One of my favorite holiday books is Stephen Nissenbaum’s “The Battle for Christmas” (Knopf, 1996), which tracks the wooly adolescence of the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
Those who fret about “Christmas under siege” underestimate the strength of this plucky holiday. Nissenbaum tells us that Christmas sustained many perilous moments between the Last Wise Man and the first “Grinch” cartoon, including the one where Santa Claus helped save New York.
Santa didn’t always roll with Christmas. He was once a free agent, with his own day (St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6) And Christmas was once suppressed in England, because the poor liked to celebrate it by getting hammered and vandalizing nice homes. That tradition stemmed from “Misrule,” a gentle medieval custom where, on Christmas Day, the class order was reversed. Poor serfs could come and be waited on at their landlord’s home. (“Oh, bring us the figgy pudding, and bring it right here.”) But strong beverages were often served, and lubricated serfs began to realize that 364 days of oppression for one day of figgy pudding wasn’t such a smokin’ deal. So they began picking fights, and getting bounced. (For those of us hosting relatives, it’s a Christmas tradition that continues to this day!)
Fast forward to 19th century Manhattan. Many English traditions have followed to Knickerbocker New York, including the working-class tendency to celebrate it by getting hammered and vandalizing nice homes. Because city laws forbade groups of lawless thugs, locals would form “Callithumpian Bands” — groups of lawless thugs with musical instruments. (It’s like a home invasion, but your burglar is carrying a French horn.) These “bands” would serenade/pillage the city in the week before New Year’s. In 1820, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” meant “your house has been ransacked.”
John Pintard, a wealthy New Yorker who didn’t like being ransacked, tried various ways to tame the holiday. He called upon all New Yorkers to hearken back to the “gentle Dutch traditions of Old New York.” But in truth, no one knew what those traditions actually were. (Perhaps they stood around, with crowbars and musical instruments, waiting for someone to build a nice house.) Then, Pintard tried to install the gentle Christmas customs author/neighbor Washington Irving chronicled in his book, “Knickerbocker’s History of New York.” But Irving had made many of those traditions up, or at least exaggerated them to the point of sarcasm. So, Pintard had the difficult task of steering a city back toward traditions they’d never embraced in the first place. Which is a bit like saying: “Hey! Let’s all pretend we’re in 'Beowulf.’”
He did succeed in one important way: he changed the Medieval Christmas tradition — where wealthy folk bestowed gifts on servants — to a family one, where parents bestowed gifts on children. But the holiday still needed a contemporary focal point, ’lest folks begin drinking and picking up French horns again. This would be a good moment for Santa Claus, but which one? Different cultures had different versions. To some, he was an elfin Sprite who left trinkets in children’s shoes. To many, he was St. Nicholas, a cranky bishop with a Bob Dole demeanor, as likely to give kids a whack of the cane as a present. While this added a “Dirty Harry” suspense to Christmas (“… so you gotta ask yourself, kid: 'Am I feelin’ lucky?’”), he, somehow, didn’t inspire glee. It took Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” to bridge the gap.
Clement Clarke Moore, a wealthy literary and Biblical scholar, seemed an unlikely candidate for elfin poetry. Some claim “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (or “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” as it is now known) was ghostwritten. But the poem’s St. Nick spoke to both the wealthy and the working class. The common folk identified with him because he did what many of them enjoyed over the holidays: breaking and entering. When he lands on the roof with a bunch of animals, then falls down the chimney like an errant pigeon, something tells you: “This is no bishop.” Moore’s St. Nick was dressed “like a pedlar,” with “the stump of a pipe” — a trademark of New York’s working class — clenched in his teeth. So when the poem’s father bolts downstairs, he sees every Knickerbocker’s nightmare: a fat, bearded commoner, flopping about in his living room.
But here, the tale turns: “A wink of his eye and a twist of his head, soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.” The soot-covered St. Nick — who resembles a guy playing crowbar in many a callithumpian band — acts in the benevolent spirit of the new holiday. He treads softly, he leaves presents. He turns to the narrator, lays a finger aside of his nose (which, at the time, meant “keep this between us”) and departs — with the fascination and affection of rich and poor alike.
There was never, ever a cross word in New York after that. OK, that’s not true. But Christmas had its own contemporary hero. Vandalism lost its holiday franchise and began to decline,* as imaginations turned on the Jolly Old Elf, who looked like the old ways, and ushered in the new ones.
(*Vandalism is still observed in New York, but on a freelance basis.)
Michael Grady is a reporter and columnist for the Tribune. Contact him at (480) 898-6572 or firstname.lastname@example.org.