The holiday season is upon us. Americans come from all corners of the world, bringing traditions of Hanukkah, Yule, Christmas, Kwanzaa and other cultural festivals across the nation.
Christmas, celebrated by many Christians as the birth of Jesus Christ every Dec. 25, was considered a crime in 1659 by the Massachusetts colony. The Puritans, newly liberated from England, associated the holiday with paganism and idolatry, finding no scriptural justification for celebrating Christmas. Other settlers of the colonies celebrated by visiting their neighbors and receiving small gifts of food and drink.
Santa Claus, every child’s favorite jolly elf in a red suit, has his roots from both Dutch and German traditions of Sintaklass and St. Nicholas. The Santa we know today came from the imaginations of Washington Irving, who in 1809, wrote the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York with many references to a jolly St. Nicholas with a clay pipe who climbed down chimneys to bring gifts to children.
Clement Clarke Moore wrote the 1823 poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” describing a red-suited pilot of a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer while illustrator Thomas Nast drew the first portrait of the Santa everyone knows today.
The day became a federal holiday in 1870 under President Ulysses S. Grant in an attempt to unite North and South.
In 1897, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon was asked by his eight-year-old daughter, Virginia whether Santa Claus really existed. The father suggested she write to The Sun, a New York City newspaper, telling her, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Francis Pharcellus Church, a former Civil War correspondent and one of The Sun’s editors, wrote a response that remains the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any newspaper in the English language.
Other Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas tree, were brought over by German settlers to America. Martin Luther, the 16th century German cleric, was said to have brought home a fir tree to remind his children of the wonders of God’s creation. Decorating the house with evergreens goes back even further with pre-Christian winter rites in Europe.
The Christmas tree was originally decorated with apples, nuts or dates. In the 18th century, candles illuminated the tree. Today’s Christmas tree may have traditional ornaments such as garland, glass balls, tinsel and candy canes and lit with electric lights.
St. Nicholas also started of the tradition of leaving presents in stockings. Legend tells of a man who had three beautiful daughters but had no dowries to give so they couldn’t get married. St. Nicholas had heard about the three girls and visited their home at night. He found three stockings hanging by the chimney and hid a bag of gold in each stocking.
Earlier traditions have the Norse god Odin and a grandmother in Italy leaving gifts in stockings merging with the story of St. Nicholas into the practice most Americans observe today with bright red and green stockings with each Family member’s name written on the top.
No matter the holiday tradition Families follow, every one of them is based on giving, goodwill and cheer for one another. May the spirit of Christmas touch everyone throughout the year.
(Editor’s note: Information about Christmas traditions were provided by the St. Nicholas Center at www.stnicholascenter.org, The Christmas Tradition in America by Michael Friedman from IIP Digital, United States of America Embassy and www.wikipedia.org.)