American Christmas customs from many sources

America’s Christmas traditions have come from many countries and many sources. Perhaps America’s two greatest contributions to the vast number of holiday traditions observed in this country are the appearance of Santa Claus and “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” aka “The Night Before Christmas.” These two items seem to have had the greatest effect on the way Americans celebrate the holiday.

It was cartoonist Thomas Nast who gave us today’s Santa Claus. He took the formally dressed-as-a-churchman Dutch Sinterclaas and livened him up with more informal clothing and an impish constitution and actions and put his modern version on the front cover of Harper’s Weekly in 1863, and for many years to follow. There’ve been a few minor variations since then but, essentially, today’s Santa Claus was born in New York nearly 150 years ago.

The number of Santa spin-offs is amazing and would floor Nast if he could see them.

Dr. Clement Clark Moore, a professor of theology at a New York seminary, is generally credited with writing the holiday poem mentioned above. He is said to have written it for his children and it was by pure accident that a young lady heard him read it to them. She copied his manuscript and then lent it to the newspaper publisher in her hometown who gave it its first public airing and started the argument about the authorship which is still going on to this day.

It was Moore’s story which put Santa Claus up in the air with his sleigh pulled by “eight tiny reindeer.”

L. Frank Baum, author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” also wrote several children’s Christmas books which are no longer in print.

Another addition to the American holiday observance was “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” written in 1939 by Robert May, an advertising copy writer who worked for Montgomery Ward, who wanted something special and different for the holiday season. It was published for several years as a Christmas promotional item for Montgomery Ward. That booklet gave Santa one more reindeer, which became the most popular member of the team.

Johnny Marks, Mays brother-inlaw, turned it into a song which was recorded by Gene Autry in 1949 and is still a holiday favorite today.

Our Christmas tree tradition came to us from Germany. Martin Luther was the first to put candles on those trees, but it took an American to come up with electrical tree lights.

Christmas cards were first produced in England and emigrants brought the idea with them to this country.

While decorating with holly boughs was another holiday tradition translated to America from England, decorating with other green boughs is a tradition dating back to the Saturnalias of ancient Rome.

There are more but this sampling leaves us with the idea that our Christmas celebrations are really old traditions from many parts of the world, brought to us by people looking for a better way of life.