Saturday, December 18, 2010

'Tis the Season

The modern Christmas was invented almost entirely in England by the Victorians in the last half of the 19th century.  The celebration of Christmas had been banned in 1652 by cheery old Oliver Cromwell.  (The American Puritans demonstrated their own enthusiasm by making it illegal not to work on Christmas Day.)  As late as 1819, a woman caused a major fire by hiding the holiday goose, in an iron pot still glowing from the coals, beneath her bed when her minister dropped in unexpectedly.

The Victorians assembled a celebration that was partly ancient and partly German.  The first Christmas tree in Buckingham Palace was put up for Victoria's German consort, Prince Albert.  The Victorians reintroduced such ancient customs as the Yule log (from the Anglo-Saxon midwinter festival Yule), greenery, lights, and mistletoe, which had been banned in English churches because of its role in pagan fertility rituals.  (The kiss beneath the mistletoe is a euphemism.)  Most importantly, the Victorians made the holiday child-centric.  And no single person contributed more to the popularity of the "new" Christmas than Charles Dickens, and nothing he wrote captured it better than A Christmas Carol.

In Tiny Tim, Dickens put a child at the center of the world's most popular Christmas story, making Tim's survival as important as Scrooge's redemption.  Dickens had endured a terrible childhood, and he knew that the opulence of Victorian life for a relative few was paid for by grinding poverty for many, including children.  He was writing quite personally when he had the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come reveal the two "wretched, abject . . . miserable" children who represent Want and Ignorance.  In fact, not until the story's final draft did he decide whether Tiny Tim would live or die. In the end, his incurable optimism had its way -- very much in the spirit of the new Christmas he celebrated.

The Thais have no problem with a holiday that celebrates peace, joy, generosity, and love -- especially toward children.  But Thailand is 99% Buddhist, and they celebrate Buddha's birthday every year, so the birthday aspect of Christmas is redundant.  Instead, they've built a merry party of their own, centered on the not-very-religious figure of Santa Claus,

Santa Claus, who inspired the hats at left and has so captured the imagination of the Thais, found his way to England from America.  Based on a shadowy 4th-century Greek Bishop, Nikolaos of Myra, who gave bags of coins to provide dowries for impoverished girls who otherwise faced a Fate Worse Than Death, he was adopted by the Dutch and turned into the bearer of gifts on Christmas Eve -- "Sint Nikaas," or "Sinter Klaes," which the Dutch settlers of New York and their neighbors turned into Santa Claus. Taken in hand by artists such as Thomas Nast, the plump, merry, pipe-smoking Santa shouldered aside (for the most part) the rowdier and thinner Father Christmas.

And, in Thailand, Santa powers for the sale of literally hundreds of thousands of hats every December.

It really is a global season.


  1. I loved your story, Tim, and in keeping with the ecumenical, cross-cultural spirit of the season you created let me reveal that although Nicholaos of Myra certainly was Greek, he did his good works for girls facing a Fate Worse Than Death in an area that is now part of modern day Turkey. Ho, Ho, Ho.

  2. Actually, Tim, the "Sint's" visit to Dutch children occurs on the night of the fifth of December (his name day is on the sixth.) and it's been going on for a long, long, time - much longer than our Victorian Christmas.
    There's a famous painting by Jan Steen from about 1660, which our readers can see by pasting this link into their browsers.
    In the scale from naughty to nice, the kid on the left falls into the naughty category. He's crying because he got switches in his shoe. (The "Sint" provides them for application to the posteriors of naughty children.)

  3. Hi, Jeffrey, hi, Leighton.

    I actually knew about Turkey but cut it because I was running way long. And I knew the Dutch adopted St, Nick a long time back but had no idea the presents were originally given on the eve of his name day, the fifth. You learn something every day, especially when you're in good company.

  4. Very interesting, but I'm still for giving presents to the "naughty" child; redemption is always possible.