The first recitation of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” popularly known by its first line “Twas the night before Christmas,” was given in 1822 by author Clement Clarke Moore at St. Peter’s Church in New York City.
In the United States, interest in Christmas saw a revival in the 1820s. It followed a period of profound disinterest in the wake of the American Revolution. The holiday was associated with England and royalism.
Another American writer, Washington Irving, helped promote Christmas with his short stories like “Old Christmas,” in which he depicted warm-hearted festivities associated with the holiday. In Moore’s poem, he popularized the exchanging of gifts, and the hanging of decorations and stockings for St. Nick—basically all that we now associate with the spirited holiday.
He unwittingly set off the tradition of seasonal Christmas shopping, which began to have economic importance, and started the cultural conflict between the holiday’s spiritual significance and the corrupting influence of rank commercialism. In her book, “The First Christmas in New England,” Harriet Beecher Stowe has a character that maintains that the true meaning of Christmas was lost in a shopping spree!
In 1843, Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol,” in which he revived the spirit of Christmas and seasonal merriment, but included a moral tale of compassion, goodwill and importance of family. We owe much of our current traditions to Dickens, who constructed the holiday as a family-centered festival of generosity and influenced the way we are still celebrating Christmas, including family gatherings, food and drink, dancing, games and a festive generosity of spirit.
Shortly after “A Christmas Carol” came the first Christmas cards and the first appearance in print of carols and hymns like “I Saw Three Ships,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”
It is to Dickens, Moore and Irving that I defer at this time of year. Now, we should transcend politics, class, race, ethnicity and religion. While many of us will spend a lot of money during the season on things we mostly don’t need, the most precious memories of the season are often found in the traditions we carry on from one year to the next. These aren’t necessarily “collectibles.” They might be worthless to anyone else, but they are the things that make our hearts happy and recall people that are no longer with us. Or make us, in a word, merry!
This was my immediate impression upon stepping into the Thomas Moran House in East Hampton the other day. Thanks to my good friend Mary Busch and the East Hampton Historical Society, I was able to wander through this late-Victorian house, which has been impeccably restored after eight years of work and decorated for the season with authenticity. The house is open to the public on Saturdays. Contact the historical society for more information.
Inside, I found all that Christmastime must have meant to Dickens, Moore and Irving. All the things that resonate today and have been part of the season’s celebrations have existed for 200 years in America. These are the things money can’t buy, that don’t have an intrinsic value, that don’t go up and down in value, that some might cherish and others hate. These are the things that are thoughtfully unwrapped each year, and then just as carefully wrapped and stored until next year. They are the hopes, dreams, memories and lovingly made gifts that have meaning only to the recipient. They are the children’s books to be read and saved and re-read again. They are the games, toys and dolls that are passed on from one generation to the next, along with stories of family disputes over the rules or who won that year.
The custom of putting up special decorations at Christmas has a long history, and at the Moran House, decorations can be seen on the huge tree that is the focal point in the main room, plus various mantel, hearth and table seasonal greens with candles, berries and fruit. And don’t forget lights, bells, wreaths, stockings and angels.
From the communal folk songs, which became the carols we know today and which are played at the Moran House, to the gift of musical instruments and sheet music to the children, song has always played an important role in our contemporary Christmas festivities.
Special family meals and foods are an important part of the holiday’s celebration. It’s a time for the table to be set with the finest china, tableware and special foods served like turkey, goose, cider and wine, plum puddings or Christmas cake.
The first traditional greeting was “wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” It’s a pleasant message and popular custom found in a card, but it may be going the way of the dodo because of the modern trend toward e-cards.
A core aspect of modern celebrations—which started with the Magi bringing gifts to Mary, Joseph and Jesus—is gift giving, and the main gift giver today is that jolly old elf, Santa Claus, whose history is derived from Saint Nicholas’s care of children, generosity and giving of gifts. At the Moran House, one can see the types of gifts that were given and exchanged more than 100 years ago. They include books, games, wooden and cast iron toys, boats, trains and musical instruments. Perhaps most noteworthy were the dolls.
When we consider all these attributes of the season, we are really talking about all our senses being affected. They create an atmosphere of merriment, of joy, and of hope for next year. And it is in this spirit that I wish all you readers a very happy holiday season, regardless of how you do or don’t celebrate.
In the end, it’s not about “us.” It’s about “them.” For it is in giving that we receive. Merry Christmas!
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