TALES OF TAKOMA: Christmas Origins

PHOTO: This year’s Historic Takoma, Inc. window display. Photo by Mary Ellsworth.

TALES OF TAKOMA • BY DIANA KOHN

This is not really a Tale of Takoma – although many of our modern traditions were solidifying in Takoma Park’s early decades. We made no particular significant contribution, but we were players like everyone else.

Long before Santa Claus, before decorated trees, before the birth of Jesus, December 25 was part of the annual celebration marking the return of longer days. The Romans declared it Saturnalia in 497 BC and turned it into an unbridled celebration throughout the empire.

With the rise of the early Christians, the far-flung communities could not agree on an official date for the Nativity. Finally, the 4th century Pope Julius I decreed December 25 as Christ Mass. The choice was an odd one, given that it was already the premiere holiday on the Roman calendar – Sol Invictus. Or perhaps that was the point. Even those Christians who celebrated Christ Mass preferred the old raucous traditions.

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The Huck family Christmas tree in 1911. Mr Huck made the beautiful paper ornaments on the tree, including the Goddess of Liberty at the top, and also bult the doll house. His daughter Lona drew the pastel landscape at right of tree when she was in eighth grade. The Hucks moved to Takoma park in 1904, and Lona Huck was living in the family home in 1983 when this photo was published in Takoma Park, A Portrait of a Victorian Suburb, 1883 – 1983, published by the Historic Takoma, Inc.

For centuries, December 25 took second place to January 6, marking the visit of the Magi or Ephiphany on the Church Calendar. The 12 Days of Christmas (complete with Lord of Misrule) continued the old pagan ways. In the 1600s both Oliver Cromwell in England and the Puritans of Massachusetts tried to outlaw these festivities and punish the merry-makers, to no avail.

Meanwhile, the Germans were pursuing a quieter set of traditions: family gatherings, decorating evergreen trees, nativity scenes, exchanging small gifts. When Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg married the young Queen Victoria in 1840, he brought these traditions to England with him.

The decorated Christmas tree he set up at Windsor Castle captured popular attention when a woodcut was published in the Illustrated London News. Decorated trees became fashionable, along with the royal family’s custom of gift-covered tables for each family member.

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Woodcut of Prince Albert’s tree in 1841.

Charles Dickens, critic of the Victorian excesses, came at the matter from the opposite direction. Appalled by the lack of concern for the plight of the poor, he deliberately set out to create a humanitarian vision for the holiday with his tale of Ebenezer Scrooge. A Christmas Carol has never been out of print.

Across the Atlantic his friend Washington Irving introduced a Christmas tradition of his own by introducing Sinterklaas to the greater world. Irving first published his fanciful Knickerbocker’s History of New York, in 1809, including a character from Dutch folklore named Sinterklaas. He was based on St. Nicholas, the 4th century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, who Church tradition tells rewarded women and small children with small gifts left in their stockings.

Dr. Clement Clarke Moore embellished the tale in 1823 with “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” vividly describing a “right jolly old elf” in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. Santa Claus gained worldwide fame after the Civil War thanks to Thomas Nast’s annual illustrations on the cover of Harper’s Weekly Magazine. And in 1897, the New York Sun’s response to a little girl named Virginia, who asked “Is There a Santa Claus,” provided the definitive answer.

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Nast’s Santa in Harper’s Weekly Magazine1881.

In 1870, the U.S. Congress officially declared December 25 a national holiday, a status unrecognized until that moment. The new holiday became a cultural crossroads for all the immigrants arriving on U.S. shores.

Meanwhile, the technological changes of the Industrial Revolution played their part in making the expansion of these traditions possible. More families, both middle class and working class, could afford the trappings of Christmas (trees, presents). Magazines, the social media of their day, published a steady stream of images and suggestions for how to celebrate.

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Holiday window display of dolls, Macys Department Store, 1915.

Mass production of ornaments and electric lights, as well as a vast array of printed Christmas cards, allowed all families to participate. Shopkeepers recognized a good thing and began promoting Christmas sales. By the turn of the century, large plate glass windows allowed for elaborate displays of the wondrous presents available inside.

Santas urged children to “be good” and listened to long wish lists, while other Santas stood on street corners accepting donations for the less fortunate. Christmas carols and advertisements trumpet the season, leaving us to ponder how this all came about.

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More details can be found in the window display at Historic Takoma, 7328 Carroll Avenue. Photo by Mary Ellsworth.