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History Undusted: Santa & the Traditions of Christmas

Known as Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Saint Nick / Nicholas, Père Noel, Papa Noel, Babbo Natale, Weihnachtsmann, Christkind, and many other names, Santa has been around in various versions and various cultures for roughly 1,300 years, as a character associated with Christmas and gift-giving. As such, it would be impossible to pinpoint exactly when and where the original basis for the legends began. Saint Nicholas was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey). He became the patron saint of sailors, and so it is quite possible that his kindness to the poor inspired sea-faring men to spread the ideals of his charitable acts to other places. As time passed, facts gave way to tall tales and legends, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Christmas stockings have been around for centuries as well; the story goes that a widower with three daughters was worried about them being unable to marry as he had no money for their dowries. Nicholas heard of their plight and, knowing that the father would never accept charity, tossed three bags of gold in through an open window one night; the girls had hung their stockings by the fireplace to dry, and one of the bags landed in a stocking. How much of that is based on historical facts and how much is legend is a balance lost to time.

The modern-day image of Santa, with his rotund belly and his red coat, was  popularized by Thomas Nast, an American illustrator for the Harper Weekly, in the 1860s. Nast, being a German immigrant, based his images on the German Weihnachtsmann and Sankt Nicholaus. Before his illustration, Father Christmas was portrayed as wearing any colour coat, from tan and fur-lined, to pink or purple, brown, grey, white, green or blue, and sometimes even red. [It is a myth that a 1933 Coca-Cola advertising campaign is to thank for a red-cloaked Santa.]

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I could go on and on about the traditions associated with Christmas – the tree, the ornaments, the yule log, Santa’s helpers, reindeer (or was it a motorcycle, blimp or plane?) and other practices that are spread wherever Christmas is celebrated. It’s a holiday that’s been adopted in countries that have no Christian roots, such as Asian countries; there, it could be seen as an excuse for a holiday, or as a marketing ploy. And maybe that’s what it’s become for many people even in the West; but all of these traditions put people in a contemplative, forgiving, generous spirit, which is perhaps the most important aspect of the holiday.

Just as the nativity scene [please click on the link to read about Christmas from a Christian aspect] was a simplified version of the Gospel, created by St. Francis of Assissi to explain events to a largely illiterate population and to counter what he felt was a growing commercialism associated with the holiday (and that, back in 1223!), so it is that many traditions arise over the centuries, often a grain of truth with things then tacked on over the years and through cultural adaptations.  Santa’s legend has grown into what we know today, likely not by leaps and bounds, but by a progressive adaptation to cultural times.

However you celebrate Christmas, whether you’re alone or with too many people for your liking, remember that all of us have the capacity to bless others; as the adage goes, it is more blessed to give than to receive. If you don’t have anyone in your life presently to give gifts to, remember, like Saint Nicholas, the poor and the needy. We can all make a difference, and who knows – maybe in a thousand years, your name will be mentioned alongside his.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas GIF 2

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Filed under Articles, History, History Undusted, Images, Snapshots in History

A Blast from the Past: 1906

Living in the Cyber Age, it’s easy to forget that personal computers only came into existence for the mass market in 1981 (and even then, didn’t become common household items until the early 1990s), with the launch of the IBM Personal Computer (they coined that term, and the shortened “PC”).  We got our first personal computer in 1993, and it had the astounding RAM of 256 MB!

As far as telephones went, I grew up with several:  My grandparents’ farm had a box phone on the wall, with the separate ear piece; then they modernized to a heavy black beast of a rotary phone – the kind you could really slam down if the need arose; in fact, you had to be careful how you set it down when you weren’t upset, because it was so heavy that it might sound like a slam in the receiver!  My family had wireless land-line phones, but the signal was poor if you moved much farther away than a long cable would have allowed.   Remember the impatience of dialling a number on the rotary dial, especially if it contained nines or zeros?  And remember that curly cable that got tangled on itself from being over-stretched?  Cell phones didn’t really come into their own until the late 1990s as a mass-market item; kids today would find that hard to imagine, as they seem to think they’ll fall off the edge of the known universe and die if they leave the house without their cells.

Before Spotify, iTunes or MP3s, and even before CDs were common, cassette tapes and LP (long-play) records were all the rage.  Remember winding cassettes with a pencil?  Now that films like “Guardians of the Galaxy” have highlighted cassettes, this generation thinks they’re a novel gadget, and history begins to repeat itself with the labels of “retro” or “vintage” attached to make “old” sound “cool”!  We had an 8-track player in our car, with a cumbersome disc the size of an old Beta movie cassette case.  My father was always at the cutting edge of technology, and in the late 70s we had a laser disc player; the DVDs were the size of LP records (yet looked just like a CD or DVD of today), and we had films like “Logan’s Run” and “Heaven Can Wait”.  The technology didn’t catch on, so I’ve never known anyone else who had that contraption (an image below shows the size comparison to a modern DVD).  Another gadget we had was a set of picture frames hanging on our living room wall; they were filled with psychedelic lights that reacted to sounds, changing colours as you talked, sang, or watched television.  The topic of TVs is a whole other kettle of fish!  As the way of dinosaurs, cassettes and 8-tracks, CDs are nearly a thing of the past now, with digital clouds; even television stations will struggle to survive in the changing technology with on-demand digital providers becoming more popular.  Here are a few images to stir your nostalgia for stone-age technology:

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With so many changes happening just within a few decades, it’s easy to imagine that a century ago, things were even more different.  I wish I had statistics for Europe, but here are a few US stats for the year 1906 – 110 years ago.  Some of these items came in the form of a chain e-mail several years ago, and I didn’t forward it; even so, I’ve made new friends, I haven’t been hit by a meteorite, and I’ve been perfectly happy, despite the threats that come from breaking such a chain…

  • 18% of households in the US had at least one full-time servant or domestic help.
  • 2 out of every 10 adults were illiterate; only 6% of all Americans had graduated from high school.
  • 90% of all doctors had NO college education; they rather attended “medical schools,” many of which were condemned by the press and the government as sub-standard.
  • A 3-minute call from Denver to New York City cost 11 dollars.
  • A competent accountant could expect to earn $2,000 per year, a dentist $2,500, a veterinarian between $1,500 and $4,000, and a mechanical engineer about $5,000 per year.
  • Alabama, Mississippi, Iowa, and Tennessee were each more heavily populated than California.
  • Canada passed a law that prohibited poor people from entering into their country for any reason.
  • Crossword puzzles, canned beer, and ice tea hadn’t been invented yet.
  • Marijuana, heroin and morphine were all available over the counter at corner drugstores; pharmacists claimed that, “Heroin clears complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind, regulates the stomach and bowels, and is, in fact, a perfect guardian of health.”
  • More than 95% of all births in the US took place at home.
  • Most women only washed their hair once a month, and used borax or egg yolks for shampoo.
  • Sugar cost 4 cents per pound; eggs were 14 cents for a dozen; coffee was 15 cents a pound.
  • The American flag had 45 stars: Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Hawaii and Alaska had not yet been admitted into the Union.
  • The population of Las Vegas, Nevada was 30.
  • The average life expectancy was 47.
  • The average US worker made between $200 and $400 per year.
  • The average wage in the US was 22 cents per hour.
  • The maximum speed limit for most cities was 10 mph.
  • The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower.
  • There was no official Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
  • There were about 230 reported murders in the entire US.
  • There were only 8,000 cars in the US, and only 144 miles of paved roads.
  • With a mere 1.4 million people, California was only the 21st-most populous state.
  • The five leading causes of death in the US:
    1. Pneumonia and influenza
    2. Tuberculosis
    3. Diarrhea
    4. Heart Disease
    5. Stroke
  • The top news articles of the time:
    1. Roald Amundsen, Norwegian explorer, located the Magnetic North Pole.
    2. Ethiopia declared independent in a tripartite pact; the country was divided into British, French, and Italian spheres of influence.
    3. Finland was the first European country to give women the vote.
    4. President Roosevelt sailed to the Panama Canal Zone. It was the first time a U.S. president travelled outside the country while in office.
    5. Reginald Fessenden invented wireless telephony, a means for radio waves to carry signals a significant distance. On December 24, he made the first radio broadcast: a poetry reading, a violin solo, and a speech.
    6. In Economy, federal spending was $0.57 billion; unemployment was 1.7%, and the cost of a first-class stamp was 2 cents.
    7. On 18 April, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit San Francisco, California, killing over 3,000. Though many have heard of the famous quake, a less-publicized 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit Ecuador and Columbia earlier in the year, on 31 January, causing a tsunami.  On 16 August, a magnitude 8.2 earthquake in Valparaíso, Chile left approximately 20,000 dead, while on 18 September, a typhoon and tsunami killed an estimated 10,000 in Hong Kong.  The media all but ignored such events, making the San Fran earthquake the best-known, though it was the least of all these events in the loss of lives. [Note the warning about shooting looters, from the San Fran mayor, in the images below.]
    8. A few famous births in 1906: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (4 Feb.); Hans Asperger (18 Feb.); Lou Costello (6 March).

Below are a few ads and gadgets from 1906 (gleaned around Pinterest), for your amusement:

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It’s a Small World After All

What happens when complete strangers, from enemy-nations, meet face to face?  Or in this case, screen to screen?  Smiles, and the realisation that at the core, humanity transcends race, colour, creed, nationality, culture and language.  Coca-Cola engineered the experience; unfortunately it’s not a permanent installation due to the complex technology involved, but what if it one day could be a permanent fixture?  So many people are alone in a crowd; it would be a possibility to connect with a stranger face to face, and maybe in the process, even meet a new friend.  To read the article and see the video, please click on the image below.

Small World 2

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