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Christmas Traditions

I know it's just Halloween (as I write this it is actually a week before Halloween), but I've been working on myChristmaspage.com, sprucing it up a little and adding a few new features. The current season started October 15th, so, if you haven't checked it out yet, please do.

There are, of course, many aspects to Christmas, certainly the most important being the religious one. But I want to talk today about the more secular traditions.

Christmas, as we know it today, is a result of centuries of traditions and millions of people each adding their own little bit. But I want to focus, for a moment, on the contributions of three men. If we were to make a list of the people who have most influenced the secular side of Christmas, I believe these three would be at or near the top of most lists. So here goes:

First of all, Clement Clarke Moore who wrote the classic poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" on or about 1822 for his children. Moore (1779-1863), was an acclaimed scholar of Oriental and Greek literature and, for many years, sat on the board of managers for what is now The New York Institute for Special Education. But he is best remembered for this poem.

As I recall from my work last year on the site, there is some controversy over the true authorship of this poem. Whatever the truth may be - if it can ever be discovered - most of us will always ascribe the authorship to Moore.

This poem introduced many of our "modern" ideas about Santa Claus: he is a rotund, jolly old elf. He visits children in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer that is capable of landing on roof tops. He comes down chimneys and leaves gifts. About the only modern traditions that clash with Moore's version, are the suit that Santa wears (derived from a series of Coca-Cola ads) and the addition of a ninth reindeer - see below. His influence on our current traditions can never be overestimated.

Above all else, his generous gift to his children and posterity can not be over valued. He is an educated man, obviously very busy with his career and other obligations, who takes the time to compose a lengthy poem as a treat for his children. He is a role-model for parents today.

Secondly, Johnny Marks. Johnny was born on November 10, 1909 and died on September 3, 1985. It's possible, I guess, that you may not be familiar with his name, but I guarantee you will recognize his music. He is the author of many songs, but he is best known for his Christmas contributions: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", "When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter", "Silver and Gold", "Holly, Jolly Christmas", Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", "The Night Before Christmas Song" and "Jingle, Jingle, Jingle" to name those I have discovered so far. I spent some time this morning trying to do some research on the Internet about him. I discovered a few things, but not much. There does not appear to be any web site (or web page) devoted exclusively to him - and that is a pity.

Interestingly, the idea for Rudolph was not Johnny's but his brother-in-law's, Robert L. May. May wrote a poem about Rudolph and some two million copies were distributed by Montgomery-Ward (A US department store) before the song was written. Sometime between 1947 and the release of Gene Autry's recording in 1949, Johnny penned the song he will always be remembered for. I do not know how closely his song followed May's original poem. "Rudolph" is considered to be the second biggest selling song of the first half of the Twentieth Century, surpassed only by Irving Berlin's "White Christmas". I'm sure they both are still the top two best selling holiday songs of all time.

With the explosion of Rock and Roll in the 1950s, Johnny scored another big winner with Brenda Lee's version of ""Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" in 1958. In 1964, CBS broadcast a Christmas special on Rudolph (which has been broadcast every year since). For this program, Johnny was asked to contribute more songs. The program introduced the songs "Silver and Gold" and "Holly, Jolly Christmas", both of which were big hits for Burl Ives (the show's narrator).

But it is Rudolph that has had the greatest effect on our modern traditions. (You'll even find a simple game based on Rudolph's famous nose on our myChristmaspage.com.) Over the last half century Rudolph has been turned into just about every conceivable product. Much of the time, no modern presentation of the Santa myth can avoid including Rudolph as the ninth reindeer. Anyway you look at it, Johnny Marks has changed Christmas traditions forever.

What Christmas season would be complete without at least one viewing (or, better yet, reading) of A Christmas Carol by one of England's most distinguished authors, Charles Dickens? The Victorian Christmas, which many people look back at with fond nostalgia, has largely survived thanks to Dickens. The penny-pinching old miser who has no use for people or celebration is transformed, thanks to a dead partner and three "ghosts" into a fun-loving, philanthropic friend of the friendless. Apart from the Religious aspects, this is the miracle of Christmas - the power of the season to change men's hearts for the better - if even only temporarily. There is something magical about the Christmas season. Even amongst the hustle and bustle, the secularism and the commercialism, there is something there. People are kinder, warmer, friendlier - better. Families gather and even the black sheep are welcomed. This miracle of Christmas is, as it has been for over 150 years, best presented through Dickens' masterpiece.

I have an informal collection of A Christmas Carol adaptations starting with Alistair Sims' portrayal in the 1950s (I probably have the 1930s version somewhere) through the musical Scrooge to versions by George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart and even the Muppets. I think I'm missing the version by Henry Winkler and possibly Mickey's. I don't particularly care for Bill Murray's Scrooged version, but I enjoy all of the rest. I try to see each of them at least once each year. So, call me crazy, I don't mind. My Christmas wouldn't be complete without a screening of White Christmas, It's a Wonderful Life both Miracle on 34th Streets and, of course, A Christmas Carol.

The influence of the works of these three men on our current Christmas traditions cannot be overstated. Of course, there are many others worthy of note - perhaps fodder for another column some day. But without these three men, our Christmases would be very different and far less joyful. And so, in the words of Tiny Tim, "God bless us, everyone!"

Copyright © 2002 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.


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