|Title||Interpreting and Explaining Christmas Traditions|
|Type||Papers and Articles: OSV Research Paper|
Here are some brief remarks on the origins of various Christmas traditions, with a mixture of old and new. Please keep in mind, that when one discusses “traditions,” the line between history and legend is often quite blurry!
Traditions and customs evolve over time. At one time every tradition was new! Consider how “traditional” A Charlie Brown Christmas, or How The Grinch Stole Christmas have become since they first appeared on television in the mid-1960s. I cannot think of an American Christmas without them, and many cannot even remember a Christmas without these neo-classics. Every generation seems to add a new tradition or two of its own. Who knows what future traditions may appear this year?
For most New Englanders of the 1830s, NOT celebrating Christmas was their tradition. It was their normal thing to do. They knew that other people observed it, and that some people who had not (e.g. urban Unitarians) were beginning to. In fact, efforts to close schools and shops in Boston in the 1810s and ’20s failed because of the number of disappointed country people who came into town on December 25th (like any other day) still expecting to do business. (Culturally and geographically distant Alabama became the first state to declare Christmas a legal holiday, in 1836. i Most rural New Englanders followed the centuries-old tradition of not observing any holy days, since the Bible did not enjoin them to do so. Like their Puritan ancestors, they realized that the date of Christ’s birth is unknown (and almost certainly not in winter); that the holiday was the invention of the rejected Roman Catholic church; and that most people who did celebrate it did not hold it as a day of quiet and prayerful thanksgiving, but an excuse for drunkenness, gluttony, gambling, and telling children impious fairy stories. For these reasons most Yankees held that the best way to honor Christ was at Sunday worship and the Lord’s Supper, not in frivolous Christmas feasting and excess.
Origins of Christmas
Most scholars believe that Christmas celebrations originated in about the 4th century as a Christian substitute for several pagan winter festivals. These celebrations included the winter solstice, the festival of Saturnalia (note to farmers: Saturn was the god of agriculture), the birth of the god Mithra, and the new year’s festival of Kalends. Realizing that it was easier to gain converts by Christianizing pagan festivals than banning them altogether, the Roman Catholic Church just put a Christian face on them. For example, the Church replaced festivities honoring the birth of the sun god Mithra, the god of light, with festivities to commemorate the birth of Jesus, the son of God, “the light of the world.” Along the way, Christian beliefs combined with existing pagan feasts and winter rituals to create many long-standing traditions of Christmas celebrations. Recognizing these ancient pagan origins, the 17th century Puritans who founded New England abandoned Christmas festivities as unscriptural. Christmas as it eventually evolved in America combined ancient and not so ancient European traditions with elements uniquely American.
Christmas in America
American Christmas is based on many traditions, but was not just transplanted intact from elsewhere. In fact a great many European Christmas customs, including English traditions, were never widely observed in America, even in the Anglican South. Waits (musicians or carolers paid to perform at Christmastime), feasting on boars’ heads, or drinking from wassail bowls (filled with spiced ale or wine) never really caught on here. Mummers (masked merrymakers who went from door to door demanding food and drink on Christmas – much like today’s Halloween trick or treat, but for adults!) could only rarely be found in colonial America, and then only in cities. As American society came into its own in the 19th century, it borrowed freely from a wide variety of foreign customs and evolved its own unique Christmas traditions.
Giving of gifts evolved from largesse to the poor and underclasses in 18th century cities to familial exchanges of small presents by the mid-19th century. In colonial and early republican American cities the old English tradition of the “Christmas box” survived. Wealthy patrons were expected to give cash gifts to servants, tradesmen, and apprentices (much as paperboys and apartment building superintendents expect tips today). These dependents were not ashamed to ask for money, sometimes printing reminders and putting out boxes for the purpose. In England December 26 is called Boxing Day, when alms boxes for the poor are put out in churches. It is also the feast of St. Stephen; remember how “Good King Wencenslas” gave gifts to a poor man “upon the feast of Stephen” in that old carol?
America’s economy was growing and industrial output increasing by the early 19th century, at the same time that home and family life were being praised as a safe haven from an increasingly busy and threatening outside world. New England merchants began to encourage holiday gift giving as a way of increasing revenues. Sometimes they recognized Yankee sensibilities and advertised New Years gifts (instead of Christmas presents) for sale. Printers compiled stories, poems and pictures into little books intended as presents for children. Merchants began to stock a few toys, and advertise suggested presents. Some advertisements encouraged more sales by implying that giving of gifts was a long established custom, not something new. The months-long advertising blitz that we are familiar with today did not exist in the early 1800s; it was but a few small ads in late December newspapers. But as Americans grew wealthier, a growing urban middle class could afford to give a small Christmas or New Year’s trinket to their young children. (Until the mid-19th century, however, families almost never exchanged Christmas gifts.) This coincided with a growing social focus on the importance of family, children, and domesticity. Just as raucous public Christmas celebrations had served an important social role in medieval England, so too the growth of a commercial and domestic Christmas in 19th century America evolved to fill a societal need. Christmas gained increased prominence largely because many people believed it could draw families together and honor children. Giving gifts to children and loved ones eventually replaced the drunken public celebrations of old England, and Christmas became primarily a domestic holiday.
Gift giving had barely begun in New England before some 19th century people began lamenting the commercialization of the holiday. But such complaints go back even further. In the 4th century Libanius bemoaned the end-of-year festivities of the pagan Roman Empire thus:
“Everywhere may be seen...well-laden tables...The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He through the whole year has taken pleasure in saving...becomes suddenly extravagant...A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides.”
“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
in hopes that Saint Nicholas would soon fill them there.”
[“A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” Clement Clark Moore, New York, 1823]
Hanging a stocking by the hearth on Christmas Eve with the expectation that it will be filled with presents the next morning is a European tradition that goes back about 400 years. It derived from the Dutch custom of children placing wooden shoes next to the hearth the night before the arrival of St. Nicholas. The children filled their shoes with bread and hay for St. Nicholas and his donkey. In exchange, he would leave them small gifts such as cakes, fruits and other treats. Stockings were substituted for the shoes in Britain, most of Europe and in North America, with carrots, milk and cookies taking the place of the bread and hay.
Santa Claus has largely supplanted the Christ child as the central Christmas figure in American culture. The legend of Santa is one of complex origins. Many European countries have mythical gift-giving figures. ii Dutch settlers to 17th and 18th century New York brought the legend of Sinter Klaas, a tall, dignified, religious figure riding a white horse through the air. He was based on Nicholas, a 4th century Christian saint from Turkey known for his generosity to children. (One story of many holds that Nicholas gave dowries to the three daughters of a poor man.) Originally, Sinter Klaas was accompanied by Black Peter (a.k.a. Pelznickel or Belsnickle), an elf who punished disobedient children. In 19th century America he eventually developed into a fat, jolly old gentleman who had neither the halo of Nicholas nor the stick of Black Peter (and who even gets even a lump of coal anymore?). Just as Christmas was a Christianization of pagan festivals, so did Santa Claus and like magical figures from other countries blend pagan legends with traditions about saints. These Christianizations of Germanic deities perpetuate the ancient theme of rewards and punishment being dealt out to celebrants of the pagan festivals. The legend of Santa Claus entering the house through the chimney, may well relate to ancient superstitions about hearth spirits. Hearth spirit legends extend as far away as China, where people traditionally swept the house in preparation for a visit by the hearth spirit. Dressed in a pointed red cap and red jacket, this fire god traveled from the heavens above, visiting homes to distribute favors or punishments. Sound somewhat familiar?
Many date Santa’s transformation in America from 1823, when a Troy, New York newspaper published the anonymous poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” Legend has it that Clement Clark Moore composed the poem for his children on Christmas Eve of 1822, during a sleigh-ride home from Greenwich Village. iii A professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, he was best known at the time for a two-volume tome, A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language. Some claim that he drew inspiration for the elfin, pot-bellied St. Nick in his poem from the roly-poly Dutchman who drove his sleigh that day. But from what is known of Clement Moore, it’s much more likely to suppose that he drew his imagery from literary sources, most notably Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker History (1809) and a Christmas poem published in 1821 called “The Children’s Friend.” Irving’s History, a satire on the transplanted customs of New York’s Dutch population, contained several references to the legendary Saint Nicholas (the Dutch Sinter Klaus), a stern, ascetic personage traditionally clothed in dark robes who delivered gifts to children on Christmas Eve. Moore combined this with Irving’s descriptions of fat and jolly Dutch burghers with their white beards, red cloaks, wide belts, and leather boots. So, when Moore came to write a poem for his children, the austere St. Nicholas was transformed into a fat and jolly Dutchman. “The Children’s Friend” drew from the same tradition but added a new element to the Santa Claus myth: the first known references to a sleigh and reindeer. That poem begins:
Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O’er chimney tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you...
Moore thus transformed Nicholas, a saint of children, into Santa Claus (a name that he did not use), a fairy tale character for children. His poem introduced many Americans to the story of a kindly, magical fellow who flew over housetops in a reindeer–drawn sleigh. Santa is sometimes called Kris Kringle, a corruption of the German “Christkindlein”, the angelic messenger of the Christ child who brings toys to German children on Christmas Eve. Visually, portraits and drawings of Santa Claus by American illustrator Thomas Nast in the 1860s further strengthened the legend during the second half of the 19th century. Santa grew fatter and kindlier with time. By the late 19th century he had become such a prominent figure of American folklore that in 1897, when Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the New York Sun newspaper asking if Santa were real, she received the classic answer: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus….” I believe that most rural New Englanders in the 1830s would not have been familiar with Santa Claus, however.
The Christmas tree is another powerful symbol of the season, and surrounded by myth. While some claim origins as early as 3000 BC in Egypt, Christmas trees probably have their roots (sorry) in the forests of ancient Europe. There greenery was prominent in pagan winter celebrations in honor of tree gods. Ancient Romans sometimes trimmed trees with trinkets and toys at the beginning of the year. Germanic tribes believed that evergreen trees were especially imbued with life since they remained green throughout the winter. The Druids tied gilded apples to tree branches in winter. By the 11th century Christians decorated trees with fruit (and sometimes Eucharist-like wafers to represent redemption as well as man’s fall) in religious plays to symbolize the tree of life in the garden of Eden. This “Paradeisbaum” (the Paradise Tree) became a popular object, and was often set up in churches, and eventually in private homes as well. In sections of Bavaria, fir branches and little trees, decorated with lights, apples and tinsel are still called “paradeis.”
Many improbable legends are associated with the origins of Christmas trees as well. One holds that Saint Boniface, an 8th century English missionary to Germany, once came upon some pagans about to cut a huge oak tree as a stake for human sacrifice. With one blow Boniface felled the oak, and as the tree split a young fir tree sprang from its center. St. Boniface told the people that this was a holy tree. Its branches pointing to heaven, this tree of the Christ child was a symbol of His promise of eternal life. Boniface told them to carry the evergreen from the wilderness into their homes and to surround it with gifts, symbols of love and kindness. Another holds that when the Holy family was pursued by Herod’s soldiers, they hid beneath a pine tree. It closed its branches down and kept them safe until the soldiers had passed. Upon leaving, the Christ Child blessed the pine and the imprint of his little hand was left forever in the tree’s fruit--the pinecone. If a cone is cut lengthwise the hand may still be seen. Yet a third improbable legend is that while walking through the forest on Christmas Eve, Martin Luther (the German who began the Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century) was so moved by the beauty of the starlit fir trees that he brought one indoors and decorated it with candles to remind his children of God’s creation.
Regardless of its true origins, by the 17th century Germans had transformed the evergreen tree, a pagan symbol of fertility, into a Christian symbol of rebirth. A visitor to Strasbourg in 1601 wrote of a tree decorated with “wafers and golden sugar-twists and paper flowers of all colors”. While the Hanovarian kings may well have brought Christmas trees to England in the early 1700s, they did not catch on.
Christmas trees have been recorded among German communities in Pennsylvania as early as 1747. Legends abound of Hessian mercenaries decorating trees during the American Revolution, (before Washington crossed the Delaware and attacked them!). The first documented Christmas tree in New England was described by visiting English abolitionist Harriet Martineau in 1838. She wrote of how in 1835 she saw “the spectacle of the German Christmas-tree” on a New Year’s eve at the home of German immigrant and Harvard professor Charles Follen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Follen, it seems, had set up Christmas trees for his young son since 1832.) What she described was not so much a decoration as an event. Adults hung a table-top evergreen with toys, candy, and candles, then let children pick off the goodies, (while one adult stood by with “a sponge tied to the end of a stick” to put out any unwanted fires). When the goodies were gone all abandoned the denuded tree for dancing and mulled wine in another room.
While Martineau had “little doubt that the Christmas-tree” would “become one of the most flourishing exotics of New England,” its eventual popularity cannot be traced to an obscure academician but to royalty. Only after 1841, when Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert gave her a Christmas tree, did the custom rapidly begin to catch on in the English-speaking world. Images of the royal family around their tree appeared widely by the mid-1840s. By the 1850s there are even references to Christmas trees in Worcester county, albeit as a strange new “popish” custom. In 1856 President Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire decorated the first White House Christmas tree. In the 1870s and ‘80s glass ornaments were imported into Britain and America from Germany. Decorative strings of popped corn hung on trees became a creative use for that uniquely American food. American patents for electric Christmas lights began as early as 1882, only a few years after Edison’s invention of the incandescent bulb. Metal hooks for safer hanging of decorations onto the trees came in 1892. Peppermint sticks go back for centuries, and bent ones convenient for hanging on trees appeared by the late 1800s. iv Tinsel was invented in Germany around 1610. At that time real silver was used, and machines were later invented to draw it out into thin strips for tinsel. Silver was durable, but expensive and tarnished quickly, especially with candlelight. A mixture of lead and tin was widely used from the 1800s into the 1960s, but this was heavy and tended to break under its own weight. It was also dangerous to children and pets. Today most tinsel is lightweight Mylar film with a minute amount of metal in it, a technology originally developed for the space program.
Other Christmas Plants: Mistletoe, Holly, and Poinsettias
One tradition holds that ancient Europeans from Greece to Sweden believed that the mistletoe plant had magical powers of life and fertility. These supposedly miraculous powers were probably due to the fact that not only did the plant remain green throughout winter but it actually bore fruit during this time. Mistletoe was used at the festival of the winter solstice because it was considered sacred to the sun. Ancient Druids are said to have gathered this evergreen plant and used it to decorate their homes. Northern Europeans associated the plant with the Norse goddess of love, Freya or Frigga. This led to the tradition of “kissing under the mistletoe” - occurring early in the night of revelry and drunken debauchery, celebrating the death of the “old sun” and birth of the “new sun” at the solstice. Another legend states that when a boy kissed a girl, he plucked a berry from the plant and presented it to her. When the berries were gone, so were the kisses.
There are two types of mistletoe, by the way. The mistletoe that we Americans commonly use as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens) is native to North America and grows as a parasite on trees from New Jersey to Florida. The other type of mistletoe (Viscum album) is a native of Europe. The common name of the plant is derived from the ancient belief that mistletoe was propagated from bird droppings, since it would often appear on a branch where birds had defecated. (This belief was related to the old idea that life could spring spontaneously from manure.) “Mistel” is the Anglo-Saxon word for “dung,” and “tan” (corrupted to “toe”) is the word for “twig.” So, mistletoe might literally be rendered as “dung-on-a-twig”: how romantic!
Holly berries were also considered sacred to the sun god, and thus the holly was revered along with mistletoe.
Wreaths of pine, fir, and other evergreens, with holly, red berries and other decorations have been used as Christmas decorations since at least the 17th century in England. Since that time a great deal of symbolism has been attributed to these decorations. For example, some say that holly, with its sharply pointed leaves, symbolizes the thorns in Christ’s crown-of-thorns, while the red berries symbolize the drops of Christ’s blood.
The Poinsettia came to America from Mexico in 1828. This tropical plant with bright red leaves surrounding a tiny yellow flower was named after America’s first ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett of South Carolina. An amateur naturalist, Poinsett later served as Van Buren’s Secretary of War, and produced a brief uproar by proposing an elimination of the militia system in favor of a large federal army. Tradition holds that since at least the 18th century Mexicans thought the plant, which flowers there in December, was symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem. Poinsett just thought that this heat-loving plant was pretty.
Long before the first commercial Christmas cards were produced, Germans in the 15th century presented seasonal gifts called “Andachtsbilder”, a decorative woodcut devotional print for the home. This practice then dwindled over the next few centuries. In the 18th century students at English boarding schools were sometimes assigned to make “Christmas Pieces.” They took large sheets of writing paper, printed with engraved borders, and wrote messages to their parents expressing holiday greetings. By 1820 color was added to the engraved borders, making the pieces much more decorative. England’s “Penny Post” Act of 1840 aided the practice of sending holiday greetings through the mail. (The U.S. soon also reduced and simplified its postal rates in the mid-1800s.) English illustrator John Callcott Horsley first created true Christmas cards in 1843. Sir Henry Cole commissioned Horsley to print and hand-color cards to save him the effort of writing out greetings. One thousands copies of this lithographed 3” x5” card, which depicted a family celebration and acts of charity, were produced. Those not used by Cole were sold at one shilling (about 17 cents US) each. The raised glasses held by the happy family depicted on the card angered many temperance advocates, however, while others found the depiction of “clothing the naked” indecent. The card simply read, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”
The novelty, and convenience, of Christmas cards began to catch on as the 19th century progressed, and some English cards were exported to America. The earliest attempt to produce an American-made Christmas card was a printed advertisement in 1850 sent out by R. H. Pease’s Great Varety [sic] Store in Albany, New York. The card was a lithographed scene of Santa Claus with a family enjoying their presents, while a servant set the table for Christmas dinner. The first true American Christmas card, however, came in 1875 when German immigrant Louis Prang of Boston used a new lithographic technique to mass-produce color cards. By 1881 over five million Christmas cards were sent in America. These were often quite expensive, with some costing over a dollar apiece. Production of affordable Christmas cards with mass appeal got its start at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. There the U.S. Post Office granted Charles Goldsmith a license to print illustrated souvenir cards of the fair on U.S. post cards. Thousands sent holiday greetings from the “White City,” as the fair was called. (This, by the way, inspired the line, “Thy alabaster cities gleam…” in “America the Beautiful.”) Christmas postcards dominated through the first two decades of the 20th century, since they could be sent for only a cent. The modern greeting card industry began about this time as well. In the early 1900’s companies such as A.M. Davis, Hall Brothers, Inc (later renamed Hallmark Cards), American Greetings, and others were established. In 1929 American Greetings were the first to have self-serve display fixtures installed at retail stores.
Candles, Lights and Yule Logs
The burning of a Yule Log originated with the Druids and their ritual burning of a carefully chosen log during the winter. The word “yule” is derived from the old Anglo-Saxon word “hweol” which means “wheel” – a pagan symbol of the sun. Indeed the “Yule Log” may be thought of as the “Sun Log”! Yule logs, and other sources of light and warmth such as candles and bonfires originated as pagan customs to encourage the waning sun god as he reached the lowest point in the southern skies. More practically, they were also good ways to have light and warmth on cold, dark winter nights! The modern practice of decorating trees and buildings with flashing electric lights seems to be a logical extension of the lighting of candles and bonfires at Christmas time.
Carols have a bumpy history throughout the Christian era. The derivation of the word “carol” itself has been the subject of much speculation. It probably goes back through the old French “caroler” and the Latin “choraula” to the Greek “choros,” a circling dance often accompanied by singing and associated with dramatic performances, religious festivities and fertility rites. The carol of classical times was a major element in popular celebrations to mark the passing of the winter solstice and the promise of spring.
The coming of Christianity may well have increased the carol’s pagan connotations with its lively dance rhythms providing a marked contrast to the solemn, restrained and measured chants of the new religion. The Church was long uneasy about the performance of such popular singing-dances and the carol was explicitly proscribed by several Church councils from the 7th through the 15th centuries. St. Francis and his followers are often credited with introducing a more joyful spirit to hymns sometime around 1200, however. The earliest known reference to the carol in English literature dates from around 1300 and uses the word in its modern spelling. It had no religious connotations in that context and seems to denote simply a round dance. German composers produced hundreds of religious carols by the 14th century, and the English soon followed suit. Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers suppressed these happy religious songs altogether between 1649 and 1660, however. Festive songs returned, and new ones were written following the restoration of King Charles II. Almost all the now-familiar songs of the Christmas season were unknown in 1830s New England.
Most of today’s “traditional” Christmas carols date from the 19th century, although some are earlier. Although almost all of the now-familiar songs of the Christmas season were unknown in 1830s New England, by the 1850s a uniquely American Christmas was evolving. You will note that many of the following songs were written in the mid-1800s, especially the 1850s, when Christmas observance was growing. It is no coincidence that northern cultural hegemony (especially New York’s influence) was rapidly growing too at this time. Many American authors at this time wrote or adapted Christmas songs to remedy a lamented lack of distinctly American Christmas traditions.
Here are brief histories of several:
“The One Horse Open Sleigh” was first published in 1857 by Oliver Ditson as a Thanksgiving song. In 1859 it was renamed “Jingle Bells,” and has since become a Christmas standard.
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” In 1855 William Cummings combined the 1739 words of Charles Wesley (whose brother John began Methodism) with part of an 1840 cantata by Felix Mendelssohn to create this carol, in spite of evidence that neither author nor composer would have approved.
“Silent Night” Joseph Mohr, the assistant pastor of the church in Oberndorf, Austria, had written a poem, “Stille Nacht” in 1816. On December 24, 1818 he gave the poem to the church organist, Franz Gruber, who immediately composed the melody in time for Midnight Mass. By 1955, Silent Night had become the most recorded song of all time.
“Deck the Halls” While the tune is an old Welsh melody, and was used by Mozart in the 1700s, the words were added in an America nostalgic for “traditional” English Christmases sometime in the mid-19th century.
“O Come All Ye Faithful” Around 1751 John Wade, an English exile living in France, put the text of the old Latin hymn “Adeste Fideles” to music by John Reading, also English. Rev. Frederick Oakley translated it from Latin into English in 1853.
“The First Noel” This may or may not be a 16th century French carol (scholars disagree), but it first appeared in print in England (and spelled “Nowell”) in 1833, as part of a collection by William Sandys.
“We Three Kings” was written by John Henry Hopkins as part of a Christmas pageant for the General Theological Seminary in New York City in 1857.
“It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” An American Unitarian minister, Dr. Edmund Sears, wrote the words as a poem in 1849. In 1850 Richard Storrs Willis wrote a melody called “Carol” to which the words were adapted.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is a traditional English song from at least the 1600s if not before.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an old song of uncertain origins. It first appeared in print in 1780 as part of a children’s book, Mirth Without Mischief. It is likely an old French song, and part of a party game involving kissing. There is an invented myth that this song was once used to secretly teach the Christian faith (e.g. “my true love” was God, the partridge was Christ upon the cross, etc.).
“What Child Is This?” In 1865 William Chatterton Dix (English) wrote “The Manger Throne,” three verses of which were eventually set to the old Elizabethan tune “Greensleeves.”
“O Tannenbaum” is German for “O Christmas tree,” and is a traditional folksong. As the 19th century progressed, more and more Germans came to America. (Today more Americans are of German extraction than any other ancestry.) This old German tune came too. Today four states (Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, and New Jersey) use the tune for their state songs.
On to the 20th Century! The Victorians wrote or popularized most of the religious carols in the mid-1800s, and at the same time revived or adapted a few secular ones harkening back to an imagined “olde English Christmas.” In the 1900s most of today’s secular classics were born. Only a few of the big ones will be noted here, not all of the thousands of novelty hits, from “Jingle Bell Rock” to “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”!
“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was written by J. Fred Coots and Henry Gillespie in 1934. By the 1900s, Santa Claus had largely supplanted the Christ child in the ever more secularized Christmas.
“Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” was written as a children’s story in Chicago in 1938 by Robert L. May, who published it the next year. May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote the melody and developed the lyrics, making this “ugly duckling” story into a song. Singing cowboy Gene Autry recorded it in 1949, as did Bing Crosby and countless others. It soon became one of the best-selling songs of all time.
“White Christmas,” is the best-selling song of all time, (not just “Christmas song,” and was only briefly displaced by Elton John’s 1998 version of “Candle in the Wind”). It was written by Irving Berlin (who was Jewish) in 1941 for the 1942 movie “Holiday Inn,” starring Bing Crosby. The song was such a hit that a White Christmas movie followed in 1954. The 1975 American evacuation of Vietnam was signaled by the playing of “White Christmas” on the Armed Forces Radio station.
“The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire)” was written by the classic jazz singer Mel Torme (then aged 19) and Bob Wells in 1944. It has become an American Christmas classic, thanks to Nat King Cole’s hit 1946 recording. According to Torme, the song was written during a searing summer, in an effort to “stay cool by thinking cool.”
“The Little Drummer Boy” by Harry Simeone, Katherine Davis, and Henry Onorati was written in 1958, although the melody is based on a medieval French tune, “Le Jongleur”.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” is not really a single song, but the soundtrack to a 1965 CBS television program that for many now has deep Christmas meaning. The score, the work of jazz musician Vince Guaraldi, was initially anything but traditional.
Finally, while NOT a song, Charles Dickens’ popular story A Christmas Carol was written in 1843. It has fueled the tradition of Christmas as a time for charity, and given us immortal characters than serve as cultural shorthand. “Don’t be a Scrooge!” is universally understood, for example, and everyone knows who Tiny Tim is.
Perhaps a useful interpretive analogy might be drawn between the emerging observance and “new” traditions of Christmas in 1830s America, and the festival of Kwanzaa today. Some historians argue that in many ways New Yorkers John Pintard, Washington Irving, and others “invented” Christmas “traditions” in the early 1800s and passed them off as old Dutch and English customs to justify their observance here. Like Christmas in 19th century New England, Kwanzaa (a non-religious African American holiday celebrating family, community, and culture observed for seven days, December 26 - January 1) is a holiday of recent origins based on ancient customs. In many respects, the way in which some modern Americans view Kwanzaa (i.e. with alien suspicion, questioning its sincerity because of its recent codification) parallels how many New Englanders viewed Christmas in the 1830s.
Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor of Black Studies at California State University, created Kwanzaa in 1966 in the wake of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, hoping to strengthen the African American community. Karenga combined aspects of several different African harvest celebrations, including those of the Ashanti and the Zulu, to form the basis of Kwanzaa. (The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanzaa” which means “first fruits” in Swahili.) Like Christmas, each family celebrates Kwanzaa in its own way. Celebrations often include songs and dances, African drums, storytelling, poetry reading, and a large traditional meal on December 31, the Karamu. On each of the seven nights, the family gathers and a child lights one of the candles on the Kinara (candleholder), then one of the “seven principles” is discussed. The Nguzo Saba (“seven principles” in Swahili) are values of African culture intended to build a sense of community among African-Americans. They are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Kwanzaa also has seven symbols representing values and concepts of African culture. These are: mazao, the crops; mkeka, a place mat; vibunzi, an ear of corn; mishumaa saba, seven candles; kinara, a candleholder; kikombe cha umoja, the unity cup; and zawadi, gifts. The colors of Kwanzaa also have assigned meanings: black for unity; red for fairness and freedom; and green for the future.
i For trivia fans, Oklahoma in 1907 became the last of the USA states then in the union to declare Christmas a legal holiday. New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii went along when they later became states.
ii The magical giver of gifts in other countries include:
Spain and South America: The Three Kings
Italy: La Befana (a kindly old witch)
England: Father Christmas
France: Pere Noel (Father Christmas)
Russia: either Babouschka (a grandmotherly figure), or in some parts it is Grandfather Frost.
Germany: Christkindlein, an angelic messenger from Jesus, depicted as a beautiful fair-haired girl with a shining crown of candles.
Scandinavia: a variety of Christmas gnomes. One is called Julenisse
iii Moore did not acknowledge authorship of it until fifteen years later, however, when he reluctantly included it in a volume of collected works. He called the poem "a mere trifle." Some scholars now believe that it may actually be the work not of Moore but of Henry Livingston Jr., a gentleman-poet of Dutch descent who lived in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
iv An apocryphal legend is widely circulated, however, that they came about in Indiana in the late 1800s as a candymaker’s attempt to express the meaning of Christmas through candy. The story is that the white symbolizes the purity of Jesus; the three stripes symbolize the Holy Trinity; and the red represent the blood Jesus shed for mankind. The shape can be either a shepherd’s staff or the letter “J”, both symbols of Jesus. This legend is a good example of the retroactive assignment of mythical meaning to a common object.