How Christmas Became a Respectable Holiday

by Howard S. (Dick) Miller

[Editor’s note: This essay is an elaborated version of a December 6, 2012 lecture course sponsored by Life Long Learners of the Central Coast (LLCC), a non-profit educational resource for older adults.]

Jingle Bells
White Christmas
Here Comes Santa Claus Here Comes Santa Claus
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
Walking in a Winter Wonderland
Feliz Navidad

Most of us know these Christmas classics by heart. They are etched in our memories, and rank near the top of all-time favorite Christmas songs. Collectively they suggest a lot about our most cherished and paradoxical holiday.

All of these tunes are secular. All are commercial ditties composed to be sold. All celebrate love, happiness, family, children, and presents. All save two date from the 1930s and ‘40s, turbulent times of depression, war, and separation when people might well have yearned for simpler, happier, safer times of brotherhood, generosity and hope. The exceptions are the oldest, Jingle Bells, composed in the 1850s to celebrate an annual community sleigh ride, but only widely associated with Christmas after its revival in the 1940s. The newest is Cuban-American Jose Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad (1970), an early indicator of an ongoing Latin American shift in national culture.

Other categories of popular Christmas tunes include carols and wassailing songs. Carols are religious songs meant to be sung in church. The most familiar date from the second quarter of the 19th century, but were not commonly sung in churches until later. Wassailing songs, so-called after an Old English holiday salutation meaning “be of good health,” are relics from the Middle Ages.

Unwrapping Christmas

Unwrapping Christmas reveals paradoxes inside. We call it Christmas, after “Christ-mass,” and some of us put up crèches in our front yards, but American Christmas was born essentially secular and grew up that way. Christmas is our most emotionally-invested holiday, freighted with feelings good and bad. It’s a festival of binge shopping when, at considerable expense, we buy gifts made by anonymous others to convey feelings of deep personal affection. But most paradoxical of all, our time-honored Christmas rituals, including most of the cherished songs we sing, are actually fairly recent inventions. Our ”traditional” Christmas is not a holiday eternal, but rather a holiday historical, bound by time and place and culture.

We rarely use the words invention and tradition in the same sentence. Tradition implies ancient ways from time immemorial. Tradition carries the weighty authority of age; the authenticity of deep historical, folkloric, even mythic roots. Invention implies contrivance, newness, often with at least a shadow of a sales pitch. Merchandisers know that it sometimes helps to sell something new if you call it old and claim that it has “stood the test of time.” Indeed, many of our seemingly time-honored holiday rituals were originally contrived, often out of whole cloth, by particular people advancing some particular agenda, but offered cloaked in faux antiquity. The great English historian Eric Hobsbawm coined the term “invented traditions” for these historical slights of hand.

An instructive recent example of an invented holiday tradition is Kwanzaa. This year an estimated 18 million African Americans will celebrate Kwanzaa during the Christmas season. They will eat ceremonial Kwanzaa food and wear the Kwanzaa colors of red, green, rituals honoring the holiday’s reputed roots in ancient Pan-African culture.1

But Kwanzaa isn’t ancient. It was invented in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a former Black Panther turned Professor of Black Studies who saw the need for a specifically African-American national holiday. The name Kwanzaa derives from east African Swahili – never mind that almost no African-Americans have east African roots. The real roots of Kwanzaa are Marcus Garvey’s very American Universal Negro Improvement Association of the 1920s. The Kwanzaa colors are Garvey’s Pan-African movement colors, and not incidentally the colors of the Ghanaan flag. Future generations may well come to believe that Kwanzaa came out of Africa on slave ships, just as most Americans now believe that Santa Claus came out of Holland and Germany on immigrant ships.

What Americans think of as their “traditional” Christmas is as contrived as Kwanzaa, only older. It was the product of a nineteenth century struggle between two wildly different styles of Christmas celebration. The older of the two was a rowdy, raucous, irreverent — in the streets and in your face — winter carnival. The newer was a respectable, decorous, private, child and present-centered celebration of hearth and home family togetherness. The newer Christmas became our “traditional” Christmas, though seasonal carnival has never been entirely suppressed.

The Old Christmas winter carnival was a heritage of late medieval northern European rural culture. The New Christmas was a reaction against carnival, almost entirely invented by the emerging urban upper and middle classes during the middle third or so of the 19th century. In generational terms, our Victorian great great, great, and grandparents invented the New Christmas and certified its antiquity. They passed it on to our parents, who believed them. Our parents passed Christmas on to us, and we continue to pass it on because by now it’s “traditional.”

Wassail, Wassail All Over the Land

Late Medieval northern Europe was overwhelmingly rural, populated by a few wealthy feudal lords and wealthy merchants, the nobility, and a large village peasantry struggling just to get by. The climate was generally cold and wet, made all the worse by the numbing chill of the Little Ice Age. Starvation was never more than a crop away. The seasons cycled their annual round of back-breaking field work from early spring through the fall harvest. The good news was that beer and wine finished their ferment just as the crops came in. Approaching winter shut down the daily grind of field work, but ushered in the welcomed season for butchering. The period between All Saints Day (All Hallows Evening, later shortened to Halloween) in late October, through Twelfth Night in early January, was the only time of the year when there was enough to eat, and enough free time to enjoy it.

Winter was the season to be jolly, to kick back, to party, gorge, and within limits, to get way with mischief. Carnival gave the peasantry a respite and a chance to blow off steam by ritually inverting the social order. The king of the season was called the Lord of Misrule. He gave the poor a free pass to mock the gentry, to violate normal taboos, to misbehave while hiding behind costume and blackface and mask. The Fourteenth century Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder brilliantly captured the exuberance of peasant carnival in several paintings, most notably in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559).2

Pieter Breugel the Elder, Fight Between Carnival and Lent

A modern equivalent might be celebrating a combined Halloween, New Years Eve, and Mardi Gras in a Florida beach town during college spring break. Rural winter carnival often took the form of wassailing. Peasants would gather in front of their lord’s great house in noisy assembly, singing songs and staging satirical skits. The gentry would applaud, then invite the revelers in to share in the manor house bounty of food and drink. Wassailing was a public show of social reciprocity; once a year everybody got drunk and full together. The peasants staggered back to their huts satiated and grateful, the gentry staggered back to their hearths entertained and pleased by their own generosity. We still sing an old English wassailing song that celebrates the ceremonial give-and-take:

Good tidings we bring to you and your kin
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year
Now! Bring us some figgy pudding (x3)
And bring some out here.
REFRAIN: And we won’t go until we get some (x3)
So bring some out here.

Embedded in the secular carnival season was Christmas, a Christian religious holiday which the 4th century Roman Catholic Church had pegged on December 25 in order to bring the date of Christ’s birth into closer alignment with the pagan holidays of winter solstice and Saturnalia. Protestants, however, remained highly suspicious of all holidays, and especially Christmas, which they suspected was a Catholic Holy Day in disguise.

As the medieval economic and social order began to break down in the 16th and 17th centuries, the gentry fractured the traditional social contract between themselves and their peasants. The lords of the manor, especially in England, increasingly became lords of mines and mills and overseas colonial ventures. They turned former peasant common fields over to sheep to supply more wool to Britain’s now insatiable textile mills. The gentry came to have greater concern for the bottom line than for their dependent peasants. They grew both less generous and less tolerant of The Lord of Misrule. In response the peasants turned wassailing into an occasion for edgy street theater that potentially challenged the status quo.

In the 18th century the wassailer’s chant, “and we won’t go until we get some” took on political overtones, and industrial workers in the towns joined the chorus. By the time of the American Revolution carnival playfulness had morphed into mob protest against perceived injustice. Instead of blowing off steam with songs and skits, the mob threw rocks and set fires. Respectable people now associated Christmas with riot and tumult, and turned against it.

A Visit From St. Nicholas

In this context Christmas came to the British American colonies. The Protestant colonies were lukewarm toward Christmas as a religious holiday, and worried whenever carnival ran riot in the port towns. New England Puritans took a more aggressive stance. They rejected Christmas because they thought it unbiblical and popish, and carnival because it gave free rein to the Lord of Misrule. They didn’t celebrate either, and prosecuted those who did. Old wassailing rituals survived longest in the southern slave colonies, where dependency and deference were enforced by the lash.

New York was different, and its differences helped make it the birthplace of the New American Christmas. New York had been the closest colonial attempt to transplant the old feudal social order to the mainland colonies. The effort was doomed in part because the colony’s driving force was New York City, a bustling seaport with an expansive, restive, proto-democratic urban underclass given to carnival riot. The social and political unrest of the revolutionary era, added to the relentless encroachment of noisy proletarian New York into the quiet manor house suburbs, spooked the reactionary New York elite. What they could not stop by law they attempted to mitigate by changing hearts and minds. Their cultural counter-attack against Christmas carnival was an effort to replace The Lord of Misrule with Santa Claus.

Santa’s principle inventors were three New York business and cultural leaders and a popular British writer, all of whom shared a worry and a sensibility. They feared that their comfortable world was about to be overwhelmed by the democratic masses. They were also Romantic antiquarians who yearned for a Good Old Days when the gentry were generous and secure in their mansions because the peasants knew their place.

Santa’s first patron was John Pintard. He combined elements of Father Christmas, Schwartz Peter, Grampus, Kris Kringle, and various other European seasonal folk-figures into his vision of Saint Nicholas, a name quickly conflated into Santa Claus. Pintard first promoted St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York. When that didn’t sell he offered Santa as the patron saint of the New York Historical Society, of which he was then President.

St Nicholas by John Pintard (1810)

At an 1810 meeting of the historical society Pintard unveiled a specially commissioned engraving of his freshly minted seasonal icon represented as a traditional Dutch colonial folk-figure. This first American image of Saint Nicholas showed him as an almost gaunt medieval churchman bearing a switch. He was flanked by figures of a smiling young girl with presents and a crying young boy with a switch stuck in his button hole. Below the children was a hearth scene with two stockings hanging from the mantle, one full of toys, the other full of switches. Pintard’s caption, printed in both Dutch antique black letter and modern English type, described St. Nicholas as a “good holy man.” But the engraving clearly represented him as a switch-wielding moral enforcer who knew if you’d been bad or good. Pintard’s Santa was the patron saint of social control. 3


Santa’s next champion was Pintard’s brother-in-law, the immensely popular writer Washington Irving. Irving elaborated Pintard’s new mythology in numeous short stories about an imagined good old days in Merrie England and quaintly Dutch colonial New York. Irving’s The Sketchbook (1819) included Christmas stories as well as “Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip van Winkle.” His Bracebridge Hall (1822), written when Irving was in England, rhapsodized about a late medieval Golden Age. Remarkably, Irving’s nostalgia still affects us today. Every Christmas season since 1927 the dining room at the Ahwahee Lodge in Yosemite National Park has been transformed into a faux Bracebridge Hall for a four hour pageant and feast featuring all the Usual Suspects, even including a mischievous Lord of Misrule. 4

In 1822, the same year that Irving published Bracebridge Hall, his friend Clement Moore published a long poem that began, “T’was the night before Christmas and all through the house.” Moore’s A Visit From St. Nicholas, endlessly reprinted and recited as a sort of seasonal mantra, became the template for the New American Christmas.4 The poem was a brilliant propaganda piece intended to calm Christmas carnival by moving it out of the streets and into the home where it could be contained and transformed into a private ritual of child-centered family togetherness.

Moore’s Santa story was fiction, but it read as a description of an authentic Old New York holiday tradition. Moore also did his best to make Santa – thus far an upper-class conceit — more appealing to middle and working class New Yorkers. Clues in the poem now lost to us were symbolically potent at the time. Moore’s Santa was not portly, or jolly, or costumed, or out of the ordinary. He was old and squat, his tradesman’s cloths tarnished with ashes and soot. He looked like a peddler just opening his pack. Moore’s Santa was Pintard’s saint repackaged as a regular working class delivery guy with whom ordinary people might easily identify.5

Another cultural clue appeared in the poem’s seeming throw-away line, “A stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth….” In early 19th century New York the length of a one’s clay pipe stem was a marker of class identity. Clay pipes were very fragile. The wealthy smoked ostentatiously long-stemmed pipes to show they could afford to replace them when they broke. Poorer New Yorkers recycled discarded short-stemmed pipes, or even broke off new ones in a symbolic show of defiant class solidarity. The decorative andirons in John Pintard’s 1810 engraving had shown showed figures smoking long-stemmed pipes. By 1822 Clement Moore’s delivery guy smoked a stubby.

The Santa promotional campaign worked. The newly domesticated Christmas and its secular patron saint became fashionable, spreading through all classes, across the country, and across the Atlantic. Santa found a new booster in Charles Dickens, Washington Irving’s dear friend and the North Atlantic world’s first international literary superstar. Dickens, like Santa’s New York promoters, was nostalgic for a bucolic rural past. His first book, The Pickwick Papers, serialized in the 1830s, celebrated old style manor house wassail conviviality.6 When Dickens visited New York in 1842 Washington Irving threw a dinner party in his honor. They may well have talked about Christmas, because as soon as Dickens returned home he dashed off A Christmas Carol, as much an infomercial for the New Christmas as a tale of how Ebenezer Scrooge found redemption.

By the time of the Civil War Santa and the New Christmas had permeated Anglo-American culture. In many states Christmas had become an official holiday. As Santa became more popular his imagery evolved from John Pintard’s switch-bearing moralist, to Clement Moore’s Everyman, and on to the jovial present-bearer we know today. The transitional image-maker was Thomas Nast, the greatest cartoonist of the Gilded Age. Nast’s first Santa, drawn in 1862, showed him dressed as a Union Soldier, but by the 1880s he had had refigured Santa into the portly icon of our parent’s childhood. Thanks to a Coca-Cola ad campaign launched in 1931, an embellished version of Nast’s Santa became the Santa of our childhood, and he remains with us to this day. During our lifetimes Coke Santa has grown ever more accessible, and ever less judgmental. Our Santa is the permissive Santa of Macy’s and the Mall, the ubiquitous Ho Ho Ho sales associate who invites children to sit on his lap and tell him what they want for Christmas.7

Santa’s Presents ‘Neath the Tree/All Day Asked For On His Knee

As Santa evolved over the decades, so did Santa accessories, including Christmas presents, Christmas trees, and Christmas cards. In the days of rural wassail Christmas presents had been the home-made food and drink that the well-off shared with their dependents. The New Christmas was anchored in the urban home where the children –symbolic stand-ins for the peasantry – already shared the family larder. For a present to be special it now had to come from outside. The proper present became store-bought, and the more extravagant the better. The first presents made for the Christmas market were fancy Christmas coffee-table books, and Christmas parlor games for the family.

The emphasis on store bought gifts quickly commercialized the holiday. The first widely circulated image of the new American Santa Claus was published in 1841. Within a year that image had been appropriated for an ad. By the late 1840s the annual search for the perfect present seemed so out of hand that Harriet Beecher Stowe, the soon-to-be author of the best-seller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, felt compelled to publish an article decrying the anxieties of Christmas shopping that today reads as if she was complaining about Black Friday at Walmart.8

During the middle years of the nineteenth century commercialized Christmas and changing social conditions combined to reshape the culture and language of gift giving. In the days of wassail the rich had given gifts to the poor; the vector of exchange had been class. In the new era of family-centered Christmas adults gave gifts to children; the vector of exchange had become age. Much of this shift had to do with simultaneously changing attitudes toward the poor, and toward children.

As eastern seaboard states filled up affordable farm land became harder to come by, and as the cities grew so did their slums. American cities were becoming ever more crowded, noisy, and filthy, outrunning the services needed to keep them relatively clean and orderly. As job competition increased, class and racial tensions mounted. Respectable citizens felt increasingly sorry for, or increasingly worried about, the poor. For the reform-minded, poverty, dependency and helplessness became problems to be solved rather than conditions to be tolerated. Since there was no public social service infrastructure in place, reformers began to found private benevolent societies funded by voluntary contributions. As they did so they began to distinguish between holiday gifts personally bestowed on family and friends, called “presents,” and holiday gifts bestowed on others, often through go-betweens, called “charity.” The Salvation Army, founded in 1861, was one of the products of evolving us/them gift-giving culture. Its uniformed bands, cheery bell-ringing volunteers, and red donation buckets became a familiar feature of the Christmas season.

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum

Bringing Christmas inside the private home made sense if goal was to suppress carnival, and once safely contained New Christmas naturally became more family-focused. But why it became so compulsively child-centered needs further explanation. To some degree it was merely an accident of timing: the invention of New Christmas happened to coincide with discovery of childhood as a distinct & valued stage of life. In the 1840s child-centered educational theories were all the rage among European and American liberal social reformers. Enlightenment and Romantic ideas about the perfectibility of man cross-bred with evangelical convictions that salvation was free for the asking. Heaven on earth seemed possible if only one could save the sinner, or free the slave, or cure the drunkard, or reform the family, or liberate the woman, or eat organic, or end all war, or nurture the children. Child-centered Christmas was part of a broader reform agenda. So was the Christmas tree.

The history of the American Christmas tree is a reminder that cultural innovations often take odd twists and turns. Familiar lore tells us that German immigrants carried the Christmas tree to America as part of their cultural baggage. A few early German immigrants doubtless did, especially in Pennsylvania. But these early transplantings were too few and far between to have had widespread influence. In any case Christmas trees were not yet common in the various German states, and mass German immigration to America would not happen until after 1848. The American tree tradition was principally of Germanic origin, but the mode of transmission was indirect, almost incidental, and carried more by images, popular literature, and fashion trends than in immigrant baggage. Most Americans saw pictures of Christmas trees, or read about them, long before they actually saw one, much less had one.

The earliest known printed image of an American Christmas tree (shown as a German-style table-top tree) appeared in 1836, but the first image to set a fashion trend came in 1848, when widely circulated engravings of British Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s tree gave many Americans their first view of this newly fashionable holiday icon. Whatever Victoria and her German Consort did was big celebrity news, and invited emulation.9

Literary influences reinforced the urge to keep up with the royals. A key element in the rising popularity of the Christmas tree was a rising concern for the moral health of the American child. By the 1840s New Christmas advocates were beginning to worry that their holiday, promoted to contain carnival, came with its own problem. Showering Christmas presents on children raised their expectations. The unintended consequence of the child-centered Christmas seemed to be a generation of greedy, demanding, self-centered, materialistic, bratty kids. Champions of the New Christmas realized that they needed an alternative model that fostered healthier family values, and especially the principle that it was far better to give than to receive.

They found their corrective in literary accounts of reputed German family Christmas traditions. The leading propagandist was Charles Loring Brace, a broad-spectrum reformer, popular author, and America’s leading advocate of child reform. His pioneering Children’s Aid Society, founded in 1853, would quickly become the nation’s most ambitious charitable organization, and in time be the foundation of the modern institutionalized foster care system. In the same year that he founded Children’s Aid, Brace also published Home-Life in Germany, an account of his travels to that country two years before. Home-Life was a travelogue with an agenda. Brace devoted a full chapter to comparing wholesome, loving, generous, German family Christmas to what he regarded as the individualistic, materialistic, commercialized American version. Brace’s reportage was at least as much romantic fiction as sociological fact – even as Clement Moore’s Visit From Saint Nicholas had been a fairy tale dressed up as colonial history. Brace hoped that his readers would accept the German example as real-world proof that an altruistic and child-saving Christmas was within their reach.

The Christmas tree came as part of the package, a sort of tag-along icon for Brace’s Christmas-focused but broader critique of American society. Most American readers probably missed his argument and took Home-Life at face value as a charming travel account. They had no reason to doubt the truth of his tale, especially since it seemed to harmonize with accounts of Victoria and Albert’s Germanic Christmas. Brace’s account helped further popularize the Christmas tree in America, and forever rooted the story of its origins in German soil. The first white house tree, erected by Franklin Pierce in the 1850s, was called a “German Tree.”

When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best

First came presents, then the tree, then the card. Christmas cards had to wait, obviously, for a mail delivery infrastructure. Cards were first an urban phenomenon, then slowly spread along with mailboxes. By 1840 the British Royal Mail had established delivery nearly everywhere in Britain. The first commercial Christmas card, designed and distributed by English designer William Horsley, appeared three years later.10

American Christmas cards had to wait for the US postal service to catch up. They first appeared in the early 1850s, but remained uncommon until after the introduction of free city delivery during the Civil War (there would be no rural mail delivery – in a country still predominately rural – until after 1896). In 1873 the introduction of the penny post card helped popularize a new form of mail that wasn’t quite a letter. Two years later Louis Prang, an inventive Boston lithographer, developed a chromolithographic process that made mass-produced, multicolored, elegantly artistic Christmas cards affordable. Prang’s first Christmas cards featured Nature motifs with a Christmas message tacked on, but he soon expanded his line to include quirky scenes of animals playing human roles, and finally images of Santa Claus and families gathered around mantle and tree. Original Prang Christmas cards are now highly collectable, and reproductions abound.11

By the turn of the 19th century collecting lithographic postcards had become faddish, rather like collecting baseball cards. The post card craze prompted a Kansas City entrepreneur, Joyce Hall, to launch a greeting card business in 1910. Seven years later her firm introduced store-bought special holiday gift wrapping paper to make store-bought presents seem even more special. Still later Hall’s company rebranded itself as Hallmark, thus inventing a seeming continuity between the family surname and a medieval artisan tradition.

Rewrapping Christmas

Unwrapping our traditional Christmas shows it to be a cultural and largely commercial invention of fairly recent origins, and one represents the triumph of upper and middle class bourgeois propriety over working class carnival enthusiasm, all symbolized by the victory of Santa Claus over The Lord of Misrule. Does this revelation devalue our Christmas traditions or make them less genuine and authentic? Not at all.

Our problem is less with Christmas than with our usual notion of what “traditions” are, how they work, and what they mean. Traditions are never static. They adjust, adapt, and evolve over time. Appeals to age-old changeless “traditions,” as if they were the rock of ages, are more often political strategies than descriptions of historical practice.

The simple reality is that it is impossible to distinguish invented from authentic traditions because the effort is based on a false dichotomy; for all we know the most authentic traditions may merely be those whose inventors we haven’t yet identified. Every tradition has to start somewhere, as one does in the hopeful last stanza of Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer: “Then all the reindeer loved him/as they shouted out with glee/Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer/you’ll go down in history.”

Yet the notion of our traditional Christmas as an invention, a contrivance, is hard to accept because we yearn for a stable past to anchor the shifty present. Messing with cherished history is asking for it. Within the past two weeks the Governor of Rhode Island has gotten himself into hot water by daring to change the traditional name of the tree in the state capitol rotunda from “Christmas Tree” to “Holiday Tree.”

Even the Pope is in trouble. Last week a CNN headline read: “Pope’s Book on Jesus Challenges Christmas Traditions.” In case you missed the announcement, scholarly Pope Benedict XVI has just published a book in which he uses critical historical analysis to debunk most of the “Away in a Manger” Christmas story. His intent was to clear away the fictions surrounding the real story of how Jesus of Nazareth came into the world. The resulting outrage among crèche enthusiasts forced the papal public relations spokesman to issue a reassurance that “the Pope is a traditional man and he doesn’t want people at all to change their traditions.”

We want our past to stay put. We want our traditions to stand the test of time. We want our Christmas traditions especially to reassure us that once upon a time purer motives than ours fostered unconditional family love and generosity and community and peace.

That’s why our ancestors invented Santa and the New Christmas and rooted them in time immemorial. That’s why they persist. Santa represents the substance of things hoped for. He stands outside time as the eternal personification of love and generosity uncorrupted by ulterior motives or crass commercialism. “Happy, happy Christmas,” wrote Dickens in The Pickwick Papers, “can win us back to the delusions of our childish days.”

And so we willingly sustain the comforting fiction that Santa and his helpers still make all the presents in a quaint pre-industrial workshop located in a remote arctic backwater far away from hustle and bustle of modern life. He still delivers all the presents in a single night in an old-fashioned sleigh drawn by animals who do not naturally take to harness, and who rarely shout out with glee. Once up on the housetop, St. Nick somehow manages to get himself and his pack down what these days is typically a three inch diameter gas fireplace flue.

Santa is magic. Like the inventors and perpetuators of Christmas we all need a little magic now and then to sustain us in trying times. So did eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon, a child of the so-called Gay but actually horrific 1890s. In 1897 she wrote the editor of the New York Sun: “Dear Editor – I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus.?”

We lovingly recall the editor’s reply every Christmas season: “Virginia, you little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age…. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist. How dreary would be the world if there was no Santa Claus! There would be no childlike faith, no poetry, no romance… ”

  1. Kwanzaa official website: Official Kwanzaa Website
  2. Pieter Breugel the Elder, Fight Between Carnival and Lent (image)
  3. John Pintard, St Nicholas (1810) (image)
  4. Washington Irving, Old Christmas from the Sketchbook of Washington Irving, Illustrated by Ralph Caldecott (1886): Gutenberg Yosemite Bracebridge Dinner: – Bracebridge Dinner
  5. Clement Moore, A Visit From St. Nicholas, With Original Cuts Designed and Engraved by [Theodore C.] Boyd (New York: Henery Onderdonk, 1848):
  6. Habot Knight Browne, “Christmas Eve at Mr. Wardle’s,” an engraving in Chap. XXVIII, “A Good-Humoured Christmas Chapter,” in Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers. Victorian – Illustrations of Pickwick Papers
  7. John Pintard, St Nicholas (1810) (image)
    Moore’s Santa:
    Nast’s Civil War-era Santas: Son of the
    Nast’s 1880s Santa:
    Coca Cola Santa: Coca Cola Company – Santa Claus Video
  8. Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas (New York: 1996), illustrations pp. 170-171.
  9. “Christmas Eve”, frontispiece to Herman Bokum, The Stranger’s Gift (Boston: 1836): Strangers Gift on Internet Archive
    Victoria and Albert’s Christmas Tree, 1848: Hymns and Carols of Christmas
  10. Horsley Christmas Card: Emotions Cards
  11. Louis Prang Christmas Cards: Louis-Prang Vintage Christmas Card Creator
  12. Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, The Infancy Narratives: ISBN-13: 978-0385346405

For Further Reading – The literature on Christmas Traditions is vast and very uneven. Particularly good books include:

  • Bruce David Forbes, Christmas: A Candid History (Berkeley: 2007)
  • Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: 1983)
  • Karal Ann Marling, Merry Christmas! Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday (Cambridge, 2001)
  • Daniel Miller, ed., Unwrapping Christmas (Oxford: 1993)
  • Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas (New York: 1997)