Friday, December 3, 2010

1867 - Who Is Santa Claus?

Who is Santa Claus? To the little ones this would seem a very foolish question indeed, - as if everybody did not know who Santa Claus is! And, most certainly, you had better not put it to that experienced and downright young philosopher of eleven last June, who has, somehow or other, left the pure faith of childhood, and now laughs like an infidel - a mere VOLTAIRE - a perfect Mephistopheles - when the thing is mentioned, and cries out, "Ah! I know who Santa Claus is! There he is!" - pointing an irreverent finger in the direction of the oldest person in the room - one never hitherto suspected of coming down the chimney on a cold Winter's night in December, wearing a long beard and bringing lots of things for children on his back or under his arm.

Turning away, then, from this "enfant terrible" who plumes himself on not being "such a baby now," we would offer the query to the "grown-ups" - as the little doll's-dressmaker calls them - who know that every question of folk-lore is of curious importance, since there is hardly anything of that sort, however childish, in the world, which is not derived from ideas or customs of remote antiquity. "Santa Claus" is an interesting archaism - carrying the mind agreeably backward to those times which have always such a charm for the critical investigations or poetic reveries of men. This cheerful Christmas legend was quite a new thing to most of us a few years ago - to those, at least, who got their ideas of such things from the literature of our own language. Santa Claus has come, - as everybody is aware, from Germany to the New World; and the curiosity of this matter is that in thus coming over the sea, he underwent a certain remarkable kind of transformation - a sort of sea-change. He was once honored in Deutchland or Germany, (for both these names have exactly the same meaning in the Celtic,) as a child, a fact which none of the German critics or philologers [sic] have condescended to notice, at least in any distinguishable way.

Santa Claus was one of the oldest ideas of the Celtic West in Pagan times, as he was of the Pagan East before. In Christian times he was still regarded with religious reverence, sitting, as he has sat for ages in Egypt and elsewhere, in the arms of his mother. Santa Claus was, in fact, the Child Jesus in the middle ages; and throughout that period the festive creed of Germany and all Celtic Europe was that he visited all family dwellings of good Christians on the eve of his anniversary, and brought with him gifts and blessings for the children. This beautiful tradition is still to be found lingering in Germany, though Santa Claus does not seem to be specially connected with it by name. The truth of this original belief is plainly enough indicated by the word "Claus," which in the Gothic or Ancient German, means "Child" and "Son." Santa Clause formerly meant the Holy Child.

It is not very difficult to see how the change of men's religious beliefs three or four hundred years ago changed the character of the legend. Those who had put away Catholic sentiment in religion, and wished to have their own of a more dignified sort, thought it too rude and simple a thing to make that Holy Child bring knick-knacks and sweetmeats to the children down the chimney, and so, by degrees, altered the old idea, making it genial, secular fancy in the person of a benevolent and jolly old man, such as the Germans and others have welcomed for many generations, and we in this country have generally recognized of late years. He is such a cheery and felicitous old fancy, that nobody would ever have thought of challenging him in any respect, but for the great mistake so long ago committed, of sending him about the world with that tell-tale Claus pinned on his back, as it were. He really should, himself, have remembered, with the rest of his recollections, that his name is interpreted in Schilter or Buxhorn, (we forget which,) and should have chosen another.

This statement, supported, as it is, by the old Christian traditions clinging round the present season of the year, will commend itself, perhaps, to the critics of old customs and old language. But "the rest of mankind" "don't see it," and, in reply to the Gothic lexicon, exclaim, in the words of Giles Scroggin's ghost, "that's no rule!" Santa Claus will still be the old man with the beard and the frosty face - "frosty, but kindly." And, indeed, very properly. The popular instinct - that is, in these, our modern times - was right in setting that image of the Child aside. It belong to a far profounder sentiment than that of the mere household game, pastime and festivity, and was inevitably displaced by a generation in whom the simple old beliefs and reverence of departed ages lived no longer. After all, it was lucky that Santa Claus was turned so very opportunely into an old man. The other idea could never have come down to such a matter-of-fact age as this; and our Christmas would have wanted the happiest genius of its festivity - the Santa Claus of the German vaterland.

The New York Times
New York, New York
December 25, 1867