The ghosts of Christmas past
Holiday has dark—even frightening—origins
Centered on childhood, religion and good old-fashioned commercialism, our Christmas is all about giving, loving and pleasing others, as it should be. But the holiday has darker origins that predate our modern notions of peace on earth and goodwill to men.
The winter solstice celebration dates to earliest recorded time when sacrifice and burning of the yule log ensured the return of the sun. Druids wore holly sprigs in their hair during rituals since the pointy leaves supposedly afforded protection against evil spirits.
For the Romans, the pagan festival evolved into the feast of Saturnalia, which honored Saturn, the Roman god of seeds and planting. From Dec. 17 to Dec. 23, master and slave changed places, engaging in boisterous revelry, overindulgence in food and drink, enthusiastic mating behavior, property destruction and general insanity.
The Christians chose to observe Christ’s birth on Dec. 25, hoping to pre-empt the holiday and change its meaning. Even so, during the first few centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, the 12 days of Christmas (Dec. 25-Jan. 5) looked more like Halloween. The superstitious, which included almost everyone, believed that forces of evil roamed the earth during this time and were intent on counterbalancing with the benevolent appearance of the savior.
Long periods of darkness played havoc on our imaginative ancestors who saw witches and malevolent spirits in the twilight shadows and flickering firelight. Nervous occupants painted the sign of the cross on doorways, burned logs in the fireplace all night and avoided venturing into the darkness for fear (not always unjustified) they might never return.
The Germans were among the first to put a more positive spin on Christmas, planting fir saplings and decorating trees with apples, roses and paper in honor of St. Boniface, who had converted them to Christianity. During the 4th century, legends arose around a Turkish bishop, later known as St. Nicholas, who brought gifts to children on his feast day, Dec. 6. The kindly bishop would have been amazed to discover that in some countries he was accompanied by a black devil figure called Krampas or Black Rupert with horns and a long tongue. His job was to deliver birch rods and ashes to naughty boys and girls.
Some truly frightening postcards printed in Germany around 1910 pictured Krampas carrying away misbehaving children to some unhappy fate. In the 1890s, a popular depiction of the German Christmasman or Weihnachtsmann, a Protestant incarnation of St. Nicholas, carried a tree in one hand and a switch in the other.
German Protestants also came up with a more kindly image of the Christchild or Kriskindl as a benevolent gift giver. By the time Kris made it to America, he became Kris Kringle, by then just another name for Santa Claus.
The Puritans who settled early America shunned Christmas, which they considered pagan nonsense. From 1659 to 1691, its observance was banned in Boston.
In the early 19th century, Christmas in New York looked more like Saturnalia, with drunken roughnecks carousing in the streets, making as much noise and causing as much trouble as possible. In 1828, the New York City Council formed the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot.
And then miraculously, the holiday got a makeover. In 1822, Dr. Clement Clark Moore, a classical scholar, penned The Night Before Christmas (or A Visit from St. Nicholas) to entertain his children. A friend mailed a copy to a newspaper, and before long the poem became famous. Along with the angels, the merchants rejoiced as the toy industry boomed.
Moore may have based his poem on Washington Irving’s 1809 chronicle Knickerbocker’s History of New York, in which he describes the saint flying over the rooftops and dropping presents down chimneys. He may have also drawn inspiration from a small lithographed book called The Children’s Friend written in 1821. On the cover, an anonymous New York author depicted “old Santeclaus” wearing a fur top hat and riding in a sled filled with presents labeled “rewards.” Interestingly, his sleigh was driven by a single reindeer.
Moore’s poem described Santa as an elf with a white beard who dressed in furs, smoked a pipe and drove a tiny sleigh guided by eight reindeer with colorful names like Donder (later Donner) and Blitzen. Over the next few decades, artists depicted Santa’s appearance in various ways—from a deranged-looking dwarf to a fur-covered gnome wearing yellow tights.
The definitive image came from cartoonist Thomas Nash, who began drawing illustrations of Santa delivering gifts to the troops during the Civil War. Santa gained weight over the next few decades until he looked like a prosperous 19th century businessman in a red suit. That particular version stays with us, despite a modern aversion to the overweight.
Although Queen Victoria and Prince Albert may have fostered the concept of Christmas as a family affair, Americans took it to the next level. A woodcut of the British royal family gathered around a Christmas tree, published in The Illustrated London News December 1848, was reproduced in the popular Godey’s Ladies Magazine two years later, minus the queen’s crown and the prince’s mustache. The Americanized version became the first widespread image of a decorated Christmas tree in the United States.
Along with Godey’s, other publications provided helpful suggestions for decorations, parties and even homemade gifts around the holiday season. By the early 1900s, all the recognizable Christmas symbols were in place, minus grandiose lighting displays, Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the latter created by Montgomery Ward in 1939.
Obviously, Christmas has come a long way since those early pagan festivals. Although people often complain that the true meaning of the holiday has been lost, the reverse is true. Our modern celebration may have flaws, but it beats the more somber Christmas of our forbearers.