Growing up, we spend a great deal of time learning traditions, sitting through inscrutable rituals and wondering why we celebrate religious holidays with plants, imaginary animals and inedible food (I'm talking about you, fruit cake). By the time we're old enough to do our own research, we've gotten so accustomed to pomp and circumstance that we're more likely to drag the next generation into our ceremonial slipstream than we are to probe the origins of the party. Fortunately, I nurture a (probably unhealthy) juvenile level of curiosity. I could never settle for "that's just the way we do it" as a reason for anything. So I started looking, and here are a few things that I found out:
• The "Meaning of Christmas" was invented by two authors (sort of).
Christmas used to be wildly unpopular in England and the United States (more on that later). In the early 1800s, two authors turned a then-obscure religious holiday into novel fodder. One of them was the popularly verbose newsman Charles Dickens, who gave us A Christmas Carol, which reminds us that there are better things in life than driving employees to miserable straits for the sake of a bottom line; strangely, Dickens wasn't once accused of waging class warfare. Around the same time, Prince Albert of Great Britain was importing the tradition of Christmas trees from his native Germany, stoking a resurgence in Christmas celebrations overseas. But 23 years before Dickens gave us Tiny Tim, Washington Irving published five short stories pertaining to Christmas. They were parts of a larger work, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, which also included "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle." In the "Christmas" series within Crayon, members of vastly different social classes commune over a holiday repast, and the eponymous hero makes the first literary reflection on the meaning of Christmas.
• Christmas used to be illegal.
Many of the early pilgrims to the New World were religious purists who took great exception to the inexorable infusion of religious syncretism that, in their opinion, made Christmas celebrations secular and unworthy. Evergreen trees from northern Europe, Yule logs from Norse traditions and other representations of winter fertility from various non-Christian traditions (generally celebrating the winter solstice) have, over time, made their way into the canon of Christmastime. Some Puritans took this hybridization so seriously that, in Boston between 1659 and 1681, celebrating Christmas was against the law, punishable by a five-shilling fine. Fortunately, the good people of Boston have a better notion of shellfish than they do of holidays.
• Rudolph was the invention of another writer, and was a self-fulfilling prophesy.
In 1939, the Montgomery Ward department store gave their copywriter, Robert L. May, an assignment of writing a coloring book for them to distribute as a promotional giveaway; the assignment was a way to save the resources they would have spent buying books from a publishing company. May drew off of the story The Ugly Duckling, as well as his own childhood, during which he was picked on for being slight. Rudolph, the runt of Santa's reindeer, has his moment in the sun thanks to his glowing nose; the coloring book was a huge success for Montgomery Ward, and May presumably had his moment of glory within Montgomery Ward. (He even obtained the rights to the character, which originally belonged to the company, eight years later.)
• It's a truly international holiday.
As mentioned before, Christmas trees spread from German winter festivals, and log-burning made it's way into the world from Scandinavia. We also inherited Christmas stockings from Greece and Asia Minor (probably), where, as legend has hit, St. Nicholas (the historical basis for Santa Clause) left anonymous donations to the needy in their stockings, which would be pinned over fireplaces to dry. Poinsettas, now a popular Christmas flower, originated in Mexico. And, of course, the traditions of decorating retain the star and nativity scene from Christian iconography.
Happy Holidays! Be sure to tune in during the spring, when I make blasphemous jokes about the Easter Bunny. (Hint: It's another fertility symbol. Use your imagination.)