Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Did St. Nicholas Visit the Gratz House?

In 1841 Rebecca wrote that she had received a cheerful letter from her nephew Horace (born 1820), one of her sister Rachel's children whom she raised after their mother's death. In it Horace reminded his sister Sara (born 1817), who still lived with Rebecca, of the Christmas Eves of "bygone years when they used to busy themselves in childish philosophy upon the mysterious character of Dear Old St. Nicholas."

This sounds as though Horace and Sara might have been expecting a visit. Could this be possible? Well, maybe. The 1820's, when they were children, was a time when most people in Philadelphia hardly knew what Christmas was. Episcopalians, Roman Catholics and German Protestants had religious services on December 25, with a festive meal and (in some instances) gift-giving, but they celebrated discreetly because the vast majority of their neighbors (Quakers, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians, etc.) heartily disapproved of such popish/pagan practices. Christmas was a working day, with stores and public offices open. People went about their business.

However, on December 23, 1823, a newspaper in Troy, New York, printed an anonymous poem entitled "A Visit from St. Nicholas," which we know as "Twas the night before Christmas." The author drew on the customs and stories brought to New York by its first Dutch settlers and kept alive by the old Dutch families in the state.

One of the remarkable things about the poem is the absence of any religious or didactic content -- no mention of the Nativity nor the necessity for children to be good to merit a visit. Its main character, "St. Nicholas," the "jolly old elf," bears no resemblance to the Christian saint (just as well, since Protestants eschewed the veneration of saints as quasi-polytheism). This St. Nick is a being from a simpler era when folk beliefs in magical saints and elves were common. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, these figures could be seen as neither pagan nor superstitious (and therefore dangerous) but as charming and harmless, the stuff of stories to delight children.

The poem evokes the wonder and magic of St. Nick, but its most memorable images are a "sleigh full of toys" and that "pack full of toys" which St. Nick brings down the chimney. Although some children had formerly received presents at this time of year, all children now knew that when St. Nicholas was involved, they could expect many, much more. "Twas the Night" provided a vision of a sort of juvenile Saturnalia.

The poem was a phenomenon, reprinted in newspapers and almanacs throughout the country, filling an amorphous desire for whimsy, magic and the pleasures of childhood. The holiday soon took hold. In December 1830, Maria Gratz, Rebecca's sister-in-law, in from Kentucky (where new ways came late), reported to her mother: "Christmas is a gay time here. Thousands of persons fill the streets and shops buying presents for their children." How could any child learn about St. Nicholas and not wonder, "Will he visit me?" Rebecca Gratz was probably among the first Jewish Americans to be asked that question by beloved children, and we do not know her answer.

A visit from St. Nick would be central to the American Christmas, but it was a tradition rooted in candy and toys, not in the Incarnation. Yet its unstoppable popularity was one of the forces which led many Protestants to reinstate Christmas as a major religious holiday. In an 1839 History of Philadelphia, the author announced that since the Presbyterians and some other denominations had recently embraced it, Christmas was now generally observed in Philadelphia. He added that parents were turning to educational presents for their children -- this must have been one of the first attempts to give St. Nick's visit a more serious purpose. America, however, was already on its way to a monster consumer holiday, and if Rebecca had ever indulged Horace and Sara with a visit from St. Nick, she must have been relieved that her "children" had grown up before the holiday became more religious and still more materialistic.

(Rebecca's letter is from the Miriam Moses Cohen Collection, Southern History Collection, the University of North Carolina. The History of Philadelphia mentioned is by Daniel Bowen; its text is accessible on Google Books.)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Powered by WebRing.