Thoughts on the Season Part Two
Christmas became a time of year for celebrations. Depending upon your land and background, you celebrated in December because it was the winter solstice or Jesus Christ was born. As Christianity spread, it was adopted and like a Christmas tree, everyone added their favorite ornaments.
The solemn carols that were sun during mass began adding songs specifically about this holy event with “Silent Night” becoming the focal point. But it was a time to make merry and with that songs of the season were written and sung and passed on from generation to generation. “Deck the Halls”, first sung in 1784, apparently led the way, followed in 1857 by “Jingle Bells”.
Throughout Europe, there were also tales told of Saint Nicholas or Father Christmas or Pere Noel, a kindly old man who visited homes and left behind trinkets or food. But, one of the other figures that contributed to Santa Claus is far more familiar to comic books fans.
Odin, the king of the Norse Gods and the man we named hump day after, was of course a large, rotund fellow with a white beard. Sure, he had one-eye and was followed around by two scary-looking crows, Huginn and Muninn, but he has also been descried as a “mythical representation of goodness with his wisdom, white beard and white horse”. During the Norse celebration of Yule, it was said Odin led a great hunting party with his eight-legged steed, Sleipnir. It was believed that children would fill their boots with carrots and straw for Sleipnir, leaving them near the chimney for when Odin visited. In exchange for such kindness, Odin would replace the food with gifts or candy for the children, a practice found in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, even after Christianity began converting Europe.
While the Norsemen venerated Odin, in Turkey, there was Nicholas, the 4th century Bishop who was said to perform miracles to help the sick and needy. His fame spread far and wide so the image of the kindly priest in white and red robes became familiar.
His fame dimmed during the Reformation years, except in Holland where he morphed into Sinterklaas; “a kind and wise old man with a white beard, white dress, red cloak, a crosier and riding the skies and roofs of the houses on his white horse.” He was said to visit children in celebration of his birthday, around December 5 and here is where his naughty and nice lists developed. Over time, the images of Nicholas, now Sinterklaas, and Odin, from the not too far off north, began to meld since both performed miracles, rode white horses, and left behind gifts for the good.
As the Dutch came to the New World, their legends and customs followed and as their language morphed into modern English, Sinterklaas became Santa Claus. In the 19th century, Clement Clarke Moore wrote A Visit from Saint Nicholas, the immortal poem that begins, “Twas the Night Before Christmas…” Once the poem was published in Syracuse, it was rapidly reprinted around America then Europe, beginning to solidify the Santa Claus legend. Selipnir’s eight legs may well have transformed into eight reindeer pulling the sleigh although Moore named them.
Not long after the poem became a sensation, Charles Dickens also solidified the traditions with his wonderful A Christmas Carol, which gave us the immortal Scrooge, but also phrases like “bah, humbug”. I would argue these two works of literature did more for forming today’s understand of the season more than anything else.
Visually, though, the Santa suit and rotund figure didn’t really gel until the Coca-Cola advertisements that began in 1930. Since soda pop didn’t sell well during the colder weather, the ad campaign was hoped to boost product and having Santa drink a cold one became a charming bit of Americana.
One of the best things St. Pius, here in Fairfield, does for the children occurs on Christmas Eve. During the family mass, usually performed to a packed Church with a spillover crowd in the adjacent school, Santa Claus arrives during mass and silently walks down the aisle, pausing to bow and pray over the image of the baby Jesus. This way, the two parallel celebrations meet and becomes intertwined in the imaginations of children for a lifetime.
So, as you toast with your egg nog, wish one another well in the spirit of the season regardless of your beliefs.