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Polishing the holiday's image

By Daniel Deagler Every year, excitable people get their undergarments in knots worried that nefarious forces are at war with Christmas. It's as much a modern tradition as inflatable lawn reindeer.

By Daniel Deagler

Every year, excitable people get their undergarments in knots worried that nefarious forces are at war with Christmas. It's as much a modern tradition as inflatable lawn reindeer.

But as Steven Nissenbaum notes in his book The Battle for Christmas, every generation feels the holiday it celebrates is less pure and true than it had once been. In truth, ever since Christians started observing Christ's birth on Dec. 25 - as early as A.D. 354 - there has always been a battle for the soul of the holiday.

The Dec. 25 Christmas was built upon the ashes of the Roman festival Saturnalia, a winter-solstice observation characterized by excessive eating, excessive drinking, and excessive . . . other activities. (Think Mardi Gras in togas.)

It was very difficult to divorce these Bacchanalian practices from the season of Christ's nativity. The very nature of December, according to Nissenbaum, encouraged this bawdy behavior.

"The deep freeze of midwinter had not yet set in; the work of gathering the harvest and preparing it for winter was done; and there was plenty of newly fermented beer or wine as well as meat from freshly slaughtered animals - meat that had to be consumed before it spoiled," he writes.

In December, the table is inevitably set for a party.

In the middle ages, a social contract developed between lords of the manor and their peasants. At Christmas, the lower orders could demand of their social betters hospitality and handouts in exchange for a performance - one that was invariably unwelcome and forced upon these betters. Known variously as wassailers, Christmas Waits, or Mummers, they used an implied threat that if their loud, drunken demonstrations of good cheer were not met with rewards of food and drink, unfortunate things might happen. Wassailing was like trick-or-treating but with teeth.

Variations on this practice existed at least into the 19th century and became a threat to civil order and private property. It was at that time that a few New York gentleman took it upon themselves to try to tame Christmas once and for all.

First was Washington Irving, who was very much enamored of and bemused by the original Dutch settlers of New York. Through the art of what British historian Eric Hobsbawn calls "invented tradition," he claimed the "Dutch" St. Nicholas (the real St. Nicholas was a Greek) as a patron saint of the city.

Irving's friend John Pintard, displeased at the raucousness of Christmas, sought to copy the real Dutch practice of giving presents to children - ostensibly from St. Nicholas - on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6), later shifting it to Christmas.

A third man, Clement Clark Moore, wrote the poem that would change everything, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," in 1822. Moore gave Santa his named reindeer and down-the-chimney means of entering the homes of people nestled and snug in their beds.

A generation later, a fourth New Yorker, the brilliant political cartoonist Thomas Nast, fleshed out Santa even more, making him a toy maker with a North Pole address.

The warm, friendly, domestic Santa was immediately embraced by merchants who were more than happy to sell all that was needed for the perfect Christmas centered on the home. At the turn of the 20th century, as commerce became more sophisticated and name brands started to appear, Santa was enlisted to sell even more products.

In the 1920s, world-class artists like N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell painted Santa for the cover of publications like the Saturday Evening Post and Country Gentleman. In 1931, Coca-Cola hired Haddon Sunblom to paint a series of ads featuring Santa to show that Coke was not just a warm-weather drink. Sunblom created the enduring, definitive image of Santa: full-grown man, not elf; red suit with white trim; seriously jolly.

In many ways, we can lay the blame for Christmas' commercialism at Santa's feet. His Christmas is about Christmas morning and presents under the tree. And unless you have a factory staffed by elves, presents require shopping.

Christmas today tilts more toward the giving and the getting than the Gospel of St. Luke. So be it. But credit Santa, and a handful of New Yorkers, for wresting the great holiday away from the drunks and giving it to the children.