Yesterday I took a stroll down memory lane to bring everyone up to date on the history of wassailing. If you need a short answer just remove the “w” from the word and you’re left with “assail,” which is a form of “assault” which describes the tradition nicely. As you may have figured out Christmas wasn’t always a time of sweetness and nice. The original holiday was glommed onto a pagan holiday, Saturnalia to be specific, to try and convert pagans to Christianity. Despite all the TV specials and holiday decorations you will cite in your emails to me, this was not as successful as it seems. For the first part, the Christmas celebration – from the Old English Cristes Mæsse, which literally means Mass of Christ – was supposed to be a day of quiet reflection that would be spent in church contemplating the birth of the Savior. Instead, the symbols of the Saturnalia and other pagan rituals all got tossed into the fray and the holiday ended up being such a drunken revelry that it was outlawed in Europe and America in the 1500’s and 1600’s. By the 1700’s people had calmed down some and a few traditions had been worked out so that you might recognize the holiday. The first was the addition of Santa Claus.
I know, I know, many people are shocked to find out there is no Santa in the New Testament. Just as they are shocked by the exclusion of the Little Drummer Boy. Well, they’ll have to get over it. The nice people over at All Things Christmas have a succinct and accurate history of Santa Claus, so let’s let them tell it.
The origin of Santa Claus begins in the 4th century with Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, an area in present day Turkey. By all accounts St. Nicholas was a generous man, particularly devoted to children. After his death around 340 A.D. he was buried in Myra, but in 1087 Italian sailors purportedly stole his remains and removed them to Bari, Italy, greatly increasing St. Nicholas’ popularity throughout Europe.
His kindness and reputation for generosity gave rise to claims he that he could perform miracles and devotion to him increased. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of Russia, where he was known by his red cape, flowing white beard, and bishop’s mitre.
In Greece, he is the patron saint of sailors, in France he was the patron of lawyers, and in Belgium the patron of children and travellers. Thousands of churches across Europe were dedicated to him and some time around the 12th century an official church holiday was created in his honor. The Feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated December 6 and the day was marked by gift-giving and charity.
After the Reformation, European followers of St. Nicholas dwindled, but the legend was kept alive in Holland where the Dutch spelling of his name Sint Nikolaas was eventually transformed to Sinterklaas. Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the fireplace, and Sinterklaas would reward good children by placing treats in their shoes. Dutch colonists brought brought this tradition with them to America in the 17th century and here the Anglican name of Santa Claus emerged.
In 1822 Clement C. Moore composed the poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas, published as The Night Before Christmas as a gift for his children. In it, he portrays Santa Claus:
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly,
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
Other countries feature different gift-bearers for the Christmas or Advent season: La Befana in Italy ~ The Three Kings in Spain, Puerto Rico, and Mexico ~ Christkindl or the Christ Child in Switzerland and Austria ~ Father Christmas in England ~ and Pere Noël, Father Christmas or the Christ Child in France. Still, the figure of Santa Claus as a jolly, benevolent, plump man in a red suit described in Moore’s poem remains with us today and is recognized by children and adults alike around the world.
Yes, even then, the French were wrong on too many levels to matter.
Really, the patron saint of lawyers? That’s how you honor the birth of Christ?
Okay, why not? Nevertheless, the concept of Christmas spread right along with the various missionaries who traveled the globe. Many countries took some or all of the traditions and adapted them to their own. Some of the results are amusing to us and others are just baffling. Port Harbor has the politically correct look at each country’s customs.
Show that to the kids and then keep reading.
In middle Europe, Austria and the like, they took the ancient legend of Krampus and welded it to the legend of Saint Nicholas. So, if you’ve been a good little girl or boy, St. Nick brings you a gift. If not Krampus rips you from your home, throws you in a sack and then nothing but bad things happen to you for all eternity. Or he eats you. One way or the other you’re not having a good day.
No pressure there, is there kiddies?
The legend of Krampus pre-dates Christianity by centuries. He has always been a fearful, goat like, creature who punished sinners and the like. Locking him up with St. Nicholas was just a way to shut up the priests and keep the tradition going. In fact, to this day, many rural areas in Europe do not even bother with the whole St. Nick part and just celebrate Krampus and his demonic friends.
In case you’re wondering why Austria has been the start of two world wars, I think you need wonder no more.
Another part of the world where Christmas got a little twisted is Japan. They don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God or any of the other stuff in the Bible, but they really liked the whole concept of universal love. In fact they liked it so much that Christmas in Japan has become a very romantic holiday and one that is sponsored by Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Well, you see, as Americans and other foreigners landed in Japan after the Second World War they went looking for traditional foods for their holiday meals. Since there are no turkeys in Japan they settled on the next best thing, Colonel Sander’s famous recipe. The people at KFC, realizing a gold mine when they saw one, quickly noted how much the dear Colonel looks like Santa and they were off to the races. American traveler, Billy Hammond, wrote a nice diary about Christmas in Japan.
Christmas in Japan is quite different from the Chrismas celebrated in most countries in which the population has a large percentage of Christians or a Christian heritage. Only 1/2 of 1% of the Japanese population is estimated to be Christian, with the majority of Japanese being tolerant of all faiths: Buddhism, Christianity, Shinto, etc. In spite of this, the Japanese are great lovers of festivals and celebrations, including Christmas.
December 25th is not a national holiday in Japan, although December 23rd, which is the birthdate of the present emperor, is. Although it is not an official holiday the Japanese tend to celebrate Christmas, especially in a commercial way. The Japanese celebrate Christmas Eve by eating a ‘Christmas Cake’ which the father of the family purchases on his way home from work (or his wife does in the case where he has to work on Christmas Eve). Stores all over carry versions of this Christmas cake and drop the price of it drastically on December 25th in order to sell everything out by the 26th. This has resulted in a rather interesting expression in which young girls are referred to as a ‘Christmas cakes’: marriageable until their 25th birthday and requiring heavy discounts to get married after their 25th birthdays.
In recent years, thanks to the marketing prowess of the folks at Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Christmas Chicken Dinner has become quite popular. Many Japanese even make reservations for their “Christmas Chicken” ahead of time. People line up at their outlets to pick up their orders. As a result of KFC’s brilliant advertising campaign, most Japanese now believe that Westerners celebrate Christmas with a chicken dinner instead of the more common ham or turkey.
Christmas Eve has been hyped by the T.V. media as being a time for romantic miracles. It is seen as a time to be spent with one’s boyfriend or girlfriend in a romantic setting, so fancy restaurants and hotels are often booked solid at this time. It is often also a time when girls get to reveal their affections to boys and vice versa. Because of this, extending a girl an invitation to be together on Christmas Eve has very deep, romantic implications.
When you get to be my age you don’t complain so much about the stale Christmas cakes. In fact you tend to enjoy them more fully.
Huh, oh, yeah, sure, I’m talking about that thing made with flour and eggs. Really I am.
So, as you can see, while everyone has managed to get every aspect of the holiday wrong, starting with the fact that Jesus was born in in April and not December, there is still a lot of good that has come out of the day. And any holiday that can get the message of universal love across 24 time zones and hundreds of languages can’t be all bad, can it?
Editorial Page, New York Sun, 1897
We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:
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?
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to have men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive of imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest mean, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.