…and Other Holiday Classics
by James Dawson
Christmas was the holiday that was just waiting to happen. For whatever reason, whether it be there to fill a spiritual or an emotional void, it waits for us at the beginning of winter to give us a warm boost into the chilly new year. We moderns may bemoan the fact that Christmas is becoming more commercialized each year, but the origins of Christmas actually predate the birth of Christ by as much as two thousand years which is why Christmas can’t quite decide if it wants to be the continuation of a pagan Saturnalia of feasts and gift giving or the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ.
Despite one network’s annual scares about the so called War on Christmas (which has been around long enough to become a Christmas tradition as well), that’s not new either. Christmas was not always loved in America. The early Protestants were down on Christmas and the Puritans outlawed it thinking it pagan and celebrating Saints Days – even the birthday of Jesus (the word Christmas is derived from Christ’s mass) reminded them too much of the Roman Catholic traditions that they had just broken from. It wasn’t until the later 1800’s that most Protestant Churches relented and began offering the Christmas services that their congregations wanted. Some Christian denominations still sincerely believe that Christmas is anti-Christian because it is not mentioned in the New Testament.
As for the date being December 25th, by 350 AD, no one remembered the exact date of Christ’s birth, so the powers that were decided that December 25th was as good a date as any. This date was sacred in several early cultures as it was thought to be the winter solstice and the pagan celebrations of it worried the Church Fathers. By taking that date, they could de-paganize the holiday that wouldn’t go away. Actually, scholars say that whenever Jesus was born it was not in December because the shepherds would not have been watching their flocks by night then- they would have been put up for the winter. Some think it was actually in September. Nor was the first Christmas white, nor did Joseph and Mary have a Christmas tree, nor were there any reindeer in the manger and it was the three Magi who brought Jesus gifts, not Santa Claus.
The Christmas tree first appeared in the U.S. in the 1840s apparently because Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert brought that tradition to England from Germany. If you will pardon the pun, the Christmas tree probably has pagan roots and predates Christmas by several thousand years.
For years, Christmas had quietly been observed with gatherings of family and friends, but it wasn’t a big deal. The first real Christmas book is all but forgotten today: “Bracebridge Hall” by American author Washington Irving published in 1822. Its scenes of English country gentlemen inviting the locals into their homes at Christmas time to celebrate struck a cord with both English and American readers and the Christmas season was reborn.
The next bit of Christmas literature is just as popular now and it was when it was published anonymously in a New York newspaper in 1823 – the unforgettable “Night Before Christmas” written, most people claim, by the Rev. Clement Moore for his two daughters. It was sometimes titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas.”
Much of what we think of as Christmas was codified in this tale. Saint Nicholas, plump, white bearded and cheerful is dressed in furs and arrives chimney side to bring toys to good little girls and boys via sleigh and eight tiny reindeer. The ninth reindeer would not make his appearance until “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Robert May blinked its way to the book shelves in 1939. Facsimiles of it are common, so beware of any so called ‘first editions.’
“The Night Before Christmas” is only 56 lines, but virtually invented the way we celebrate Christmas. Although published 193 years ago, today’s children have no problem understanding it. It is still one of the most popular poems ever written and one of the most often printed.
But since it was unsigned, everyone was immediately curious as to who wrote it. The story grew that it was Clement Moore and this was perfectly reasonable since he frequently sent in poems to that paper and they were also unsigned, or signed with an initial. For some reason Moore was fond of the letter L.
Many years later, Moore acknowledged that the poem was his and printed it in a collection of his poems. But for decades afterwards, a storm had been brewing. Descendants of Henry Livingston claim that he wrote the poem and they have been trying to get him his due as the true author. Maybe that mysterious L at the end of some early printings of the poem meant Livingston.
Moore’s writings are stiff and pedantic and not at all original. His choice of adjectives was limited and repetitious. Frankly, his boring poems and writings weren’t popular even in his lifetime. Livingston’s writings however are filled with fun and make us laugh even two centuries later. He clearly loved children and loved to write poems for them.
So where does this leave us? If Moore was such a puritanical sourpuss who didn’t write the poem, then why did he put his name on it years later? His family said he would never have told a lie. Don Foster, who has written about the mystery, suspects that as Moore grew older and realized that his other literary efforts would all be forgotten and he decided it would be better to be remembered by this one thing, this little Christmas poem that everybody thought he wrote anyway.
Why didn’t Livingston claim it? Well, he had a good excuse. He had died in the meantime and so was oblivious of all the commotion. It was only decades later that Livingston’s elderly granddaughter absolutely said that Livingston wrote it.
Maybe neither of them wrote it. But lucky for us somebody did!
Of course, there haven’t been 1,001 nights before Christmas yet- that won’t happen until the year 2824, but we only have 808 years to go. So if you don’t do your Christmas shopping just on Christmas Eve, you only have just over 294,920 shopping days left if you like to get your Christmas shopping done early.
The next milestone of Christmas literature is “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens which was a sensation when published in 1843. After being visited in succession by three spirits, not to mention the chain dragging ghost of his former partner, Scrooge the skinflint is reborn to generosity on Christmas morning. The little book was a huge success and has inspired hundreds of reprints and really fixed the modern celebration of Christmas in our consciousness.
It has been said that “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens was the book that saved Christmas. Before it, Christmas had gone into a decline and wasn’t the big celebration it is today. Christmas as we know it does have a mixture of cultures, and when you think of it, Christmas trees, mistletoe and holly, yule logs and Santa Claus were unknown in the Holy Land. It was Dickens’ book that showed just how special the Day could be and Christmas was never the same again.
This story was an immediate best seller and sold over six thousand copies on Christmas Day alone. The 1843 first edition is worth thousands of dollars, depending on various factors. The original manuscript of the story was sold in 1882 for £200 and is now in the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York City.
It remains one the most popular Christmas books ever printed. Some families have a tradition of reading it every Christmas Eve. There have been many editions since and a new one comes out every few years. It has been translated into dozens of languages including Romanian, Hungarian, Arabic, Turkish, Japanese, and Afrikaans.
Pop-up versions and editions illustrated by many different artists. Each artist’s interpretation brings something different to the story. “The Annotated Christmas Carol” by Michael Patrick Hearn has much background information on the book and how it came to be written which I used for this article.
There is also a pamphlet which gives precise bibliographic details about the first edition.
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” by Dr. Seuss is a more recent Christmas classic that first approved in 1957. You can tell a first edition first printing because it lists 14 titles “up to now” on the dust jacket, but only 13 titles in the book, and the dust jacket price is $2.50.
Books have always made popular Christmas gifts for children and adults. They come in all sizes and prices to fit the pocket and the pocket book. You occasionally find old books with Christmas gift inscriptions in them. Although that probably won’t add to the value, it is pleasing to try and imagine the circumstances of the gift and what other presents were under the tree then. In the late 1800’s, Tuck and McLoughlin Brothers and others sold beautifully printed books which were often used as Christmas gifts. The colors were lithographed, usually in Germany, and there is still nothing like their rich, shiny texture printed with wonderful inks which never seem to fade that lay on the surface of the paper like pools of pure color.
The heyday of these books was from about the 1880’s to about 1910. After that, less expensive color printing processes took over. These cost less, but just can’t match the quality of the earlier ones which are very collectible (naturally) and can sell from tens of dollars to hundreds of dollars and more. Price depends on size, subject matter and rarity.
Like it or not, and be it Christian or be it otherwise, or some of each, there is good in it. Christmas is the holiday that just won’t go away!