The Complicated History of Santa Claus and American Christmas

Ah, Christmas traditions. So complicated, so misunderstood.

Take Santa Claus, American version. Not a survival of colonial New Amsterdam except in a literary sense, he was pretty well invented by the prolific writer Washington Irving in the early 19th century. And he was connected with Dec. 6th, St. Nicholas’ Day, not Christmas. Let history blogger Patrick Browne take it from here: “Santa Claus was Made by Washington Irving”:

The quote that forms the title of this article is taken from a paper by historian Charles W. Jones, “Knickerbocker Santa Claus,” published in the New York Historical Society Quarterly, in October 1954. Jones challenged the long-standing traditional view that Santa Claus owes his tremendous presence in our culture to Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (New York). In fact, his research into early colonial New York newspapers, books, diaries and letters turned up no mention at all of St. Nicholas until the time of the Revolution. . . . .

So, by satirically inventing a false tradition of Dutch settlers venerating St. Nicholas, Irving inadvertently gave rise to a very real tradition of Americans venerating St. Nick. This was certainly not the last time in Irving’s career that he would invent folklore which he ascribed to old Dutch settlers.

In New England, meanwhile,  there had been a long tradition of non-Christmas revelry, based on the Puritans’ belief that traditional celebrations were impious:

For centuries, the holiday has served as a flashpoint between competing religious ideas. When the Puritans of New England famously made Christmas illegal during their first decades on this side of the Atlantic, it was not because they were killjoys—or at least, not only because they were killjoys. Christmas was an existential threat to orderly society, a shorthand for the spiritual risks they encountered every day in the New World. The era’s leading preacher, Cotton Mather, even continued to rail against the “heathen feast” after the laws prohibiting Christmas were repealed.

“Can you in your Conscience think, that our Holy Savior is honoured,” he wrote, “by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Revelling; by a Mass fit for none but a Saturn, or a Bacchus, or the Night of a Mahometan Ramadam?”

From “Christmas’s War on America: The persistence and power of the December Holiday over Generations of Americans—Whether They Liked it or Not,” in The Atlantic.

Mather was born in Boston of English parents, who probably told him about the “traditional English Christmas” of the early 17th century. Think of Hallowe’en with an edge: seasonally unemployed young agricultural workers, as drunk as they can manage, working the Yuletide version of “trick or treat” on their better-off neighbors:  We will sing at your door, and if you don’t hand over some food and more ale, we might break something.
Or the urban version as it continued:

Rowdy men in colorful rags gather outside the city’s nicer homes, demanding to be let in. Some have disguised themselves with mock-fancy outfits that ridicule their less-than-willing hosts, while others have blackened their faces or dressed up as animals. If you try to keep them out, they will shatter your windows, break down your door, and help themselves to food and drink. If instead you grant the rabble access, your costumed guests will drink your best booze and demand a cash “tip” for slurring a noisy song at your family.

That comes from “Is Capitalism the Reason for the Season?” from B. K. Marcus, who is evidently shocked to discover that there are tensions and contradictions between the marketplace and the family gathered around the tree. He goes on:

In a commercial age, where mom and dad head off to separate jobs while the kids are sent to school, it means spending the holiday together in leisure, practicing a form of mutual generosity that is ritualized to obscure its capitalist origins.

He seems to think, however, that evil capitalist lever-pullers are obscuring this contradiction from us, whereas I think that everyone is aware of it and that people deal with it in their own ways, some by being self-consciously anti-commercial and others by just shrugging their shoulders. Yeah, presents and booze cost money. Even if you make your own, you still need to acquire the materials.

Irving had lived in England for a time, and he wrote of the Yuletide season,

Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused, we feel more sensibly the charm of each other’s society, and are brought more closely together by dependence on each other for enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart; and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of living kindness, which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms…Christmas is still a period of delightful excitement in England.

Back to Santa Claus — Isn’t that sequence familiar? Some genuine folk tradition exists but then dies out. A literary type revives it for his own purposes. It catches on to the point that its revived origins are forgotten and people run around talking about this “old tradition” that connects them with the past.

Apparently that is the recipe for success!

2 thoughts on “The Complicated History of Santa Claus and American Christmas

  1. Mather may have put the worst possible face on whatever frolics and festivities that were taking place. Or Boston could have been much more violent than we like to imagine. Puritanism and me don’t see the world the same way, since I favor reversals more than regulations.

    Isn’t a concept like “contradiction” something we are not supposed to think about?

    I’m fine with Washington Irving and Sleepy Hollow. But I really want Santa Claus to have come to us from our paleolithic ancestors, not Irving’s enthusiasm for Knickerbocker culture. Reminds me too much that we keep on making culture and denying that we do.

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