We can understand how Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus came to represent the generous spirit of Christmas. He is a saint, after all. But the little town of Bethlehem isn’t particularly well known for its population of outdoor reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) grazing about. So why did Santa choose that particular hoofed beast to steer his sleigh on Christmas Day?
Could it be because this graceful animal, used as a beast of burden in the regions near the Arctic Circle, is the only deer species that can be domesticated? Or perhaps because Santa doesn’t want to share his Christmas cookies? After all, outdoor reindeer like to eat moss, herbs, ferns, grasses, shoots, and leaves. Their favorite food is lichen—a moss-like fungi. Better not bake lichen cookies for Christmas, or you’ll have reindeer thundering down your chimney instead!
The first clue that the Christmas season is upon us and about to get into full swing is the appearance of large, outdoor holiday decorations on lawns and roofs, and in front of homes, places of worship, and business establishments. These include Christmas trees and wreaths, live-size manger scenes, huge candy canes, and assorted oversized Santa Clauses, merry elves, and reindeer bedecked in jingle bells. Among these, one is also likely to see at least a few giant toy soldiers, standing either proudly alone at attention or in festive regiments. The question is….
Hear them all cheering,
Now they are nearing,
There’s the captain stiff as starch.
Music is crashing,
As the wooden soldiers march;
At each pretty little maid…
Here they come! Here they come!
Here they come! Here they come!
Wooden soldiers on parade.
— English song lyrics by Ballard MacDonald
for “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers”
People “of a certain age” (and by that we mean ones who are old) and with good memories can pinpoint the exact moment and surrounding circumstances signaling the official start of the holiday season that stretches from Thanksgiving to Christmas. These clues could be visual in nature, such as the sudden appearance of life-size Nativity scenes on church lawns, colorful Christmas lights adorning trees and lamp posts, or giant toy soldiers keeping guard in front of decorated homes. Or the clues could be olfactory: the smell of a turkey roasting in the oven, the aroma of eggnog, and the fragrance of cinnamon and gingerbread permeating the house. They could be auditory as well, with sleighbells ringing and carolers singing. All of these sensations elicit the sweet, nostalgic feelings most people experience at Christmastime.
But for some older grownups, the one sure sign in yesteryear that the holiday season had officially started would be the annual broadcast of the 1934 Laurel & Hardy feature film, Babes in Toyland. In the pre-cable era, this film became a popular holiday staple, broadcast repeatedly throughout the 1960s and 1970s on numerous TV stations across the United States during the Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday season. In the U.S., it was often shown under an alternate title: March of the Wooden Soldiers.
Many young fans of the comic duo always looked forward to this annual showing of Babes in Toyland—not only because it was fun to watch (the stop-action animated toy soldiers were a hoot, but Stan Laurel always stole the show), but because it had become a tradition that meant Christmas was just around the corner.
Christmas traditions are a funny concept. We are taught from the moment that we celebrate our first holiday season to participate in countless amusing, yet outlandish customs. Even odder is the fact that it rarely dawns on us to question our participation. Speaking for myself, I never second guessed sitting on Santa’s lap and sharing my cherished wish list or posing for a photo with the elves in a Santa chair. It’s inevitable that country to country holiday customs differ drastically, however one thing is for certain: The origins of these traditions can get lost in translation.
There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something.
— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Of all the Christian holidays, Christmas must be the most sociable. Since at least Victorian times (and certainly before) it has been a season for family and friends to spend time together and engage in joyful group activities. And one of the most joyful of those activities is the making of music and the singing of holiday songs by outdoor Christmas carolers.
Imagine Christmastime without music or carols. It just wouldn’t be the same. And yet, ironically, in the very earliest years of Christianity there was no Christmastime to speak of, much less music to celebrate it. Easter—commemorating the miraculous resurrection of the crucified Jesus—was the main holiday of devout Christians. The birth of Jesus, by comparison, seemed an unimportant affair and simply was not celebrated.
In the fourth century, however, church officials decided to proclaim the birth of Jesus as a holiday. The history behind that proclamation illustrates the genius of Roman Catholicism for incorporating secular, pagan traditions into its religious rituals. One of those is the tradition of caroling.