Hello, friends, and Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice, Happy Kwanzaa and Happy Christmas! Here’s an essay I wrote a few years ago about the surprisingly recent roots of three Christmas traditions. Hope you have a splendid week. I’ll be back on December 28 with my final blog post.
Quick: name three Christmas symbols.
If you’re like me, the first things you picture are Christmas trees, a red-suited Santa Claus (or in England, Father Christmas) and the now-endangered paper Christmas card. Did you know that all three are, in many ways, Victorian inventions or mashups of older traditions? If we were transported back to England, 1840, we’d be celebrating without any of these icons!
Take, for example, Christmas trees – the visual centrepiece of English-speaking living rooms. But the Christmas tree is actually a German tradition made popular in 1840s England by the royal family, who were of German origin. (Queen Victoria’s first language was German and her husband, Prince Albert, moved to England on his marriage at age 20). Victoria and Albert loved celebrating Christmas, and it was their enthusiasm that made the tree (Tannenbaum) popular in England. Oh, and those first Christmas trees were small, potted affairs placed on a table with the gifts beneath – like so (image from the BBC’s Ten Ages of Christmas):
Santa Claus and Father Christmas are part of a tangled tradition, too. St Nicholas was a 4th-century Christian bishop much admired for his generosity – far from an elf! We get “Santa Claus” from the Dutch name for St Nicholas. Santa’s red suit is a recent revision, too: until the 1880s, he generally wore a long, green cloak. The most popular images of Santa Claus in a red suit were done for a Coca Cola ad campaign in the 1930s, and they’re what we think of now, automatically. Even so… any bets on how long that red suit will endure?
And oh, the Christmas card: all that paper is harder to justify each year, but e-cards are so soulless. Yet paper Christmas cards are themselves an invention of convenience – a commercial product without much tradition behind it apart from not wanting to write a long letter. Sir Henry Cole commissioned this next image in 1843 and used it to print the first commercial Christmas card. Note the lack of Christian imagery, here – it’s a family drinking wine together – and even the kids are imbibing:
Although we tend to think of Christmas as something solid, a ritual that all Christian-influenced cultures have always celebrated, our modern Christmas is pretty new indeed. I find the flexibility and brash (relative) newness of these traditions exciting. For me, it means that Christmas is for adapting, for inventing, for personalizing for my family. How about you? And if you celebrate another holiday – Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice – how have your traditions evolved?
Either way, I hope your holidays are splendid.