- Written by Doris Montag Doris Montag
Centuries ago, European Christmas customs centered on St. Nicholas, a charitable Turkish Catholic bishop born in the fourth century. St. Nicholas was associated with gift giving to children, which occurred on Dec. 6, St. Nicholas Day.
In America, circa the 1800s, the Puritans and other Calvinists had eliminated Christmas as a holy season under the premise that a Christmas observance was inconsistent with gospel worship. Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and other Protestants regarded Dec. 25 as a day without religious significance; in fact, it was a day for normal business.
The holiday season, coming after harvest, was a time when workers and servants took the upper hand, demanding gifts for their labors. The season was characterized by raucous, drunken mobs roaming the streets, damaging property, and threatening and frightening the upper classes.
During this period, a new understanding of family life and the place of children was emerging. Childhood began to be seen as a time in which greater protection, sheltering, training, and education were needed. In this light, the holiday season began to be tamed, turning toward home, family, and neighbors.
St. Nicholas, typically dressed in a bishop’s robe, took on new attributes in America. In 1821 an anonymous poem and illustrations in the book The Children’s Friend proved pivotal in shifting the story and imagery away from saintly Bishop Nicholas.
In the poem, Sante Claus was portrayed in a didactic mode, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad. Sante Claus aided parents by serving in judgment of whether children were naughty or nice.
Notably, the book had Sante Claus arrive on Christmas Eve, rather than Dec. 6. This Sante Claus came from the North in a sleigh with a single flying reindeer.
The image of St. Nicholas was recast in 1823 in a poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” now better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” Its author remained unknown until 1837, when it appeared in The New York Book of Poetry credited to wealthy biblical scholar Clement Clarke Moore.
It is reported that he wrote the poem in 1821 in the sleigh on his way to buy the Christmas turkey and that the description of Santa Claus resembled the Dutch handyman who drove his sleigh that night: “a broad face and a little round belly.”
Moore read the poem to his wife and six children but considered the poem too frivolous to publish. A friend submitted it anonymously to The Sentinel, a Troy, New York, newspaper, in 1823.
As noted, St. Nicholas had been portrayed as a rather stern bishop who visited children to dispense both gifts and discipline. “The Night Before Christmas” transformed St. Nicholas into a jolly, plumb, rosy-cheeked character who brought gifts to children.
The poem had enormous influence on the Americanization of the image of St. Nicholas in a red suit and black boots. It also introduced his team of flying reindeer with their catchy names: “Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen!”
As a historical note, the growth of Sunday schools by mid-century had exposed hundreds of thousands of children to Christianity. To improve Sunday school attendance around the holidays, churches enticed children with a Christmas tree, Santa Claus, and gifts.
By the 1850s, churches in America had reintroduced Christmas observances.
“The Night Before Christmas” was first illustrated in 1848. The poem of just 28 rhyming couplets (56 lines) provides only a general description of Santa Claus, which has allowed many, many illustrators to interpret how Santa Claus looks.
Most people have different interpretations of Santa Claus’s appearance, based on the edition of the book they grew up with. In more recent versions, the pipe and smoke have disappeared in the drawings, and often Santa Claus has lost weight!
Haddon Sundblom, an illustrator for the Coca-Cola Company, cast the familiar Santa Claus of our generation with his wholesome and realistic image. It debuted in 1931, and Sundblom painted a new image each year until 1964.
Originally written as “happy Christmas to all,” the replacement with “merry Christmas” was introduced in 1832.
In an ode to tradition, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
Doris Montag is a homespun historian and an exhibit curator who researches and displays historical collections of ordinary things, such as can openers, crochet, toy sewing machines, hand corn planters, powder compacts, egg cartons, and more. Contact or follow her on Facebook, HistoryofOrdinaryThings.