During the last few weeks of the semester, I taught two works dealing with Christmas: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and A Christmas Carol. While I was teaching the two works, I read Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, which details a fascinating history of Christmas in America. Briefly some of his information is as follows:
Mumming—costumes and masks
Nissenbaum begins by showing how the Puritans from 1620 through 1750 made the celebration of Christmas illegal. The New English Puritans objected to the drunken sense of misrule that was going on in other English areas. The Puritans recognized that December 25 was only accepted as Christ’s birth date after the 4th century. The Church at that time merely usurped the Roman Saturnalia. The early celebration varied in length, but was essentially designed as a period for workers to let off steam. Mumming, with its sense of carnival, included masks and costumes. Men often dressed as women; women as men. They selected a “Lord of Misrule.” During the celebration charity was given to the poor, with the poor going from place to place demanding drink (wassailing).
One of the signs of the conflict between Catholicism and Puritanism was the removal of “red letter days” which were the days of the saints practiced by the Roman Catholics.
Between 1730 to 1800, Christmas entered the mainstream.
Irving Creates Traditions
One author whose works helped create the sense of traditions was Washington Irving who in 1819 wrote about the celebrations at an English country manor, Bracebrige Hall. Irving admitted that he had never seen some of the traditions he described.
The Cult of Santa
The cult of Santa Claus did not exist in the Colonial Period. St. Nicholas did exist, but he was a patron saint of New Amsterdam. Irving refers to him 25 times in his writing. He is viewed as a patrician saint in a broad hat and smoking a clay pipe. On December 6, he rewards and punishes the children. A poem in 1821 refers to him as coming on Christmas Eve, traveling in a sleigh pulled by a single reindeer. In 1822 Clement Clarke Moore composed “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” He’s described a pedlar and smokes a short pipe. Gentlemen smoked long pipes; plebeians smoked short ones. St. Nick’s sleigh flew and had eight reindeer.
Santa’s transformation continued during the 1860s as Thomas Nast began drawing his Santas. His most famous—and defining image-- came about in 1881, complete with long pipe.
In Pennsylvania, the Belsnickle (from Pelz-nickle “St. Nicholas in fur”) was based on Knecht Raprecht (“Rupert the Servant”) who wore high boots, a white robe, often black mask, and enormous flax wig. He frightened people, creating mischief and demanding gifts, following in the traditions of the wassailers and the mummers.
One of the major changes of Christmas occurred in the 1800s when the poor were replaced by children. After 1826, theatrical productions, which before were not presented on Christmas Day, became popular Christmas-fare for children.
In 1769, a man sent mittens for his wife to a dyer. Nissenbaum lists it as the first instance of a commercial gift. By 1806 the first advertisement with Christmas presents appears in the ad of a bookseller. By 1820s Santa appears. During the depression of 1830s, more ads with Santa appeared.
The Christmas Tree
Nissenbaum explains that the Christmas tree finds its origins in the practices of German immigrants during the 1830s. In 1835 a female author describes the tree of Charles Fallen, a German immigrant Harvard professor. The top of a fir tree or spruce is placed on a table, with toys on each branch and dozens of wax candles. Traditionally the tree was not seen by the children until New Year’s Eve. An 1836 illustration shows a table top tree with fence around the base, doll house, soldiers, food and toy horse. Candles are lit on each branch. The trees probably didn’t appear earlier than 1810. In Germany they seem to have been introduced in Strasboarg after 1750.
In the Antebellum South, planters took December as a season of major eating and boisterous carnival spirits including guns, firecrackers and hard drinking, a way of letting off steam. People’s drinking started before breakfast. Traditional fox hunts allowed friends to visit. Slaves could use the time to rest, sleep, travel to visit friends, attend revival meetings, even make wares they could sell. The freeing of slaves created havoc with the previous traditions. Nissenbaum’s book proved very interesting reading.
Check it out: Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas. NY: Vintage Books, 1996.
Check here to see my collection of 365 Santa Clauses.