Thursday, December 31, 2020
Wednesday, December 30, 2020
Santa Claus Worldwide: A History of St. Nicholas and Other Holiday Gift-Bringers by Tom A. Jerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Santa Claus Worldwide distills the cheerful essence of Christmas from many sources and studies, old and new. In addition to his wide reading, author Tom A. Jerman has brought a wealth of personal experience and knowledge as a collector to the task of synthesizing the history and often bewildering variety of holiday gift-bringers. Jerman helpfully surveys ancient traditions (Roman Saturnalia) and models (Wotan/Odin, for example), as well as Christian figures like the Christkindl and myriad incarnations of jolly old St. Nick. Several chapters also offer new takes on familiar themes of previous Santa-studies. Of special interest to me in that regard are separate chapters on Washington Irving and the illustrated verses on "Old Santeclaus" as uniquely published in the 1821 Children's Friend. Without denying evident traces of Irving's comic History of New York on Clement C. Moore's iconic poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," Jerman challenges the influential conspiracy theory that a few wealthy New Yorkers "invented" the American Santa Claus. With a collector's understanding of folklore and a lawyer's flair for arguing, Jerman makes a persuasive case for the historical-cultural evolution of Santa Claus, outside of and independent from any particular construction of Manhattan elites. This view expressly builds on previous work by Phyllis Siefker in Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men (1997; 2006) and Gerry Bowler in Christmas in the Crosshairs (2016). Chapter 19 pays extra and well-deserved attention to William B. Gilley and illustrator Arthur J. Stansbury as co-creators of "Old Santeclaus."
I'm already finding this book valuable to have as a basic reference work when doing my own archival research. For instance, lately I discovered an 1841 newspaper reprinting of "A Visit from St Nicholas" with the alternative title, "Old Belsnickle." Say what? Well, as helpfully explained in several chapters (especially 3, 8, and 16), this Belsnickle or furry Nicholas has to be the Americanized Pelznickle, one of many protestant German gift-givers. Kriss Kringle similarly derives from the German Christkindl.
Santa Claus Worldwide fairly revels in the rich diversity of figures that symbolize and stimulate winter gift-giving. And it's loaded with wonderful pictures, too. I'm sure this exceptionally useful and readable volume of holiday history will make a great gift for 21st century Santas and Santa lovers everywhere.