Not to ape all the retailers this year and start talking about Christmas way, way before its time. And not to lend any credence to forms of paganism that would that deal with us according to our sins, or repay us according to our iniquities. But sometimes some pagan folktales do humanity a better service than other pagan folktales, as well as Christians stationed to teach other Christians who get bright ideas to turn a frown upside down.
Christmas is a holy day that the early church fathers invented because they were in competition with the Roman religion. One thing Christianity lacked was a big feast, and the Romans had one toward the end of December, Saturnalia, so the Christians established Christmas, sort of like one chain putting up a store right near its competitor. It doesn’t have so much to do with Jesus as it does with business, and it’s been a big hit” the number of people celebrating Saturnalia and offering sacrifices to the gods has really diminished.
The Puritans weren’t into Christmas, knowing how shaky it was theologically, and the holiday was brought to America by the Dutch. It was in New York that Christmas became American with the invention of Santa Claus. It was in 1820 that Clement Clark Moore, living down in Chelsea, which was uptown then, coming home in his sleigh with the Christmas turkey, got the idea to write a poem for his children, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which a friend of his copied down and sent to a newspaper in Troy, New York, which published it without attribution. Mr. Moore was a professor of Hebrew and Greek at the seminary down on Ninth Avenue and Twentieth Street, and he had no wish to go down in history as the author of light verse, though of course he did.
His poem gave us a picture of Santa Clause that was new and American. The Dutch version was less jolly: Sinterklaas came on Christmas and put cinders in the stockings of bad children. Professor Moore took out the judicial element and made him a sort of jolly uncle who brings you whatever you want no matter what. And the cartoonist Thomas Nast drew the picture of him as a rotund fellow with rosy cheeks and a big grin.
The Norwegians had never seen him as jolly either. They believed in the Christmas elf, the nisse, who was mischievous if not actually malicious and who came around on Christmas Eve. You had to leave him a gift of rice pudding, because it was he who would decide whether you had good luck or not so good. The nisse didn’t bring gifts; he got them. He tasted your rice pudding, and if it wasn’t creamy enough or if it was too creamy or if there weren’t enough almonds in it, he wrinkled up his face and the next week you had a terrible earache, and the week after that a tree fell on your garage, and then your dad went in for prostate surgery. You had to learn to make rice pudding the way the nisse liked it. Otherwise, your life would be rotten. And if you made a great rice pudding, sometimes the nisse out of pure meanness would make your toilets back up and get the IRS to call you in for an audit, and you’d open the door to find Mike Wallace and a cameraman filming. The stock would go down. Your newsboy would sue you because he tripped over the hose. You’d get your water tested; it’s got lead in it. One thing after another. All because of the pudding.
Some of us feel that this is truer to life than the idea of a fat man coming down the chimney and giving you all of your heart’s desires. It’s no wonder Clement Moore didn’t want his name put on his poem—he was embarrassed by it. He was a theologian; he knew he had created a commercial legend that would help sell things and that would cause disappointment, envy, impatience. What made him do it? It was a nisse who wrote the poem, out of sheer meanness.
Garrison Keillor, Life among the Lutherans