Saturday, December 12, 2009

Where Did Christmas Come From?

I'm curious to know where our modern version of Christmas comes from. Aren't you? Where did the name of Santa Claus come from? How about Kris Kringle? Why does he come down the chimney? Why does he give gifts to only good boys and girls? What possible connection is there between a Santa-centered and a Christ-centered Christmas? Does it matter?

A fascinating book, The Battle for Christmas, by historian Stephen Nissenbaum, starts with the Puritans of New England who outlawed Christmas festivities due to their rowdy revelry, disorderly drunkeness, and obnoxious waissailing.

Back in those days there was no gift-giving, no Christmas carols, no Santa with reindeer, no Nativity scenes, no exchange of cookies. December 25 was just another day at work - mostly only Catholics marked it as the day of the Birth of Christ (but to which Puritan Protestants protested...). St. Nicholas' day of veneration was December 6th, but again only Catholics did much with the day. Actually New Year's Day garnered more attention and festivities.

Without giving too much of the book away (I'm only in the third chapter), Nissenbaum discovered that our modern version of Christmas is tied to the famous (and apparently subversive) poem: "A Visit from St. Nicholas" written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1822. Moore, in collaboration with a wealthy New York merchant named John Pintard, set about to create a myth about Christmas as a way to alter the social landscape. What they did (to summarize vast amounts of detail...) was create Christmas as a commercialized event meant to domesticate the family and create childhood. Whoa!

So what? Well, for the curious-minded folks like myself, the details and implications are thought-provoking. Our American Christmas is domesticating, it perpetuates an invented form of childhood, and it is purposefully commercialized. It is completely incompatible with the Nativity Story. And Santa Claus was invented to perpetuate this paradox. Fascinating indeed!

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