THE BATTLE FOR CHRISTMAS
'Twas the night before Christmas,
and all through the house,
not a creature was stirring, etc...
Each December 24, from colonial days until the 1840s, gangs prowled the streets of New York, Philadelphia, Boston... Belching, bellowing, banging on pans, drunken revelers terrified all within earshot. Some stumbled and fell in the gutter. Others broke windows, battered doors, pelted taverns with rotten fruit. Ahh, Christmas -- as it used to be. And each Christmas morn, newspapers lamented the damage: "The beastly vice of drunkenness among the lower laboring classes is growing to a frightful excess."
With police unable to curb such Yuletide cheer, three New Yorkers waged a battle for Christmas. One was a celebrated author, another a cartoonist, the third a patrician landowner who fancied himself a poet. Three men creating the modern holiday? Impossible, unless you believe in Santa Claus.
Christmas has a checkered past. For centuries, those who preferred a reverent observation of Christ's birth were drowned out by bacchanalia. The rowdy Roman solstice fest of Saturnalia paved the way for centuries of fun. Peasants, having little work during the dark of mid-December, drank and drank some more, then celebrated with far more than fa-la-la. Medieval tradition created a Master of Misrule who led the debauchery. Appalled by the excess, early American settlers banned Christmas as "papist and pagan." But the annual anarchy continued into the 1800s, making Christmas more dreaded than holy. And then...
Deep in the Dutch culture of New York lay the story that would civilize Christmas. Dutch tradition spoke of Sinterklaas who gave gifts to children each December 6. Sinterklaas was based on St. Nicholas, a kindly Catholic bishop who became the patron saint of children (and of sailors, brewers, and students). But because December 6 was the saint's "papist" name day, Protestant reformers moved gift giving towards the winter solstice, finally settling on December 25. If only the rowdy American Christmas could summon Saint Nick...
The battle’s first shot came in 1809 when Washington Irving, creator of Rip Van Winkle, wrote a satiric history of New York that celebrated the Dutch St. Nicholas. The seed was sown. "Without Irving," one historian wrote, “there would be no Santa Claus." But Irving was upstaged by a lesser writer.
In 1822, a wealthy landowner in Manhattan wrote a poem you may have heard. It began "'Twas the night before Christmas..." Washington Irving's Santa had a sled towed by one pathetic reindeer. Clement Clark Moore bumped the number to eight and named them. Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen... Moore also fattened Santa and put a twinkle in his eye. And the stockings hung by the chimney with care? The visions of sugar plums? The bundle of toys "flung on his back?" All from one man's imagination. Filling the need for a Christmas every American could celebrate, the poem took wings.
"A Visit from Saint Nicholas" was reprinted in 1823 -- in one newspaper. The following year, four almanacs picked it up. Then in 1826, the poem appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. By 1828 it was known nationwide. Christmas "cheer" continued in the streets but now the revelry had a rival -- a homey, child-centered Christmas. By 1848, diarist George Templeton Strong noted, Christmas was "essentially an indoor and domestic festival." Then during the Civil War, Santa got his own portrait gallery. (Click on images below for slideshow.)
Thomas Nast, born in Bavaria, grew up in New York hearing German stories of Woden, a bearded holiday gift giver. In 1862, Nast began drawing political cartoons for Harper's Weekly. For the next two decades, Nast's annual Santa sketches created the St. Nick we still know. The red suit. The full beard. Checking on children "naughty or nice." All were the cartoonist's creation. And the rest is, well, commerce.
In 1902, L. Frank Baum, fresh from writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, wrote The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. As major department stores opened, merchants jumped on Santa's sleigh. During World War II, a Jewish immigrant named Irving Berlin dreamed of a "White Christmas" while a Jewish jazz singer (Mel Torme) wrote "chestnuts roasting by an open fire..." Soon jingle bells rocked. The little drummer boy rump-pa-pumped. And everyone from Tennessee Ernie Ford to Bob Dylan released a Christmas album. It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
So when you hear it said that there is a "war on Christmas," order up another round. Then drag out not just Dickens but a more surprising Christmas story -- of how Christmas used to be -- drunken and dangerous. And how three New Yorkers, stirred by an old Dutch myth stemming to the patron saint of children, made a merry Christmas for all, and to all a good night.
(For the full story, see The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum)