“Twas the night before Christmas,” is the popular first line and what many believe is the title of a poem, A Visit From Saint Nicholas. But what many do not know is that the poem, along with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, amongst other works, actually served as an effort in the early 1800s to reinvent the Christmas holiday as many people particularly those in Britain and America thought the holiday was dying out. A Visit From Saint Nicholas is largely responsible for what many of us know as our Christmas traditions that include shopping, gift giving, and Santa Claus.
As we all know, most cultures and religions have holiday celebrations to end the year (or to begin in some cases), and the Christmas celebration that Christians celebrate is the culmination of parts of several cultural traditions. What started as a religious tradition became much more, which would eventually cause some controversy. The day, December 25, marks the birth of Jesus Christ, hence the compound of the meaning Christ’s Mass. While it wasn’t the actual birth date of Christ, the day has been long celebrated with feasts in conjunction with the birth of Christ, a Roman Festival, or the winter solstice being the reason why it was chosen. During the Middle Ages, the Epiphany overshadowed the actual day and the holiday gained a lot of popularity. In America it fell out of favor, especially during the American Revolution, as it was thought of more of a British tradition. But as bigotry and discrimination fell, a new push for revival arrived.
The figure Santa Claus and the role he plays has seen a varied amount of changes throughout time. Santa Claus, derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas as the name given to the figure that is celebrated on Saint Nicholas’ day. Saint Nicholas was a Turkish bishop who is known as the patron saint of children who had a reputation for giving gifts to the poor and children. He is the inspiration and model for the modern Santa Claus. The figure also has numerous similarities to Odin, a major God to Germanic people. These similarities and traditions such as yule log, stocking stuffing, the evergreen tree, and flying in the air with supernatural beast were all celebrated during the same festival time by the Germanic people and eventually brought into the modern culture when they were Christianized. Those depictions were eventually combined with the European figure Father Christmas, a merry (usually drunk) old bearded man whose image is commonly seen as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
So the rebirth of Christmas came with works like the afore mentioned poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas, and the image of Santa Claus was primarily presented by cartoonist Thomas Nast a few years after the poem was published. Traditions and myths grew over the years, and with mass commercialization, marketing and advertisement of Christmas and Santa Claus being linked through soft drinks, the Salvation Army and such, we come to know the holiday as it is today.
Not for nothin’, but for it to be the most wonderful time of the year, there has to be some sadness abound because many people neglect the history of the holiday and cannot fathom the significance of it. In fact, that’s the reason why it has been mared by controversy because people upset that the commercialization of the holiday upsets the religious aspect. But that’s what’s so good about it is that the holiday is about the best of both. It’s the time to be happy because of everything it represents.