Tuesday, 9 December 2008

St. Nicholas Day



I was going to sleep in Sunday morning, but this metre-high blond person jumped up and down on me shouting, "Look what St. Necklace brought us!" I liked the "us" - she was as happy for me as for herself.

My daughter got chocolate coins and a few other goodies. In my family -- and this part seeems to be unique to us -- the grownups get seafood in their shoes. My wife knows what I like, so in my size-13s I found tins of spiced octopus. Yes, everyone thinks it's strange, but it's our tradition.

The Girl sometimes still refers to St. Nicholas as "St. Necklace" -- she got a necklace on this day a year or two ago, and the name stuck.

For those who aren't familiar, St. Nicholas is a German custom -- on December 6, he steals one of your shoes and leaves treats in it. Only in recent years did his Dutch version Sinter (Nic)Klaus gravitate toward Christmas. The modern American version seems to have come from the Dutch that once ruled New York, and maintained a presence even into the 19th century -- read "Rip Van Winkle" for more of a background.

It seems that the flying reindeer, the fur coat, the chimney and many other details came from the 19th-century poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Even then the character could come in different forms -- green, thin, whatever. A 1930s Coca-Cola advertising campaign fleshed out the rest, and now we think of Santa as older than time.

Many people would be surprised to find how new most Christmas carols are: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was invented as a marketing gimmick for Montgomery Ward stores in 1939, "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" in 1944, "The Little Drummer Boy" in 1957, "Do You Hear What I Hear?" in 1962. Christmas trees are also fairly new, dating only from Victorian Britain. Only a few generations ago, "Christmas" customs would have been almost unrecognizable to us -- how many of us have gone wassailing, or singing around the beehives on Christmas Eve?

Many of the other holidays are similarly recent inventions. Many of my countrymen think of Thanksgiving as an unbrokeen tradition dating back to the Pilgrims and Indians, as in the annual school plays with their construction-paper costumes.

Of course, almost everything about the Thanksgiving legend stems from some hoax or advertising campaign. The United States wasn't founded by the Pilgrims -- it wasn't the first settlement, or a historically important one. Most of the settlers there weren't religious separatists, and the separatists weren't called "Pilgrims" until 200 years after their demise. They didn't land at Plymouth Rock -- that was a local story created for tourism.

November is a little late for a harvest festival -- it was placed there in the 1930s to boost the Christmas shopping season. But most people have had harvest thanks-giving feasts of soem kind, so Thanksgiving is both older and newer than the early settlers. Only a century or so ago was it attached to the Massachusetts settlers, in the same way that St. Nicholas began to be attached to Christmas. It would be as though, starting in 2012, people began to believe that Abraham Lincoln's Halloween parties were "the first Halloween."

I don't bring all this up to mock the holiday traditions most of us love, or to claim that ours are any more authentic, or to say that customs are better for being older. I do think, though, that we feel enormous pressure to follow the usual rituals every December -- buy too much, eat too much, drink too much, sing "Jingle Bells," watch "It's a Wonderful Life." It helps me, at least, to know that I can pick and choose, to realize that you're not the only one tired of Christmas carols, that many of these customs were invented to sell you something, and that they are not actually holy.

Other things are holy.




Photos: pumpkin just before being made into soup, and my daughter at forest Donadea.

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