Tracing symbols of Christmas back to their origins

By Melissa Huber, I-O Reporter

There are two paramount interpretations of Christmas. The first is the biblical route, which includes the nativity of Jesus as the entire reason for the holiday. The second is the secular view, which includes Jolly Old Saint Nicholas as the bearer of presents to excited children on Christmas Eve night. The first is easily traced back to its origins: the Holy Bible. The second, however, is a bit more difficult to pin down.

The fact that Santa Claus’s character stems from the actual Saint Nicholas of Greece who was known for secret gift giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, is not entirely unknown. The story of how he got his current appearance, however, is a little more convoluted.

In 1809, a relatively unknown writer began to litter local publications with missing person ads for a gentleman named Diedrich Knickerbocker. The entire affair was a hoax that was the lead up to the release of one of the author’s first books, A History of New York by Deidrich Knickerbocker.

Washington Irving, more well-known for his later works such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, had created a frenzy of interest with his mysterious ads. The fictional story he crafted had the proprietor of a hotel where a make-believe author, named Diedrich Knickerbocker had stayed, and then allegedly gone missing without paying his bill. The proprietor threatened to release the manuscript Knickerbocker had left behind if he didn’t return to settle his bill.

The height of interest crescendoed with New York officials so concerned about the missing historian/author that they were prepared to offer a reward for his safe return.

It was then that Irving released A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker in which he lampooned self-important local history and contemporary politics of New York City, and the book was an instant success. Now, years later, it is known as one of the very first representations of Saint Nicholas as we know him today.

In the mock history was a chapter entitled “How the heroes of Communipaw returned somewhat wiser than they went—and how the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream—and the dream that he dreamed.”

The story goes that Oloffe Van Kortlandt, a gentleman already well-known for his prophetic dreams and supernatural abilities, had been washed up on the Battery of Manhattan, and there, after ingesting a wealth of oysters and good drink, fell asleep and dreamed of Saint Nicholas.

Van Kortlandt would later recount how “the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.” Van Kortlandt would also suggest that the vision had proven that Saint Nicholas wished them to build a colony in the place where he had dreamed, which would later become Manhattan. Therefore, in a sense, the mock-history tale suggests that Jolly Old Saint Nick can be thanked for the existence of present day New York City.

Considering that Manhattan was the provincial capital of New Amsterdam, a colonial providence set forth in part by the Dutch West India Company, and the fact that Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors and, therefore, the patron saint of many cities maintaining harbors, it’s not hard to see where the idea came from.

Washington Irving’s portrayal of Saint Nicholas in this fictitious work would later be adopted and expounded on by one of his colleagues, James Kirke Paulding, in his 1827 publication entitled Book of St. Nicholas, which was a collection of stories that had been translated from their original Dutch by a fictitious author. Paulding was well known for writing Christmas stories, and along with Irving, was instrumental in creating the current American portrayal of Santa Claus.

Later, a poet named Clement Clark Moore would also contribute to the image of Santa Claus with his poem A Visit from St. Nicholas or, as it’s now more commonly know, ‘Twas the Night before Christmas. 

Unlike the origins of Santa Claus, the story of the poinsettia is not so much a muddled mystery with twists and turns, but a story that suffers from a lack of retelling.

Joel Roberts Poinsett was a well educated and well-off man who studied medicine, law, and military science at a young age. He traveled extensively, and became somewhat of an amateur botanist, collecting horticultural artifacts from around the world.

He served in South Carolina’s legislature, was chairman of the Board of Public Works, and served in the House of Representatives. During 1822 to 1823 he served as special envoy to Mexico, and in 1825 he was named the first American minister to Mexico. It was during this time that he became fascinated with a plant that was first known as the “Mexican fire plant”.  He sent clippings of it back home, and by 1836 the plant had become widely known as the “poinsettia” in his honor.