By MPP Toby Barrett
It was a letter from an eight-year-old New York girl in 1897 that confirmed the existence of Santa forever. “VIRGINIA” who penned the letter to the New York Sun, asked poignantly if her friends were correct in doubting the existence of Santa Claus.
The response was as timeless as it was true: Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS.
And it was also the 19th century when many other traditional Christmas customs had their origins.
Take St. Nicholas for instance. Many Early Dutch settlers to the New York area thought of St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, as their patron saint – a saint for whom they hung stockings to receive presents on December 5th, St. Nicholas Eve. In 1809, A History of New York, by Washington Irving noted St. Nicholas rode in a wagon “over the tops of trees” to bring “his yearly presents to children.”
In 1821 New York City printer, William Gilley helped coin the “Santa Claus” moniker, publishing an anonymous poem that referred to “Santeclaus” – a St. Nicholas type character who rode in a sleigh pulled by a reindeer!
Each year my wife and I enter a ‘float’, if you will, in the half-dozen Santa Claus parades across Haldimand and Norfolk – this year it is a one-horse sleigh powered by a GMC truck.
The power of the pen and storytelling continued to build on tradition only two years later with Clement Clarke Moore’s, “A visit from St. Nicholas,” or as it is more commonly called, “The Night Before Christmas.” It seems it was Moore’s poem that first suggested St. Nicholas gift-giving, that had long taken place on December 5, occur on Christmas Eve. It was also Moore who reported the names of “St. Nick’s” eight reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen…Rudolph would have to wait a few years.
While children across North America are now well-acquainted with old bearded Mr. Claus in his red suit, and black boots, it was American cartoonist Thomas Nast who is thought to have first depicted Santa Claus in Harper’s Weekly. At the request of Abraham Lincoln, the Jan. 3rd 1863 edition featured a cover with a sleigh-bound Santa Claus arriving at a U.S. Army camp. Mr. Nast was also first to reveal Santa lived at the North Pole and kept a workshop manned by elves.
When it comes to the traditional Christmas tree, while originating from German custom, British and American tree practices trace back to Prince Albert and Queen Victoria.
It was in 1841 that German-born Prince Albert first installed a decorated Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. When depictions and illustrations began popping up in American publications a few years later, upper class families began to follow suit. It wasn’t long before the White House played host to the first Christmas tree under the presidency of Benjamin Harrison in 1889.
Then, as now, traditions continue!
Merry Christmas, everyone – and all the best for the coming year.
By MPP Toby Barrett