa Claus began to lose any connection with his Dutch and religious past. His secularization went still further when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the British Isles in the mid-nineteenth century. Here the figure quickly merged with an ancient personage, Father Christmas or Old Christmas, who had figured in the Mummer's plays probably since the pre-Christian era.
Over the ensuing years the process continued with Father Christmas/Santa Claus acquiring characteristics, which increasingly separated him from his original ancestry. Save in the country of Holland, where the tradition of St. Nicholas is still celebrated. Within time the Saint is no longer generally associated with the sixth of December, but to the Christmas holiday on December twenty-fifth; and his abode has moved to the frozen north, whence he travels on a flying sledge drawn by a team of flying reindeer. Today Santa Claus remains the bearer of gifts, but most idiosyncratically he enters homes by the way of the chimney and leaving, ‘traveling upward with fire and smoke..".
"And a Merry Xmas to all..."
1) The reindeer remains important to the economy of the Laplanders of Northern Europe, but another source of income augment it. It is tourism as it is the place much visited that is supposed to be the place where Santa Claus lives; and at Xmas time the post office there is inundated with letters by children to that jolly figure.
2) In the days when open fireplaces were usual, children would write their requests to Father Christmas on pieces of paper then thrown on the fire when they burned to ash and allowed to drift up the chimney and float on the winds, that it was hoped their petitions would reach him before Xmas.