Top 5 Myths About Christmas





Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

#1 Myth

Retailers Have Ruined Christmas By Commercializing It

Until retailers began to see in Christmas the opportunity to market their merchandise the holiday attracted little of the attention it does now. It was retailers who made Christmas exciting. It was they who turned Santa Claus into a national icon. Montgomery Ward gave us Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer. Coca-Cola helped popularize the smiling Santa. Retailers discovered the commercial possibilities of Christmas after the Civil War. Only then did newspapers regularly begin to feature advertising sales associated with the holiday.

Retailers helped establish Christmas as an American tradition by persuading Protestants to overcome centuries of hostility to the holiday, which had long been identified as a popish import. The leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony so disdained Christmas that in 1659 they passed a law prohibiting the public celebration of the holiday, punishing"anybody who is found observing [it], by abstinence from labor, feasting, or any other way." The law was repealed 25 years later, but the prejudice against Christmas remained strong. Judge Samuel Sewall was delighted to be able to report in his diary in 1685 that he did not see a single person celebrating the holiday.

#2 Myth

Christmas Cards Are a Venerable Tradition

Yes, Virginia, Christmas cards are venerable. But it was the Victorian businessman who made the Christmas card an American tradition. Before the middle of the 19th century Americans simply did not send holiday greeting cards at Christmas.

#3 Myth

Clement Moore Wrote the Poem,"The Night Before Christmas"

Several years ago Vassar professor and professional debunker Don Foster concluded that Moore did not write the famous 1822 poem with which he is so identified. Foster claimed, according to an account in the New York Times in 2000, that the poem's"spirit and style are starkly at odds with the body of Moore's other writings." Foster speculated that the poem was actually written by Henry Livingston, Jr., an author from Poughkeepsie (where Vassar happens to be located).

The story made a big splash in the newspapers. It was then promptly forgotten. The same cannot be said of the poem.

#4 Myth

Christmas Trees Are Traditional

The Christmas tree first made its appearance in America in the middle of the 18th century, thanks to German immigrants. But a hundred years later it was still rare. In 1851 a Cleveland, Ohio reverend who had recently emigrated from Germany put up a Christmas tree in his local church. He was roundly condemned. Nobody before had ever put up a Christmas tree in an American church. Victorians in the latter half of the 19th century slowly began adopting the German tradition, but the Christmas tree remained controversial. In the 1880s the New York Times editorialized against the Christmas tree. When Teddy Roosevelt became president he denounced the practice of cutting down trees for Christmas. Good conservationist that he was, he declared the practice a waste of timber.

#5 Myth

Santa Was Always Fat and Jolly

Whether he was a Dutch creation, as so many believe, is, according to scholar Eric C. Wolf, doubtful."There is no evidence," says Wolf,"that the Santa Claus myth existed in New Amsterdam, or for a century after English occupation." To be sure, Santa is loosely based on the European figure, St. Nick, the fourth century Bishop of Demre, Turkey, who was said to have carried a sack full of toys for children. But it was only after the Revolution, when writers began inventing American traditions, that Santa suddenly achieved broad popularity. The myth was slow to build. Not until 1821 was Santa seen flying in the sky behind a pack of reindeer. Only in 1837 do we find evidence that he arrived in American homes via the chimney. And not until the Civil War did Santa look the way we imagine him. In colonial days he was often described as thin and beardless. In 1809 Washington Irving imagined Santa as a bulky man who smoked a pipe and wore a Dutch broad-brimmed hat and baggy breeches. Later, Santa was depicted as a fat man with brown hair and a big smile. Then in 1863 Thomas Nast gave us our modern idea of Santa Claus, as a jolly fat man with a flowing white beard dressed in a red suit.



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Tim Lacy - 12/18/2006

Rick: Good work. I put a link to your piece on my site. - TL


Roy Street - 12/4/2005

Falwell, Foxhoel news, and the rest of the rabid right are using the cannard of a "war on Xmas" as a big fund raiser.
Very Reminiscent of the Birchers in the 50's.
Let's be completely intolerant of other peoples' beliefs and customs. That's what the Pharasees and Boston Puritans would have us do.


Walter D. Kamphoefner - 12/22/2004

New Engliand is not the same as America, but Missouri was initially settled by Virginians and Kentuckians. Here is what one German who arrived in 1834 wrote about them:
"Their Christmas celebrations were much simpler. There was no talk of churchly celebration, and no gifts were given, much less did they know about the nice German custom of decorating the Christmas tree; all they did was shoot." He goes on to describe how bands of young men went about the neighborhood on Christmas eve, shooting off guns and soliciting invitations into people's homes for a round of whisky and baked goods, often continuing throughout the night.


Dutch - 12/27/2003

Isn't Christmas wonderful? the melding of religious thougth and human behaviour...God and Sinners reconcilled.


Mary Van Deusen - 12/25/2003

"His name was on the first published version."

Actually, it wasn't. Though the poem clearly came out of Moore's household, where Moore had told his children not to let it get out. Moore was interested in Santa and had written two Santa poems in the years previous. The Livingston stories that go down several different lines of descendants is that a governess visited the Livingston home and stopped off at Moore's on her way to work for a Moore household "down south." Moore was the only child of an Episcopalian bishop. My best guess is that he never learned how to get out of trouble, and his small fib of telling his children that he had written the wonderful poem would have ended there if one child hadn't disobeyed him and let a cousin copy the poem out of her notebook. Once the poem became famous because of being reprinted in almanacs, Moore didn't know how to get out of that little fib. Moore waited 17 years - 12 after Henry's death - to claim the poem, and only did so after checking that the publisher hadn't known the rightful author. Moore claimed the poem in 1844 in a book that was so poorly reviewed that a review by "L" stands out for its exhuberant praise of the book. "L" was Moore's pseudonym. The word that Moore had written the book spread so poorly that there were still anonymous copies of the poem being printed at the turn of the 20th century. Henry's children were reciting the poem to their children as Henry's years before Moore ever took credit. And you can find in Henry's existing poetry many pieces that glow their connection to the Christmas poem. The quotes from Moore apologists always have to be of partial poems because of Moore's consistent style. He first sets up a lovely scene, the one Moore apologists quote, such as the one about the lovely snow, then he rips the scene apart and explains why the snow will melt and all the garbage will show through later. This is the part Moore apologists don't quote. As Vassar President MacCracken said, "There runs through all Professor Moore's verse a kind of frustration. He feels he should be a greater man than he is, a greater poet. The public did not agree with him, even about his poetry. ... He was a self-torturing Midas; all around him was a rich harvest of poetry, which he turned to lead."


Mary Van Deusen - 12/25/2003

"His name was on the first published version."

Actually, it wasn't. Though the poem clearly came out of Moore's household, where Moore had told his children not to let it get out. Moore was interested in Santa and had written two Santa poems in the years previous. The Livingston stories that go down several different lines of descendants is that a governess visited the Livingston home and stopped off at Moore's on her way to work for a Moore household "down south." Moore was the only child of an Episcopalian bishop. My best guess is that he never learned how to get out of trouble, and his small fib of telling his children that he had written the wonderful poem would have ended there if one child hadn't disobeyed him and let a cousin copy the poem out of her notebook. Once the poem became famous because of being reprinted in almanacs, Moore didn't know how to get out of that little fib. Moore waited 17 years - 12 after Henry's death - to claim the poem, and only did so after checking that the publisher hadn't known the rightful author. Moore claimed the poem in 1844 in a book that was so poorly reviewed that a review by "L" stands out for its exhuberant praise of the book. "L" was Moore's pseudonym. The word that Moore had written the book spread so poorly that there were still anonymous copies of the poem being printed at the turn of the 20th century. Henry's children were reciting the poem to their children as Henry's years before Moore ever took credit. And you can find in Henry's existing poetry many pieces that glow their connection to the Christmas poem. The quotes from Moore apologists always have to be of partial poems because of Moore's consistent style. He first sets up a lovely scene, the one Moore apologists quote, such as the one about the lovely snow, then he rips the scene apart and explains why the snow will melt and all the garbage will show through later. This is the part Moore apologists don't quote. As Vassar President MacCracken said, "There runs through all Professor Moore's verse a kind of frustration. He feels he should be a greater man than he is, a greater poet. The public did not agree with him, even about his poetry. ... He was a self-torturing Midas; all around him was a rich harvest of poetry, which he turned to lead."


Mary S. Van Deusen - 12/25/2003

Having done the underlying research on this authorship issue, I have now spent 3 solid years researching Henry Livingston and his writing. My credentials as a researcher are solid. I took early retirement from IBM Research, and was chair of the international group on Computer Programming Languages. Besides Don Foster coming down on Henry's side, I was contacted by a second attributional scholar that uses a different technique. She, too, found the poem to have been written by Henry, and not to have been written by Moore. The scholar whot seems never to be referred to these days, who was squarely in Henry's corner, was Vassar Professor Henry Noble MacCracken. A chapter of Blythe Dutchess is devoted to Henry's cause. On my website (http://www.henrylivingston.com) I include a page showing continuing research after Don's book came out. Most significant is a deposition of a Moore relative whose parent was told by Moore that when Moore published the poem in his book, it required 2 small changes from the poem as he had originally written it. In the pile of papers with the deposition was a Troy Sentinel 1830 version of the poem with a few small changes, that was included by publisher Tuttle in his "coast is clear" letter referred to in Don's book. This is Moore's source in his poem publication. The problem for Moore is that Tuttle neglected to mention that by 1830 he had made 21 changes to the 1823 poem he had first published - including fixing the awkward reindeer rhyming! - so that Moore's comment that he had made only 2 small changes from the poem as originally written was totally false. To write it, Moore had to not know the 1823 version of "his" poem. Clearly, Moore never wrote it.


charles Denardi - 11/25/2003

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Dave Livingston - 10/18/2003

The essay may be saccurate to say that "Santa is loosely based on a European figure," but Saint Nickolas refers to a Christian bishop whose see was in in what today is called Turkey.


SomeGuy - 12/28/2002

Myth number four needs more explanation. Here maybe the bible can help:

Yermiyah 10:1-5

Hear ye the word which HaShem speaketh unto you, O house of Israel; thus saith HaShem: Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the nations are dismayed at them. For the customs of the peoples are vanity; for it is but a tree which one cutteth out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold, they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are like a pillar in a garden of cucumbers, and speak not; they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.


Anonymous - 12/27/2002

There is a good article about this question of authorship in Common Place, which favors Moore as author:

http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/cp/vol-01/no-02/moore/index.shtml


Russell Cort - 12/26/2002

I invariably enjoy the HNN articles gathered from here and there. Please keep up the good work. You do come across many interesting ones. I particularly like the debunking ones, like today's on tthe myths of Xmas. Keep on trucking.


Dr. Eric Davin - 12/24/2002

A debunker needs to know his facts backwards & forwards before he sets out to debunk. Rick Shenkman does not. His debunking of Myth #3, that Clement Moore wrote the poem, "Night Before Christmas," is completely without merit. The Vassar debunker has been debunked. Shenkman has not been keeping abreast of the most recent research on this topic. Nor even reading the commercial press. See the most recent issue of The New Yorker for more on the most complete vindication of Moore as the author of this poem yet published. Shenkman should now rewrite his list as the "Top FOUR Myths about Christmas."


Chris Lee - 12/22/2001

In his book Author Unknown Foster makes a good circumstantial case that Moore didn't write the poem, but the lack of any manuscript by Livingston hurts. I think there are a few more flaws in Foster's arguments: he doesn't account for possibilitites other than plagiarism (perhaps Moore added his own material to Livingston's poem, or Moore and Livingston both drew on a common source), and the whole notion of saying that Moore couldn't have written it because he wasn't the type of person who would seems almost comically presumptuous. Plus Foster doesn't seem to see the contradiction of accusing Moore of plagiarism after making such a big deal about what a cranky, straight-arrow moralist he was. Foster has admitted that more research is needed on the subject, but the media made it sound like he proved his theory beyond doubt, which he most certainly did not.


J. Madison Davis - 12/20/2001

I have a vague recollection that Pope Gregory very early on directed his missionaries in Germany to tell them that their pagan worship of the evergreen was the same as worshipping Christ. Don't know whether this was afabrication I heard, however.

And, on a personal note, if you've been through this orgy of X-box, Shrek, you-name-it toys that I have---with 5 children of assorted ages---you'd be happy to apply "ruined" to the commercial Christmas. It's certainly ruined my bank account, as usual. Anyone for a Puritan revival? Down with Chuck Dickens! Humbug!


Brad Rice - 12/20/2001

Just a question: If the "Night Before Christmas" with its famous "down the chimney" and "ashes and soot" lines was written in 1822 by Moore or whomever (I'll leave that thread to others), how can the author later claim that Santa didn't start coming down chimneys until 1837?


William Rogers - 12/20/2001

A problem with the claim that one of the five top myths of Christmas is that Moore didn't write the poem is that it is based upon the analysis of one scholar. Further, "he speculates" that someone else wrote it. Because some scholars have argued Shakespeare didn't write the body of work we generally attribute to him, does that make it true? Content analysis is hardly definitive proof of authorship and until better evidence can be attained, I believe Moore deserves the credit. Certainly, his name was on the first published version.


Richard Gassan - 12/20/2001

For a revealing discussion of the arrival of the Christmas tree in America, see Stephen Nissenbaum's _The Battle for Christmas_ (Knopf, 1996 and also in paperback). He shows that the Christmas tree was introduced in America in the 1830s, and describes the mechanism that it was presented as a long-standing German custom. See, in particular, "Toward a History of Christmas Trees," pp. 195-198.


Comment - 12/19/2001

Your piece on Christmas myths said no trees in American churches before a German-immigrant one in 1851. But in the early 1840s the town of Fitzwilliam, N.H., was lining its Unitarian church with evergreen trees at Christmas time. They seem to have been undecorated, and were left up till late spring, when a bonfire celebrated their demise. This information is from the diary of Ruth Henshaw Bascom, the MS of which is at the AAS in Worcester, Mass.

Pat Tracy
ptracy@bev.net


Ronald Dale Karr - 12/19/2001

Re point #1:

I like New England. I live here and I even teach a course called "The History of New England."

But please ... New England is not the same as America. What about, say, the Germans of Pennsylvania? And why would non-Calvinist Protestants, like the settlers of tidewater Virginia, object to the good old English feast of Christmas?

Especially in the field of American colonial history, the importance previously accorded to New England has diminished in the past two or three decades. Today's scholars increasingly reject the idea that Puritanism is the foundation of American culture.

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