TR Robertson…As Christmas Day approaches, the holiday represents many different things to many different people. For millions and millions around the world, Christmas will be a religious holiday and celebration. Also for millions and millions of people, Christmas is full of many different childhood memories and stories about fictional characters and personalities and also decorations and customs in homes that are always a part of the holiday season. The following is a quick summation of a few of these.
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer – The story of Rudolph was created by Robert Lewis May in 1939 as a booklet published by Montgomery Ward Department Store. Rollo and Reginald were considered as names before Rudolph was settle on as the name. The song for Rudolph was first played on the piano by Joe Gunther at Chicago’s Drake Hotel in the mid 40’s. The first public broadcast of the song was in 1949 by Harry Brannon on a New York City radio station. The song became known throughout the United States in 1949 when Gene Autry recorded the song and 2.5 million records were sold in the first year it was out. A television cartoon was released in 1964, filmed in Japan with sound added in Toronto, Canada, narrated by Burl Ives.
Frosty the Snowman – The story of Frosty was written by Walter Rollins and Steve Nelson, published in 1950 as a children’s book. The story was put to song in 1950, recorded by Gene Autry and the Cass Cowboys. It would be published as a children’s book in late 1950. The first television cartoon about Frosty appeared in 1954 as a 3 minute short. The longer 25 minute cartoon appeared in 1969, animated by a Japanese studio, Mushi Productions. Jimmy Durante would be the narrator and Jackie Vernon provided the voice of Frosty.
Santa Claus – When speaking about Santa Claus you have to divide the persona of Santa to the historical side and the “fictional” side (which for many is also up for debate). Santa Claus is also referred to as Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle and Father Christmas. Historically, Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Greek bishop whose remains are buried in Italy. He is referred to as the gift giver of Myra in Lycia (Turkey). Stories surrounding his gift giving have elements of the Germanic god Wodan and the pagan mid-winter event of Yule. St. Nicholas is also the patron Saint of Amsterdam and Moscow. The look of Santa has gone through a number of changes over the years. His winter jacket began in shades of green and brown. The basic look we associate with Santa today comes from an 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nick”, and the work of cartoonist Thomas Nest. Santa has gained more and more weight over the years. The more traditional Santa look was established in the 1920’s from designs that appeared in ads Coca Cola ran in the Saturday Evening Post magazine. Haddon Sundblom was the illustrator of the ads and they would run for many years in other magazines as well with the slogan, “The Pause That Refreshes”. Traditionally the time for gift giving around the Christmas season was established in the Middle Ages, usually around December 6th. During the Reformation Movement the date was moved to what would be called Christmas Eve, December 24th. Other traditions surrounding Santa include leaving treats out for the Jolly Old fella. Traditionally, milk and cookies are left out, but in Britain and Australia the treats can be sherry or beer and mince pies. In Denmark, Norway and Sweden Santa gets rice porridge and in Ireland he gets Guinness or milk and Christmas pudding.
Christmas Wreaths – wreaths first appear in the time of the early Greeks and Romans. These wreaths were worn on the head representing occupations, rank, status and victory. Wreaths would evolve to symbolic representations hung on doors and walls of homes representing successful harvest. Many times they were left hanging year round. In Christianity wreaths would be made in observation of the Advent season. They also began to appear during funerals and memorials representing eternal life, many decorated with flowers to represent life and resurrection. In Renaissance England wreaths were made as symbols of political and religious alliances. Needless to say, todays wreaths come in many colors, shapes and sizes with every kind of decoration imaginable. I have seen Star Wars wreaths, super hero wreaths, woodland animal wreaths as well as the traditional Christmas holiday wreaths. Many people like to purchased wreaths and design and make their own to personalize the wreath for their home.
Nutcrackers – Nutcrackers originated in the 17th Century in Germany near the Ore Mountains. Legend has it that the first carver of a nutcracker was a craftsman named Seiffen. The nutcrackers were carved in the likeness of toy soldiers. Nutcrackers were given as gifts and became associated with the Christmas season. The traditional nutcracker has 60 pieces and would grow in popularity during the 19th century. Friedrich Wilheim Fuchtner is called the “father of the nutcracker” as his business began mass producing them in 1872. They are considered symbols of good luck used to scare away bad spirits. Today, nutcrackers are designed to represent all kinds of occupations and characters.
Christmas Trees – The evergreen fir tree traditionally was used to celebrate winter festivals in both pagan and Christian celebrations, some 1,000 years ago in Northern Europe. The branches of the evergreen were used to cover entryways to homes during the winter solstice to welcome spring. An ongoing rivalry exists between the towns of Tallinn, Estonia and Riga, Latvia as to which town first began the use of trees in a winter celebration. Tallinn says they started in 1441 and Riga said they started the use in 1510. For Tallinn, the story says that a group of men, called the Brotherhood of Blackheads, who were unwed merchants, danced around the trees, then set the trees on fire. In Germany, a stone tablet says trees were paraded through the town during the winter with a man on a horse following behind, said to represent St. Nicholas. Another story says that Martin Luther, a 16th century German preacher, brought trees into his home during the winter to remind him and his family of the coming spring.
Ornaments – ornaments first appeared in Germany using apples, white candy canes and pastries in the shape of stars, hearts and flowers. These ornaments would be placed on trees. Glass ornaments first appeared in Germany in 1550, strung on a string to wrap on trees. Small candles were also placed on trees for decoration. F.W. Woolworth brought the German glass ornaments to the United States in the 1880’s to sell in his department stores. The first American made ornaments were made by William DeMuth in the 1870’s.
Christmas Lights – The first electric string Christmas lights were made by Edward Johnson in 1882. Johnson was a personal friend and partner of Edison. The popularity of Christmas lights grew when President Cleveland requested the White House family tree be illuminated with electric lights.
Christmas Stockings – There are no written records concerning Christmas stockings or when they first appeared. There are several legends surrounding the use of stockings to receive Christmas gifts. Most surround children leaving their personal stockings out as a place to put their holiday gifts in the 1400-1500’s. The first designed stockings appeared in the United States in the mid-1800’s.
Twas the Night Before Christmas – This poem was written in 1823 by Clement C. Moore and introduced the Santa’s reindeer Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. There are many other traditions associated with the holiday season. It is fascinating and interesting to look into the background surrounding this fun, festive and enjoyable time of year. To each and every person who has taken the time to read about these holiday traditions – A Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.