Friday, December 17, 2010

St. Nicholas Visits the Mordecai House

Last December when I wrote "Did St. Nicholas Visit the Gratz House?" my answer was, "Possibly." I was suggesting that the poem now known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas" was a major source of the American-style holiday. Published in 1823 at a time when the majority of Americans did not recognize Christmas as a religious holiday, the poem re-invented it as a dazzling festival for children. And notice that in "A Visit from St. Nicholas," there is absolutely no mention of the Nativity or even any concern about which children have been "naughty or nice;" Christmas is all about toys and sweets for everyone.

With December 25 a business day in Philadelphia and most people treating it as such, and with a lack of Christmas paraphernalia -- the public Christmas trees, lights and creches -- some American Jews probably did not see it as a threat to their way of life and permitted their children the good time it offered.

In researching Alfred Mordecai, Rebecca's nephew-in-law, for a recent post, I found another reference to Christmas. Emily Bingham, in Mordecai: An Early American Family, describes a letter from Sara Mordecai, Alfred's wife, in December of 1855 in which she "recalled to her absent husband Christmases spent together in Washington, wrapping gifts and filling their children's stockings." It seems to be a happy memory which the two shared.

This is surprising. Alfred Mordecai, although he was brought up in an observant Jewish home, was an agnostic who would not permit his sons to be circumcised. He resisted his wife's attempts to bring him closer to her faith as firmly as he deplored his sister's conversion to Christianity. Sara Mordecai, a niece of Rebecca's, upheld the religion and traditions of her ancestors. She brought up her children as Jews and in 1867 when her son Alfred Jr. married a non-Jew, she refused to attend the wedding. You would think that at least one of these two would find grounds to object to Christmas yet it seems to be a moment they enjoyed together.

To have taken pleasure in a visit from St. Nick in the 1840's when their children were small, neither Alfred nor Sara could have thought of it as part and parcel of a religious observance. But as Protestant denominations warmed to the holiday, its Christian content would become inescapable, and American Jews in the latter part of the 19th century would do some reinvention of their own with Hanukkah.

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