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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Christmas Facts and Fancies

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, December 24, 2006

 

In December, reference questions at the library turn to Christmas Facts and Fancies.

 

Actually, I am borrowing that terminology from a 1937 publication of the same title, printed in New York by De La Mere, Inc., and authored by Alfred Hottes.

 

Our library system has quite a collection of Christmas books, ranging from making your own ornaments to stories about various aspects of the Christmas season.

 

I like the 1937 book because it is interesting to compare what information an author felt was important to provide in a publication 70 years ago.

 

Christmas questions are not easy to answer, as differing aspects of most stories are available depending on the source you use.

 

For example, the well-known Christmas poem, "Twas the Night Before Christmas" appears to be the basis for numerous American traditions.

 

All sources agree that Dr. Clement C. Moore first recited it on December 23, 1822 to his children as the story of St. Nicholas.

 

He was a Professor of Divinity at New York Theological Seminary.  Supposedly, a family friend heard the poem, recorded it in her album, and sent it to the "Troy Sentinel" for publication in 1823.

 

It was published with no known author, but Moore was gradually credited with the work.

 

He was afraid that it was beneath the dignity of a Professor of Divinity to write such a poem, originally meant to entertain children in the holiday season.

 

Finally, in 1844, Moore acknowledged his authorship, and included the poem in a book of his poetry.

 

The correct title of the poem is, "The Visit of St. Nicholas," although modern sources use "from" in the title.

 

Moore's poem introduces eight reindeer to Nicholas' travels, with one being called "Donder" rather than today's spelling.

 

In 1939, the Montgomery Ward Company in Chicago added "Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer" as part of the team; as part of their Christmas giveaway of coloring books.

 

Created by a copyrighter for Wards named Robert L. May, songwriter Johnny Marks added lyrics and melody to Rudolph in 1947, with Gene Autry recording the favorite song in 1949.

 

The English sent "schoolpieces" as greetings at Christmastime, simple pen and ink drawings on single sheets of paper.

 

In 1843, J.C. Horsley designed the first formal Christmas card with the phrase, "A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you."

 

The Postal Service in America complained about the massive increase in card mailings, with 2 billion being sent annually now.

 

The facts about the candy cane are as varied as books and web sites devoted to the topic.

 

They were originally hard white candy sticks, with the red stripes appearing around 1900.  Add whatever other stories you desire to the candy cane.  It is interesting that the 1937 book never mentions the candy cane.

 

The 12 days of Christmas relates to the days from Christmas on December 25, to Epiphany on January 6.

 

Today's song was first documented around 1780 when it was a children's rhyme appearing in the book, "Mirth Without Mischief, published in London.

 

A number of variations have appeared in the two centuries of publication.  Sometimes "five gold rings" is "five golden rings," and "four calling birds" can be "colly" or "coiled."

 

I found it interesting that the 1937 book casually notes that Christmas can be written "Xmas" as the Greek word for 'Christ' is 'chi,' and the Greek letter 'chi' is represented by a symbol to the letter 'X' in the Roman alphabet.

 

The first page of that same book brings it all into context.  "It is a long road back to the first Christmas, the route is not direct, nor is it clearly marked.  These facts and fancies are the traditions of Christmas - a part of our storehouse of culture - interesting whether true of fiction.