Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Monday, May 21, 2018

HARTFORD – A common annual complaint is that Christmas has become too commercial, that Christ has disappeared from Christmas.

A casual observation of the competition this year for store shelf space, filled with secular Christmas items prior to Halloween, could easily lend credibility to the complaint.

By late October, in the card section, the "season’s greetings" cards began to outnumber the "ghost and gremlin" cards.

What if there were no Christmas celebrations, no crèches, and maybe not even Santa Claus? Impossible, you say. It did happen, though.

If the secular celebration of the Christmas holidays seems excessive today, consider the opposite situation a couple of centuries ago, when Boston officials legally banned Christmas.

Not just too much Christmas, but Christmas itself. It was only another workday.

On May 11, 1659, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony issued the following decree: "For preventing disorders … it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as a Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any way … every such person so offending shall pay for every offense five shillings as a fine to the county."

Connecticut was not far behind. By 1803, the city of New Haven had enacted 44 blue laws, the 35th of which decreed: "No one shall read the common prayer, keep Christmas or All Saints Day or make mince pies."

So how did Christmas return?

It wasn’t until the 19th century that a wide observance of Christmas occurred. It was all because of St. Nicholas. But the evolution of St. Nicholas into a Santa Claus figure may have reversed the religious celebration of Christmas.

St. Nicholas was a fourth-century Bishop of Myra, a town now in southern Turkey. Over the centuries, he became the patron saint of children. He was credited with bringing gifts on the evening of Dec. 5 or the morning of Dec. 6, his feast day, which was celebrated in northern Europe beginning in the 10th century. Legend held that he arrived by coming down a chimney.

As immigrants from northern Europe arrived in America in the late 18th century, they brought the story of a gift-giving St. Nicholas with them.

In 1809, Washington Irving referred to a white-bearded St. Nicholas’ arriving with gifts in Knickerbocker Tales.

In 1812, he modified the story to have St. Nicholas ride "over the tops of trees" in a wagon filled with gifts for children.

In the 1822 poem, "’Twas the Night Before Christmas," Clement Moore gave St. Nicholas eight reindeer to pull a sleigh rather than a wagon.

However, a significant modification to the story was that St. Nicholas now arrived on the night before Christmas and not on the night of Dec. 5.

Another significant change at this time was the evolution of the Dutch word, Sinterklass, as a translation of St. Nicholas, into an Anglicized Santa Claus. Celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas now had competition.

Between 1862 and 1881, Bavarian illustrator Thomas Nast drew a series of cartoons of the now-named Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly. He changed the previously stern-looking, tall and thin Bishop Nicholas into a merry old man with a white beard.

From the 1880s to the 1920s Santa was depicted wearing a variety of colored, fur-trimmed suits of red, green, blue or purple. Finally, a red-suited Santa Claus became the most common.

In 1931, the Coca-Cola Corporation commissioned Swedish artist Haddon Sundblom to create a Coca-Cola drinking Santa. The corporation insisted that his red suit be a bright Coca-Cola red.

The emergence of Santa as a highly marketable secular figure was almost complete. He was aided by the arrival of a "red-nosed reindeer" Rudolph, first in the scene of a short story in 1939, followed by a recording in 1949 and a TV special in 1964.

Unfortunately, as Santa Claus and his reindeer assumed a role as the spirit of Christmas, Christ was becoming replaced, even banned.

For the last several years it is not only a problem of crèches on public greens or in public schools; in some spots, it has become politically incorrect to use the word "Christmas" or to make any reference to Christ’s birth or the religious feast.

Christmas banned in Boston, never again? Don’t count on it.

In 2002, the New York City public school system banned the display of Nativity scenes, but allowed religious symbols of Hanukkah and Ramadan to be displayed.

In 2005, the city of Boston called its official decorated tree a "holiday" tree rather than a Christmas tree. Nova Scotian Donnie Hart, who provided the tree, expressed his displeasure about the name change to CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company). He said that if he knew it would be called a holiday tree, he would rather have run it through a wood chipper.

In December 2005, despite opposition, the Cranfield School in Mine Hill, N.J., changed the words in a school play from "Silent Night, Holy Night" to "Silent Night, Winter Night."

Also in recent years, Best Buy and other corporations announced their substitution of the word "holiday" for "Christmas" in all of their advertising. Boycotts and other strong criticism have changed some minds.

The cycle is almost complete. Christmas, banned more than 200 years ago and reduced to just another day, has become in the United States in the 21st century a secular holiday with restrictions on its religious message.

How soon will it be before St. Nicholas, alias Santa, will not be able to say, "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night?"

John Bohuslaw is the features editor of The Catholic Transcript