Opinion

Technology, tradition and the invention of Christmas in 19th-century New York

Pages from an 1864 edition of Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Printings of Moore’s poem included some of the first images of St. Nicholas. Images courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) — Charles Haynes Haswell, who grew up in the 1820s in New York City, remembered in his memoirs that in his youth, “Christmas was very slightly observed as a general holiday.” A few years later, when Haswell was at boarding school on Long Island, Christmas was altogether ignored.

It wouldn’t be until 1849, by which time Haswell was on his way to a long career in the city’s Tammany Hall political machine, that Christmas became a legally recognized holiday in the state of New York, following Alabama and other Southern states a decade earlier. But by then New York City had already given birth to the winter festival that is celebrated today across the United States and beyond.

Christmas has had a spotted history in Christendom. For a few hundred years after the birth of Jesus, no one thought much of celebrating the Christ child’s birthday. It was Easter time, commemorating Jesus’ death and resurrection, that occupied center stage; celebrations of a birth smacked too much of pagan ways.

Charles Haynes Haswell in the late 1850s. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Early Christian leaders differed, anyway, on when Jesus was born: many thought spring, with its obvious symbolism of new life. But by the 4th century, especially because it served to eclipse the older pagan celebrations of solstice, the church made Dec. 25 the date for the “Christ Mass.” What better idea than to have the “light of the world” enter the darkest time of year?

Traditions slowly accrued to the celebratory Mass, with the familiar gift-giving, singing and uses of light becoming prominent. Pre-Christian symbols of trees and yule logs were uprooted from their prior ritual uses and firmly attached to the new Christian holiday.

Over time, simple celebration turned to carousing to full-on frolicking, especially in European traditions such as wassailing that crossed the Atlantic. By 1785, New York state had to ban the shooting of fireworks or guns on Christmas.

Such rowdy behavior was scorned by the early Puritans who settled in the American colonies, and they outlawed Christmas celebrations for several decades between the 17th and 18th centuries. Even when bans on celebrations were eventually lifted, Christmas was only, as Haswell noted, “slightly observed.”

Another reason Christmas was not widely celebrated in the early United States, however, was the great diversity of the fledging nation. Immigrants, speaking multiple languages and coming from multiple cultures, endured the winter season with their own native festivals. New York in the 19th century comprised so many varieties of the Christian religion, and no religion, that a coherent celebration was difficult to achieve.

“Knickerbocker’s History of New York” by Washington Irving. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

It was the writer Washington Irving who saw Christmas as a chance to unite this diverse swirl, with Santa Claus as the common figure who could help pull this off. But Santa had to be invented first.

Irving’s satirical “History of New York” of 1809 referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New Amsterdam (a.k.a. New York). Nicholas, the old pipe-smoking saint (“Sinterklaas” in the Dutch), had led the Dutch from old Amsterdam to New Amsterdam and kept a watch on them there, according to Irving’s fast and loose historical sketches.

Irving’s raising of Nicholas to patron status was furthered by his friend John Pintard, who hosted a grand banquet at City Hall for the New York Historical Society on St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6. Dutch celebrations of the day included gift-giving and the hanging of stockings.

Given this lead, New York City seminary professor Clement Clarke Moore cemented the connection. On Dec. 23, 1823, the Troy Sentinel published Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Beginning with the now-famous words, “’Twas the night before Christmas…” the poem was reprinted across the country, thus securing many of the invented traditions about Christmas. St. Nick, a white-bearded “jolly old elf,” now arrived on Christmas Eve, climbing down chimneys with sacks full of toys, carried around by eight reindeer who landed on housetops.

Some 40 years later, Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist for New York newspapers and magazines, gave visual life to this jolly, rotund elf in a series of seasonal illustrations for Harper’s Weekly that ran from 1863 to 1886. Nast’s depiction, with Santa still smoking his pipe but now dressed in red, became the American icon of the holiday. Thanks in part to Coca-Cola advertisements in the mid-20th century, it has become the world’s as well.

The New York area’s influence on Christmas goes beyond St. Nick, however. At Christmastime in 1882, Edward H. Johnson, vice president of the Edison Electric Light Co. in New Jersey and a colleague of Thomas Edison, the inventor of the first commercially successful light bulb, wanted to wrap his New York City Christmas tree. He asked his engineers to produce 80 red, white and blue bulbs. A little publicity through the press rapidly made this a Christmas standard.

Thomas Nast’s famous drawing, “Merry Old Santa Claus,” from the Jan. 1, 1881, edition of Harper’s Weekly is largely considered the basis for the modern image of Santa Claus. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Tree lights were soon supplemented by ornaments — New Yorker F.W. Woolworth made his fortune in part by selling German glass ornaments for 5 and 10 cents — and shortly afterward a German immigrant, F.A.O. Schwarz, opened a toy store on Broadway in 1870. Twenty years later it would be declared the “Original Santa Claus headquarters.” Across town, Macy’s began its Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924, ending with the Santa float that would usher in the Christmas season.

In 1912, tens of thousands of people turned out to see a tree from the Adirondacks erected in Madison Square and adorned with a thousand lights (from the Edison company). This was a precursor to the Rockefeller Center tree, which started in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression.

To round out the cultural events, Radio City Music Hall started its Christmas Spectacular in 1933. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite became associated with Christmas when the New York City Ballet began performing it in the winter of 1954.

Christmas must be seen as part of the larger innovation hub that was New York City in the 19th century. But it is also a testament to the way tradition survives only as it morphs and adapts to its environments. It’s this pastiche of traditions, begged, borrowed and stolen from various cultures — saints old and new, electric technologies and spirited poetry, cartoons and consumer culture — that merges into a unique package that seems at once fresh each winter, and yet somehow timeless.

(S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate is associate professor by special appointment at Hamilton College. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate

43 Comments

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  • Regarding birthdays in the Bible: the recordered celebration of birthdays were the ‘pagans’ Pharoah and Herod. The month, day and of Jesus’s birth is unknown and unknowable. The anniversary of his death, based on Nissan 14 and the Passover, is known. Jesus commanded his followers to always observe his death. He gave no such command for his birthday even though his birth was celebrated (including 3 pagan astrologers) . So we make up a date and turn Christmas into a major holiday (secular for many people) as it has become a Western custom to celebrate one’s birth.

  • We didn’t really “make up a date.” The Church’s liturgical calendar developed over the years to celebrate the major events in the life of Jesus. His birth was one of the last celebrations to be placed on the calendar. The date was chosen because of the date of a much older celebration. The Church had celebrated the Annunciation as one of its oldest commemorations. It was celebrated traditionally on 25 MAR. 25 DEC is 9 months later, the natural gestation period of a human child. The Church has always known that these dates are metaphorical, not literal.

    Herod the Great and his clan were Jews, not a pagans.

  • My bad – Herod was not a pagan but he was against god.

    Yeah, the date for Christmas, Jesus’s birthday was made up.

    My point was that if god had intended for Christmas to be celebrated it’s reasonable he would have (1) commanded it, as he did for the Last Supper and (2) he would have given the date.

  • Time to correct history:

    Christmas, the embellished story of the birth of a simple, preacher man named Jesus.

    As per many contemporary NT exegetes, his parents were Mary and Joseph although some say Jesus was a mamzer, the result of a pre-marital relationship between Mary and a Roman soldier.

    http:// www. earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html

    Jesus was not born in Bethlehem at least the one we are familiar with and there were no pretty wingie thingies singing from on high, no slaughter of the innocents by Herod, no visiting wise men and no escape to Egypt.

    Mark’s gospel, the most historical of the four gospels, does not even mention the event.

    And from Professor Gerd Ludemann in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 269-272, “The historical yield of the Lukan infancy narrative in respect to the birth of Jesus is virtually nil (ditto for Matt. 1: 18-25, Matt. 2. 1-23)”

    http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php?title=007_Of_Davids_Lineage

    Conclusion Christmas is historically a non-event. Ditto for the Feast of the Magi and the solemnity of Mary aka New Years day.

  • Not a Santa Claus guy, myself. Never understood why some adults try to pull that wool over small children for real. I guess it was because I was taught from two or three onward that Santa wasn’t real, but rather he was a make believe legend. That way, I didn’t have to discover a disappointment about him at four, or five, or six, or whenever.

  • Observing a birth without a real date or biblical command to do so doesn’t sound reasonable, does it? Sounds silly. As Proverbs says, the day one’s death is more important than one’s birth.

  • Conclusion: if you ask stupid questions, you get stupid answers.

    Gerd Lüdemann is a German debunker of the New Testament, following a direct line back to late 19th century liberal German Protestant “historical-critical” theologians.

    He became son enamored of his own ideas that he wrote the book “Der große Betrug: Und was Jesus wirklich sagte und tat” (The Great Deception: And What Jesus Really Said and Did) in 1999, arguing that only about five per cent of the sayings attributed to Jesus are genuine and the historical evidence does not support the claims of traditional Christianity.

    Since he was not around when Jesus walked the earth, and the historical evidence is slim indeed, his conclusions were neither surprising nor significantly different from his German predecessors.

    The Confederation of Protestant Churches in Lower Saxony called for his dismissal from the Chair of New Testament Studies after Lüdemann stated that he was convinced him that belief in the Christian faith was become impossible.

    The members of the faculty complained to the University President that Professor Lüdemann had “fundamentally put in question the intrinsic soundness of Protestant theology at the University”. As a result the Chair of New Testament was renamed the Chair of History and Literature of Early Christianity, his research funding was cut and his teaching was no longer part of the curriculum. Lüdemann complained bitterly but the decision was final.

  • I think that everyone raises their children in their own way, and that’s OK. Like I did as a child, my children believed for a good number of years that St. Nicholas brought them presents on the 6th, and that the angel (I think that it was a specific angel tasked with just that 🙂 ) brought gifts on Christmas. Then they grew older, and we talked about it. I explained a bit about symbolism and about the fact that it was nice for them to get presents on those two occasions without having to thank anyone. My daughter has chosen to follow this custom with her children; my son does not. Either way, it’s OK, as long as it’s done with good intentions and no one goes overboard.

  • You will be relieved to know that I do not go about trying to keep other people’s kids from believing in Santa. I was actually surprised though, growing up as a kid, to discover that ANY others actually did believe. Seriously, I expected that everyone’s parents told little ones what my family told us from the time we could understand a word. Nope.

  • I did not, even for one minute, think that you would go about trying to keep other people’s children from believing in Santa. I was just making a comment.

    All little kids think that what goes on in their family is the norm, unless their parents tell them differently.

    Your parents did what they thought was best. Most other parents do, too. There are various ways of raising healthy, well-adjusted children.

  • And yet Professor Ludemann continues to thrive in the reality of truth as do all others who have found the historic Jesus through the rigorous historic testing of the NT and analogous documents of the first to third century CE.

  • Wouldn’t want you to think I am waging war on old St. Nick. I think my family wanted us to understand that some families don’t have as much as others and it was not because Santa liked some better than others. Stuff like that. I’m from the generation where the parents were teens in the Great Depression. There were for us a lot of stories about those lean days. Santa maybe didn’t fit them too well.

  • No problem.

    I understand. My parents lost everything when they left Ukraine towards the end of WW2. They came to the US with my brother and me and not much besides the clothes on their backs. I know what it means to have little…..

  • For my Mom, it was sorta the reverse. Her parents were not rich by any stretch, but in their small town, she had close friends who had much less and it bothered her a lot. So we grew up thrifty, and well counseled on being sensitive to other people’s situations. This may be one reason why I am now a Democrat in all my economic thinking. I don’t think that working people are supposed to be scraping along at a low fraction of the bounty we manage to bestow on the “smart money” set. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the Spirit of Santa Claus thinks so either.

  • No, Professor Lüdemann continues to dwell in the legend of his own wonderfulness, just like the late Richard McBrien, Charles Curran, and the other pundits of self-absorption.

    Since the New Testament is not a history text per se but a Testament, the result is preordained.

    It’s rather like testing the quality of a forged carbon steel blade by subjecting it to an accelerated corrosion test, or the quality of silk by subjecting it to the UL tests for fireproof safes.

    It’s ridiculous, and so are the results.

  • Said Jesus’ story (testament) was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen

  • Said Jesus’ story (testament) was diassembled and “demythicized” by many semi-fiction writers calling themselves “experts”.

    Among the myths they created were an imaginary document “Q”, no trace of which has ever been found despite the discovery of numerous copies of all manner of non-canonical epistles and gospels, prayers, rituals, and hymns.

    And gullible fools buy these myths, preferring zany tales by academics trying to get tenure and a foothold in the publishing world over the consensus of the millennia.

    Amen.

  • Obviously, rigorous historic testing is not one of your fortes because you lack the educational background to do so, i.e. PhD in Ancient History and / or Religious Studies which would qualify you as a contempory NT exegete.

  • Applying “rigorous historic testing” to religious texts is like training a dancing dog; it is not amazing that it is done well, it is amazing it is done at all.

    Numerous critics have pointed out that the late 19th century German school of exegesis has more in common with a cult than with either religion or exegesis.

    I agree.

    When you have to invent a document out of thin air to support your argument, you’re a fool and those who listen to you are fools.

    Any right-thinking individual, therefore, would be pleased to announce she or he “lack(ed) the educational background to do so”.

  • Get back to us when you rejoin the real world and give up on exegetes whose eyes roll in their heads, speak in German accents, and grant each other degrees in imaginary “disciplines”.

  • Obviously, you are trapped in the brainwash of bible box. We have given you the escape keys. It is up to you to continue your isolation or to escape to the reality of the 21st century. Merry Mythmas!

  • Obviously you have been enticed by the entlarvenmeisters and intend to goosestep to their tune.

    They ARE quite impressed with themselves.

    Ask them for a copy of Q for your holiday present.

  • Your exegetes are hardly “scientists”.

    You’re here to troll believers in Christianity, nothing else.

    Like edddoerr, Joseph Jaglowicz, Reason Over Religion, Ben in Oakland, Susan Humphreys, and some others you are not interested in a discussion, you are simply looking for opportunities to repeat ad infinitum scripted repetitive materials, in come cases pasted verbatim over and over, to annoy and harass believers.

    That’s why you post at a website likely to attract believers – Religion News Service – rather than some location where it would be topical such as Friendly Atheist.

    German scientists have nothing to do with it.

  • Then there is that Benedict and German fellow, ex-Pope.

    As the Great Kibosh continues to gain ground as witnessed at: https://religionnews.com/2018/12/10/religion-declining-in-importance-for-many-americans-especially-for-millennials/

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten
    seconds: Priceless !!!

    As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism,
    Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism,
    Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    There was no Easter i.e.
    Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    There was no Moroni i.e.Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.
    Sacred/revered cows, monkey ods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings
    (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that
    we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups
    calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally,
    Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early
    philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely
    different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb foreighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • “Jesus was a mamzer, the result of a pre-marital relationship between Mary and a Roman soldier.”

    No, that would be a contemporary of Jesus – Brian – who had a Roman father. This is discussed in the historical movie, The Life of Brian.

  • “In [Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography] (2000), Professor Chilton develops the idea of Jesus
    as a mamzer; someone whose irregular birth circumstances result in their
    exclusion from full participation in the life of the community. He argues for
    the natural paternity of Joseph and finds no need for a miraculous conception.
    In his subsequent reconstruction of Jesus’ life, Chilton suggests that this
    sustained personal experience of exclusion played a major role in Jesus’ self-identity,
    his concept of God and his spiritual quest.”

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