History of the Tradition of Elves

History of the Tradition of Elves

Lost in the romance, fantasy and some would say mystery and myth of Christmas is the concept of elves. Most folks today think of Santa’s helpers, often in the form of little people, who work at the North Pole busily making toys for good children everywhere. But elves in that vein are a relative recent invention, stemming from 19th century minds full of fantasy as the modern character of Santa Claus was developed in the Americas. Elves have their origins deeply staked in ancient mythology and their history, unlike St. Nicholas, is completely lacking any relation to deity or theRead more

Santa Claus of the 19th Century

Santa Claus of the 19th Century

While Christmas in America predates the American Revolution Santa Claus did not make a splash in America until 1810. He arrived, as many Americans do, in New York City. Local merchant and leader of a local historical society by the name of John Pintard objected to the roughness of Christmas as it was celebrated in the early 19th century and proposed a solution. Drawing on New York City’s Dutch origins, he promoted Saint Nicholas as the city’s patron saint – having a pamphlet printed in 1810 that’s the earliest known American image of Santa. Pintard suggested that the celebrations shouldRead more

New England’s Flying Santa

New England’s Flying Santa

In New England, home of hundreds of lighthouses and the families who worked them, there lived a man who in the early 1920s depended upon them in a different way. The emerging technology at the time was the industry of flight. As one of America’s first pilots, Bill Wincapaw was known around Penobscot Bay for his skill and bravery as a floatplane pilot. The hundreds, if not thousands of islands along New England’s coast, provided plenty of business for the Curtis Flying Service. As a first-of-its-kind service Bill was not only providing flight for cargo between the islands but heRead more

Christmas in the Crosshairs

Christmas in the Crosshairs

The phrase “war on Christmas” has become so tiresome in the ongoing dialogue about Christmas that it tends to trigger instant eye-rolling disdain. The media attention to it all just makes one weary at the mere mention of it. Gerry Bowler’s new book, Christmas in the Crosshairs, settles rather emphatically the question of whether or not the modern “war on Christmas” is unique – or even worthy of all the eye-rolling. It’s not. It has been around forever and will be around forever. So stop the eye-rolling. In fact, as Bowler almost gleefully notes in his new book, it isRead more

History of Christmas Greetings

History of Christmas Greetings

Lazy historians typically date the advent of Christmas cards to the 1840s, a time when postal services in modern western societies were well established and became more affordable. The truth is that the sending of holiday greetings is centuries old. Commercial Christmas cards got their start in the UK in the 1840s, suspiciously around the same time as the explosion in popularity of all things Christmas — from trees to holly, as spurred by popular Christmas-themed works such as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The tradition of holiday greetings, however, dates back centuries, most famously noted in the Bible when angelsRead more

Santa Claus at War

Santa Claus at War

Christmas is a traditional season of peace but even Santa straps on the uniform of a soldier when called to duty. Over time Santa has been “enlisted” in the cause of one side or another in periods of war. Not surprisingly, most of the images of Santa associated with war are American and date from the 19th century forward. The earliest known connection between Santa and war has to be through the artwork of 19th century illustrator Thomas Nast. Born in Germany in 1840, Nast had been brought to New York by his mother at the age of 6. HeRead more

Christmas at Beacon Hill

Christmas at Beacon Hill

A 1929 newspaper article from Boston tells the story of a boy named Alfred Shurtleff, who in 1893 began a tradition in his Boston neighborhood that reads a lot like the spirited Christmas enthusiasts of our day who festively decorate their homes with lights each season. What did Alfred do? On a snowy Christmas Eve Alfred lit a single candle and put it in the bedroom window of his home in the Beacon Hill area of Boston. Nobody seemed to mind, though Alfred was sure that a neighbor or at least an adult somewhere would ask him what he wasRead more

History of the Christmas Countdown

History of the Christmas Countdown

The anticipation of Christmas is considered by many one of the great joys of the season. These days there are websites and social media groups dedicated to counting down days to Christmas and cable television channels have adopted a countdown to Christmas as a way to get all their new holiday content shown during the course of a season. Counting down to Christmas is a time-honored tradition. It is older than you might suppose. Some draw it back to advent calendars crafted by mid-19th centuries German carpenters who constructed delicately decorated wooden calendars that featured a treat for each day’sRead more

Christmas with Lewis & Clark

Christmas with Lewis & Clark

The Lewis and Clark Corp of Discovery expedition was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 to explore the lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. It began in St. Louis and traveled over the continental divide to the Pacific Ocean, gathering information and introducing the world to the wonders of the American West. Over roughly three years the Corps of Discovery saw things no American previously had and the recorded all kinds of new wildlife and plant life that led to decades of study back in the civilized world of the American East coast. It also opened the door toRead more

Christmas Trains

Christmas Trains

For more than a century trains were the center piece of mass transportation. This time in culture also saw the rise of the industrial revolution and, as well, the media-driven mass popularity of the secular Christmas. The real connection of trains to Christmas was born of the fact that going over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house for the holidays was best accomplished by trains and it happened every Christmas. In fact, more people moved by train in November and December over the course of those 100 years than by any other method. If you wanted toRead more