It probably comes as little surprise to most of my readers that I’m known for being something of a Scrooge. A healthy skepticism over the sincerity of holiday wishes when extended by complete strangers combined with a bone-deep contempt for monoculture leaves me in something less than a purely “Ho Ho Ho” mood most Christmases, despite the abundance of engagingly bad music that characterizes the season and tends to mitigate my contempt. There’s even a quieter part of me that suspects that many Christians who take their faith as a personal and serious manner would resent my being asked to participate in any observance of Christmas, and I am wary of being urged to disrespect that.
But this year I’ve enjoyed the season more as I’ve come to see it less as a triumph of religious evangelism and more as a triumph of, you guessed it, the ubiquitous cultural influence of New York City. A secular cultural insitution predicated on goodwill, generosity, no small amount of old-fashioned capitalism, good cheer in the darkness of seasonally-affected winter, and savvy marketing? I’m all ’bout it. Stick with me on this one, though; I’m not completely crazy.
Christmas itself predates New York, of course. And messianic arrival celebrations predate Jesus, and solstice celebrations predate recorded history. So I’m not actually crediting the entire manger mythology to Madison Avenue, I’m just asserting that there are critical parts to the contemporary observation of the holiday that were nurtured in the city’s bosom. I suggest this with some trepidation, knowing that there are those who would balk at the myrrh suggestion that some traditions are recent, rather than ancient, and that they are secular and man-made, rather than divine. But if it’s any consolation, these discoveries helped make the holiday season fun for me again.
New York City’s Catholics were the first to regularly celebrate the traditional Christmas, but many of the Protestant communities in the city were skeptical due to then-common knowledge of pagan celebrations of the solstice which predated Christian adoption of the holiday, along with the bible’s lack of specificity about the date of Christ’s birth. And "celebrations", such as they were at the time, were mostly limited to religious observances, not gift-giving or caroling or house decorating. But New Yorkers never resist an excuse for a day of celebration, and eventually most people in the city started coming around to the idea, after some careful positioning by influential writers.
The biggest single block of Protestants in New York City in the early 1800s was the Knickerbockers. You know the name as Spike Lee’s favorite basketball team, but the descendents of the earliest Dutch settlers of New York City were given the name by native son Washington Irving in a series of satirical essays early in the century. The Knickerbockers’ cultural acceptance of Christmas marked a significant transition towards the ubiquity of the season, and the cleverness with which their acceptance was gained is remarkable.
Irving, having already proven his influence through the ubiquity of Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle, his other literary creations during the same time period, named Nicholas as the patron saint of New Amsterdam in his Knickerbocker essays. New Amsterdam, of course, was the old Dutch name of New York before the British had taken over the territory. By harkening back to the Dutch colonial roots of New York as the origin of its connection to the Saint Nick myth, Irving helped make Christmas celebrations not just an important religious event, but also a way of honoring the cultural heritage shared by a large and influential part of the New York community. Irving even provided a nickname for St. Nicholas, Sancte Claus (a variation on the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, “Sinterklaas“), and ascribed to him the habit of parking his vehicle on a family’s rooftop.
These sorts of celebrations of a day in Saint Nicholas’ honor were a new invention, with the trappings of stockings stuffed and gifts reserved only for good little girls and boys. But by conflating the trappings of judgement with the established mythology of Christmas, Irving had invented an event that could expand Christmas without seeming sacrilegous. This invention, combined with the charismatic new version of Santa Claus, worked to create a much more powerful, and not incidentally, much more commerically palatable, holiday.
Even after these improvements, this new kind of Christmas was really only practiced in New York, and Irving’s influence had its limits. It took another writer, Clement Clarke Moore, to package Irving’s vision of Santa Claus into a message that would spread the word around the world. And though accounts vary, many attribute the addition of St. Nick’s decidedly creepy “sliding down the chimney” habit to Moore, not Irving.
Moore, another NYC-born native, wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas" from his estate in the part of Manhattan now known as Chelsea. Though there are the requisite attendant questions about the poem’s true authorship, the traditional story is that the poem, published in an upstate New York newspaper on December 23, 1823, was finally attributed to Moore about fifteen years later. By that time, Catharine Martha Sedgwick, a novelist, had begun popularizing the Christmas tree and even including mention of it in her novels, having learned of the tradition from the German families living in Brooklyn at the time. Sedgwick apparently omitted the German tradition of the Christmas pickle, an oversight for which we’ll have to raise a glass of egg nog in her honor.
New York merchants, ever a crafty breed, quickly latched onto the commercial potential of the newly expanded-and-upgraded deluxe version of Christmas. By 1830, a scant 7 years after Moore’s "Visit" was first published, the week before Christmas had already become the busiest shopping season of the year, as it remains today. (Black Friday, though popularly described as the biggest shopping day of the year, never accounts for as much dollar volume of goods sold as the weekend before Christmas.)
Encapsulating the creations of his fellow New Yorkers a few decades before, Thomas “Nasty” Nast, the newspaper cartoonist perhaps best known for his role in turning public sentiment against Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, published his illustrations of Santa Claus in Harper’s Weekly starting from the 1860s, providing a definitive visual representation of the jolly old elf, and cementing in the public’s mind a consistent version of what the new, commerical face of Christmas looked like.
So, though we have Chicago to thank for Rudolph, we can certainly claim that Santa Claus, stuffed stockings, gift exchanges, “The Night Before Christmas”, Christmas trees, and the classic fat-man-in-a-suit appearance of Saint Nick were first wrapped into one brightly-packaged holiday invasion in New York City.
And that helps explain to me why this town is magical around Christmas. I still hold to that tradition where proselytizing one’s religious beliefs in public is bad taste, but having a city in the darkest throes of winter be decked out in bright lights, especially with the recent trend towards elegant white strands, can be nothing but a good thing. Public observance of tradition, in any way that binds us into familiar patterns of bonhomie, should of course be encouraged. But it’s not just about a divine carpenter-to-be getting frankincense in a manger, for so many of us; I want to nurture the traditions that are even more inclusive, that don’t make me and the many people like me feel extraneous this time of year.
Tonight I went to the noodle shop on the corner from my apartment and I witnessed a well-known tradition that I’d forgotten about. The place was full of Jewish people of wildly varying extractions; third-generation born-and-bred New York natives, Eastern European immigrants, a pair of elder statesmen-looking gentlemen who were speaking something that sounded like Russian to me. And it reminded me that many American Jewish families go out for Chinese food on Christmas. Though of course these days this is possible, and frequently practiced, in most parts of the United States, it’s a habit that has its origins in New York’s unique cross-cultural culture. The classic soundtrack to these dinners, of course, is Jewish New Yorker Irving Berlin’s "White Christmas".
And more than just showing us what kinds of traditions have evolved, it shows us what’s possible, that holiday traditions aren’t necessarily dictated from on high. They can be flexible and malleable, fitting new cultures and backgrounds without alienating. They can incorporate a commercial element without being offensive or crass. A few years ago, I started playing Bossa Nova music at Thanksgiving. It was an arbitrary choice one year, but it’s an annual thing now, even if I just listen on headphones. It means turkey and football and tryptophan naps to me. Tradition is something you can start, not just something you can observe.
New York City never looks more magical than when it’s dressed up for the holidays. For a city purported to be peopled with cynics, I suspect no one here can resist the romance of the season, swathed in elegant scarves and ducking from the chill wind into a cab whisking off to another round of office holiday parties. I won’t ever be able to claim that I believe in gods or messiahs, let alone one being born on a specific date or in a specific place, and it wouldn’t be my right to try to celebrate that. But to be in the place where so much of a global celebration of goodwill and generosity was created, where the locals’ unique ability to promote their ideas, and where people are so willing to expand a tradition to include everyone who would want to participate, I’m more than ready to make an annual tradition of celebrating that potential.
So, in a way, Merry Christmas from New York City. Or just have a happy winter, however you’d like.