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Holidays and the Invention of Tradition

Digital History TOPIC ID 69

If you were catapulted back to colonial America 350 years ago, you would be struck by the absence of holidays. There was no Christmas and there was no Easter. There was no Halloween, no Valentines Day, and, of course, no Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, or Mother's Day.

Take the example of Christmas. In New England, the celebration of Christmas was illegal. In Massachusetts there was a five shilling 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 carols. Most amazingly of all, no Santa Claus or Kris Kringle or St. Nicholas.

What there was in 1800 was a rowdy drunken street carnival, a raucous combination of Halloween, New Year's Eve, and Mardi Gras. The poor would demand entrance into the homes of the rich and aggressively beg for food, drink, and money. Sometimes things would escalate and there would be break-ins, vandalism, sexual assault, and plenty of drinking. In 1828, a particularly violent Christmas riot in New York led the city to institute its first professional police force.

Christmas celebrations in 1800 owed more to the midwinter worship of Saturn and Bacchus than to Christ. By the second century, the Romans were regularly feasting, drinking, and cavorting like satyrs 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. This was a partly way to meet the challenge of pagan cults. The church tacitly 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 excess and extravagance, public lewdness, and violations of social order. In medieval and early modern Europe, celebrants often elected a "Lord of Misrule" to preside 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 reveler posing as a minister. The affair was consummated on the spot! No wonder, New England Puritans sought to criminalize this rowdy affair.

Puritans were particularly upset by two irksome Christmas practices: One was mumming, the exchange of clothes between men and women; and even worst was the outbreak of rioting, drunkenness, and fornication. It was this raucous celebration that the New England Puritans tried to kill.

But despite the Puritans' best efforts, Christmas in America became an excuse for dangerous hell raising. At Christmastime, men drank rum, fired muskets wildly, and costumed themselves in animal pelts or women's clothes - crossing species and gender. In New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities, they formed Callithumpian parades, which involved beating on the kettles, blowing on penny trumpets and tin horns, and setting off firecrackers.

Then, during the early 1800s, Christmas became a cultural battleground. During the early 1800s, evangelical Protestants challenged the popular Christmas. They called for a shorter, more refined, more family-centered celebration at the end of the year, one that would banish "what is sensual and low, and very close to vice itself in the existing Saturnalia."

As the historian Stephen Nissenbaum has shown, a handful of New Yorkers were primarily responsible for creating a new kind of a Christmas. The first was Washington Irving, the author of Rip Van Winkle and the Legends of Sleepy Hollow. Irving had long lamented the lack of American traditions, heroes, and distinctively American holiday. He was the person who invented the legend that Columbus was the first person to believe the world was round. And he was also the inventor of Santa Claus. He took several legends about a Dutch St. Nicholas and embellished them to create an American tradition.

In his 1809 History of New York, he described flamboyant celebrations of St. Nicholas in what was then New Amsterdam. Although such observances never happened, the book became a best seller of its day, read not only in the drawing rooms of New York City but in log cabins on the frontier. After its publication, the St. Nicholas legend traveled fast.

It was in 1822 that Clement Clarke Moore provided the first definitive description of Santa Claus that we know today. Moore was a prominent Protestant theologian, a slaveholder, and the author of his age's leading Hebrew dictionary. But he became famous for a 56-line poem written solely 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 go lucky elf with a sleigh full of toys and eight flying reindeer. Not least, he set St. Nicholas's visit on 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. And 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 birch rod in his hands, and he punished children with his gift of a whipping. In 1839, there was a Broadway production: Santaclaus: 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. Nast was the cartoonist who created the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey. 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 an domineering - often with black hair and a stiff brimmed 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 portrayed 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 persists to 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 hearty symbol of happy consumerism, and Sundblom gave him to us. The now famous Santa is no fairy tale pixie. He looks like a kindly uncle who enjoys his work. He raids the refrigerator and takes time to play with the family dog.

Christmas carols, too, do not have a long history. Silent Night was not born until 1818. Most famous Christmas carols date from the 1840s and 1850s. O Come All Ye Faithful was not written until 1841, Joy to the World until 1848; It Came Upon the Midnight Clear first appeared in 1849, and Hark the Herald Angels Sing in 1856.

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.

Today, many lament the breakdown of tradition. We fear that our society is going to hell in a handbasket that parents are neglecting children, that children refuse to respect their elders, that materialism and commercialism have triumphed over all other values.

But traditions are not things written in stone. Traditions aren't static. They are invented. The 19th century was a great period for the invention of traditions. Thanksgiving, Mother's Day, Memorial Day - all were products of the Victorian era. Just as the 19th century created our image of the traditional family, of team sports, the white wedding, and even a traditional Christmas, we have it within our power to create new traditions, suitable for our own time. So as the bloodiest, most violent century in world history comes to an end, perhaps it is appropriate that we should strive to create traditions that we can pass down to our own children.

Copyright Digital History 2014