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Christmas Customs and Traditions
Nature Bulletin No. 475-A   December 16, 1972
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Christmas, during the last 100 years, has become a national holiday -- our greatest festival -- with symbols, customs and ceremonies introduced by people from many foreign countries. Some of those stem from ancient pagan festivals celebrating the winter solstice and the new "birth of the sun", but Christmas is now a religious observance of the birthday of Jesus Christ. It is also a day of family gatherings with traditions of their own and, above all, the day of days for their children. During pioneer times in the Middle West, according to letters and diaries, Christmas did not amount to much. Gifts to children, if any, were homemade and mostly practical. They did not have a Christmas tree. Santa Claus was unheard of.

The Santa Claus legend has an interesting history. During the 4th century there was a Bishop Nicholas, in Asia Minor, who became a saint regarded as the special friend and protector of children. Today, in several northern European countries, he "appears" on the eve of his feast day, December 6. In Holland, children place their wooden shoes or hang their stockings by the fireplace or in a window and fill them with hay for the saint's white horse. While they sleep, he comes with gifts for the good children and switches for the bad ones. In Germany they also believe in St. Nicholas but that the gifts are distributed on Christmas Eve by Kris Kingle -- an abbreviation of Kristkindlein, the Christ child.

The fun-loving Dutch colonists who settled New Amsterdam, now New York, brought their customs with them. Their name for St. Nicholas became abbreviated to Sint Klaas, or Sant Klaus, and in James Fenimore Cooper's novel the Pioneer (1823), we find the first known mention of Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote his famous poem. A Visit From St. Nicholas, which begins with "Twas the night before Christmas. " There is no mention of Santa Claus or a Christmas tree but it describes St. Nick and told of his coming in a sleigh drawn by eight reindeer named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen.

Apparently that poem inspired one of the greatest cartoonists in this country: Thomas Nash, who originated the Democratic donkey, the Republican elephant and the Tammany tiger as political symbols. From 1863 until his death in 1902, in Harper's Weekly and other magazines and newspapers, Nash popularized the jolly old fat character we all know as Santa Claus.

The Christmas tree originated as a German custom dating back to the time of Martin Luther. Until about 1900 in many communities -- of central and northern Illinois -- except for a few families that used an oak sapling -- nobody had a Christmas tree because there were no native pines or cedars. In Chicago, a Christmas tree business started in December, 1887, when Herman and August Schuenemann sailed their fishing schooner into the Chicago river and tied up at the Clark St. bridge with a load of young spruce trees from the Michigan forests. After that, year after year, Chicago folks would come to select and carry home a tree from the "Christmas Ship. " In 1898, August and the ship were lost in a storm but, next Christmas, ruddy-faced Herman was back with a new boat. In 1912 that boat disappeared with Herman and his crew of 17 men, during a blizzard on Lake Michigan. Then, until 1933, Herman's wife took over and brought the Christmas ship down to Chicago.

The central theme of Christmas, as always, is: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. "

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