A history of Christmas might sound like a fairly simple undertaking. From nativity, to church, to family, to commerce – a story of high beginnings, a cosy, warm middle and the chill of cold hard cash and commercialism at the end.
However its not quote that simple – the type of Christmas we celebrate today has a very winding tale indeed. In a series of 2 articles we track the History of the Christmas we know (& love ?) of today. You may not know its traditions as well as you think.
Part 1 took us from 337 AD to 1728 and in Part 2 we look at the 1770s to 1891.
A Brief History – Part 2
The etymology of the Americans’ “Santa Claus” is an interesting one.
In one popular version of the legend, Dutch emigrants sailed for New Amsterdam, later to become New York, taking with them the story of St Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors and children. The Dutch version of the saint’s name, Sint Nicolaas, was rendered by the city’s English-speaking population as Sinterklaas, then corrupted in the late 18th century to Santa Claus.
Another version refers to a poem in the New York Spectator in 1810 about the “good holy man” St Nicholas “whom we Sancte Claus name”. But it might be another immigrant group that was responsible for the link between St Nicholas and Santa. Switzerland, too, had seen a mass migration to the New World: as many as 25,000 Swiss headed for North Carolina, Pennsylvania and New York in the 18th century alone.
Many Swiss came from their country’s German-speaking regions, a fact of potential interest to Santa Claus historians when we remember that two of the Swiss-German, or Schweizerdeutsch, dialect names for St Nicholas were Samichlaus and Santi-Chlaus, both of which sound far closer to Santa Claus than Sint Nicolaas does. So Santa may have been Swiss before he became American.
(see also our article : Who is Father Christmas ? )
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge visited Germany in 1798 and in 1809 wrote an essay describing the local Christmas tradition of decorating homes with boughs from trees. It was reprinted by The Times in 1834 and, 14 years later, a table-top tree appeared in an engraving of Queen Victoria and Albert celebrating Christmas at Windsor Castle.
That single image cemented the Christmas tree in the popular British consciousness, so much so that by 1861, the year of Albert’ s death, it was firmly believed that this German prince had transplanted the custom to England with him when he married.
By the end of the 19th century Santa was, according to one American magazine, “our biggest captain of industry“. As early as the 1820s, St Nicholas was being used to sell jewellery in one New York newspaper advertisement.
As the image of Santa spread, shops began to share a fairly homogeneous image: a fat bearded older man carrying a sack, travelling in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
The development of department stores in many big cities – New York, London, Berlin – produced a new Christmas tradition, that of going to see the Christmas windows. In England the word “Christmas” had come to mean decorative greenery; by the 1890s in America, it meant to go shopping for presents.
Early mentions of gift-wrapping are rare. The arrival of the wrapped present in the middle of the 19th century was partly a matter of decorative taste, but also a pragmatic response to the sticky residues left by gas lighting and coal fires – and hence the general Victorian practice of containerisation: glass jars, cases, covers, bags and more. So, wrapping a gift was a way of protecting it from grease and soot.
Advancing technology then introduced a new element. Brilliantly coloured printed papers became more easily available as chromolithography, a method of colour printing, became less expensive.
Wrapping not only made cheap gifts appear more lavish; the process became easier in the 1930s with the arrival of Sellotape.
Christmas trees lit by candles presented a frightening fire risk. A lit tree was never a safe tree, and many households lit their candles only once, on Christmas Eve, prudently keeping to hand water and a stick with a sponge on the end.
It was America that produced the first commercial string of electric tree lights. In 1891 a tree with electric lights was put up in the children’s ward of a New York hospital.
Later a department store brochure assured customers :
“The lamps are all lighted at once by the turning of a switch, will burn as long as desired without attention, and can be readily extinguished.“
The rest as they say is history.
In this 2 part article we have of course only touched on some of the many traditions we enjoy at that most special time of year Christmas 🙂