A Somewhat Counter-Intuitive Christmas Origins Story

Even though the things I wrote about lately were more like “evergreens”, not bound to particular events, I often like to latch onto some dates. To my dismay I found that I couldn’t make the deadline of the death of mysterious faith healer Grigori Rasputin in mid-December (of 1916) and was then determined to sit the whole Christmas season out. Reader Matt Cavanaugh debunked The Nativity throughout (go read it), and everyone else was writing on the annual “War on Christmas”. There are probably a lot of “Christmas-Pagan-Rites” articles out there, and I didn’t feel like adding one of my own. But then Outwest and some other Twitter friends prodded me to write. This was very nice. What’s left to write about on Christmas? There is something I could think of, and it is again a fabulous journey through everything. How about “Headless Hessians and Other Humorous Germans?”. Let me foreshadow a little…

“They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance to-night. They will be sleepy to-morrow morning.” – nameless officer of George Washington before the Battle of Trenton

“Humour comes from Germany“

… my professor once exclaimed, beginning his lecture, and left me wondering for a moment whether I should skip his lessons altogether. It was an counter-intuitive opener, however, and I stuck around. He explained, in the USA more than a hundred years ago, many Germans or their descendants were drawn to the growing cities, New York and Chicago, where they soon began to make themselves a name as caricaturists and cartoonists in the emerging newspaper scene.

Dirks' Katzenjammer Kids (1924)

Dirks’ Katzenjammer Kids (1924)

They, or their parents left their homeland when Germany didn’t yet exist and tensions grew between different ethnicities and “peoples” driven by the urge to belong to this new thing called “nations”. Some time later, many Jewish-Germans would follow the earlier emigrants to the US when national feelings gave rise to anti-Semitism across Europe.

Wilhelm Busch’s Max & Moritz (1865)

My professor was wrong, after all. But different than I thought: he wasn’t wrong about the ethnic-German comical heritage. Wilhelm Busch, the “forefather of comics” was very influential and he probably inspired a whole generation of artists, Richard F. Outcault , Rudolph Dircks, Frederick Burr Opper, Will Eisner – to name a few. The father of a certain Matt Groening was such a German-rooted cartoonist, too, and probably led the way for his son.  Perhaps it was somehow “in the air” (Heinrich Hoffmann’s rather gruesome “Struwwelpeter” had its share of influence, too). 

German, that’s a Thing These Days?


Max & Moritz stealing chicken through a chimney.

When my professor wasn’t wrong about the “German humour” part, he was wrong with the “German” part. Or at least inaccurate. Ethnic Germans, as they emerged as a label sometime in the late middle ages, always belonged to different states. Before nations were formed, being German wasn’t such a clear-cut thing as it may seem today. It was a blurry blotch somewhere in central Europe, and linking to previous articles, a good example of a continuum of customs and language that could blur into each other due to relative lack of natural barriers in central Europe. The late national feelings of Germans could be seen as one of the root causes for the conflicts that so violently disrupted Europe, and the world in the 20th century. It’s may be a somewhat weird idea, but perhaps history would be very different if there were a few larger rivers and mountain ranges cutting through the continent. Only during the World Wars the matter was definitely settled. It forced everyone to take sides, either with (or as) German or against them. World War II and the abhorrent crimes against humanity committed by the Germans destroyed any further connections or sympathies that may have existed elsewhere before.

In Bismarck’s time, in the 1870s when the “Deutsches Reich” (“German Realm/Empire”) was forged out of the many ethnic-German states that once formed the Holy Roman Empire, there was still the desire to get all “Germans” into the same nation. But some were bound in the multi-ethnic Austrian-Hungarian empire, and the German-Swiss already had their own thing going as well. Bismarck had to be content with the Northern German states, which would then, in 1871, finally become a German nation. Adolf Hitler, an Austrian, would later use this circumstance to justify his expansions and the Austrians weren’t too disappointed when they were attached to their northern neighbour.

In the late 17 th century, many people who emigrated to the US with ethnic-German background were often considered “Dutch”, perhaps due the similarities between the words “Dutch” and “Deutsch” (same roots, and means “German” in German). The settlers in Pennsylvania were known as “Pennsylvanian Dutch” despite their origin in today’s south-western Germany and this is where we finally come closer to Christmas. At the time, only the “Germans” observed the holidays in the now familiar way, and brought their customs with them into the American colonies.

Headless Hessians

Not much later, during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), the Brits enlisted German mercenaries from the many German states. The men were often pressured into service. Eventually they made up a quarter of all “British” troops. Half of those mercenaries came from Hessen (now central Germany), and like their Pennsylvania Dutch compatriots observed Christmas customs. George Washington and his men certainly didn’t. But they hoped to exploit the Hessian‘s love for Christmas to their advantage in the Battle of Trenton, from where I took the quote at the beginning.

"Hessian troops in British pay in the US war of independence" (1799) by C. Ziegler/Conrad Geßner

“Hessian troops in British pay in the US war of independence” (1799) by C. Ziegler/Conrad Geßner. Still with their heads on.

In the early hours of December 26, 1776, George Washington led his men in harsh weather over the frozen Delaware River and attacked the unsuspecting Hessians. Even though they weren’t drunk from Christmas, the advancement of Washington’s forces in that weather caught them by surprise. It is another example of symbology. It was a relatively small battle, some 20 people died – almost all of them Hessians – but it was perceived as a dramatic victory and greatly boosted the morale of the rebels and helped them to get many more enlisted to fight for independence.

Another Washington – Washington Irving – was apparently intrigued by the German (and Dutch) customs and helped a great deal to popularize Christmas with “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” (1819/1820) which contained several stories on Christmas, as well as his famous “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. That one combined the notoriously spooky German tales (likely based on a folktale recorded by Karl Musäus, and not the Grimms, for a change) with a headless Hessian rider who haunts a Pennsylvania Dutch (or New York) village.

The Tree

Allegedly, the first Christmas tree was erected by a bakery in Freiburg in 1419, and bespangled with all kinds of sweets. However, no original sources confirm the claim. It was commonly known in German speaking territories some time later, however. The princess Dorothea Sibylle von Brandenburg (1590—1625), unknown to english Wikipedia, erected the first Christmas tree lit with candles and is therefore probably responsible for more deaths than have fallen victim to terrorist attacks (each year, 230 homes catch fire, with about 6 deaths in the US alone, that makes it 2400 deaths since 1613 in my joke calculation). A certain Charles Follen, another German immigrant who became a professor at Harvard in 1825 is said to be one of the early popularizers of the decorated Christmas tree in the US.

Well, that's not the tree I meant.

Well, that’s not the tree I meant.

Washington Irving reported on these customs and was a major influence for Charles Dickens (1812–1870), whose “A Christmas Carol” (1843) brought Christmas back to English speaking Europe and established the customs in England. From there it also entered the now common western Christmas canon—spook elements included, too (thereby enabling Tim Burton).

Irving was also inspired by Dutch customs known in the former Dutch colony of New York, where he already wrote in 1809 in “History of New York” about a sleigh-flying, gift-giving Sinterclaas, which anglicized as “Santa Claus”. He wanted to satirize the Dutch, and combined their customs with other European traditions of “Father Christmas” (and perhaps the eastern European “Father Frost”). The gift-giving aspect was Christianized and came from Saint Nicholas, who was Bishop in the 4 th century in what is the Turkey today and was already assumed in continental European christmas customs, despite that the church (in particular the Catholic) very much disliked all the pagan influences but had to give in when it became too popular.

Another one imbued with the “german” Christmas spirit was Frank L. Baum (1856–1919), son of a ethnic-German businessman in – you name it – the Pennsylvania area (his “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, 1900, is one of my favourite fiction books). Before the turn of the century Frank L. Baum was into advertising mechanical mannequins, in particular mechanical “Christmas fantasies” that decorated the store fronts. When he turned writer, he popularized the emerging tradition of Santa Claus in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902). Incidentally, “Baum” means “tree” in German.

The Dutch Sailor

Wait a minute. Rewind that. Santa Claus was a partially satire!? To Washington Irving Santa Claus was more a caricature as he lampooned the Dutch culture in New York: A fat Dutch pipe-smoking sailor, dressed in a green coat – a description which was picked up by yet another German-immigrant cartoonist and caricaturist: Thomas Nast.

Thomas Nast iconic depiction of Santa Claus (1881)

Thomas Nast iconic depiction of Santa Claus (1881)

Thomas Nast, born 1840 in the German Rhineland (the same area from where the Pennsylvania Dutch are from), is seen as the “Father of the American Cartoon” who contributed many cultural icons, and full circle to where we headed off. He coined the term “GOP” for the Republicans, and came up with the two animals for both parties, elephant and donkey. He also added the goatee to Uncle Sam. He is credited together with “Alice in Wonderland” illustrator John Tenniel (quite an impressive goatee, if two men had to work on it).

It was Nast depiction of Santa Claus which was picked up by the Coca-Cola company, who changed the colour of his mantle to the companies’ trademark red-white and used it in their advertisement from the 1930s onwards. As you see, this imagery soaked up everything which was already popular everywhere in the Western world, from Germany and the Netherlands to the USA to England and back. The popular myth that Santa Claus was invented by Coca-Cola is, therefore, false, but has a kernel of truth as this particular depiction now travelled far and wide.

Santa Claus, Thomas Nast rendering and the Coca-Cola Ad.

Santa Claus, Thomas Nast’s rendering and the Coca-Cola Ad.

And we could round it off with yet another cartoonist with German roots (grandparents), a certain Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel. He wrote and illustrated the children’s book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (1957). Like Nast, Geisel also lent his abilities for editorial cartoons. In his case, against the Axis Alliance.

Since Christmas has some rich elements, even satire and spook, I believe this image from the Atheist Spoof Department, the Slymepit, is adequate and with it I am ending my little, somewhat different Christmas-Origins journey. I hope you enjoyed it, and it added a few counter-intuitive yet true facts to your repertoire, allowing you to boast with some (useless) knowledge at the Christmas dinner table (and eroding your relative’s staunch belief in “Christian” Christmas customs).

A Merry Christmas, y’all. 

Artist rendering of a possible, though slightly
unrealistic event (by Gumby @Slymepit)

PS: “War on Christmas” is no issue in Germany. Of course. The clergy complains on occasion that the “Christkind” (“the Christ-Child”, as Jesus is always referred to this season) isn’t central enough in their opinion, i.e. not at all, yet it doesn’t disturb anyone from celebrating Christmas with their family, perhaps watching one of the classic Disney films. Disney was, you guess it – well not quite. His mother was half-german. But some of Walt Disney’s best known material was lifted from German folklore (and alas, he was rumoured to be an Anti-Semite which turned out false, but he associated himself with anti-Semites of the Motion Picture Alliance). Maybe Disney’s source material is which made “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” a natural fit for the season for me. Seeing fairy tales in the local theatre, or a similar spectacle, going to church belong to our cultural customs and everyone here simply says: “Frohe Weihnachten!” which doesn’t have any overt Christian reference and thus the issue never came up. I don’t believe in deities and I don’t believe in Dwarfs but enjoy plays that feature them. Merry Christmas.

2 thoughts on “A Somewhat Counter-Intuitive Christmas Origins Story

  1. There was always a magical element to Christmas when I celebrated it in Germany. I can’t put my finger on it.

    Berliners, btw, have a sharp wit and dry, yet playful, humor.

  2. Thanks for an entertaining and informative piece! I have a small and irrelevant nit to pick. You said that Thomas Nast and John Tenniel “added” the goatee to Uncle Sam, but my impression was that Nast lifted the look from Dan Rice, a circus clown who’s humor included topical political references. “Uncle Sam” had been around since at least 1812, two decades before Rice was born, so Rice can’t be credited with inventing the character, but it seems that it is Rice, perhaps with the help of Nast and others, who created the look (including goatee) that became popularly associated with Uncle Sam.



    Regarding the rest of your article–cool! It’s fun to learn the cultural roots of the contemporary Christmas tradition. As a descendant of German immigrants who came to America from the 1840’s to 1860’s I grew up with many of the old fashioned
    German-influenced images you write of. I just got back from visiting my parents, and my favorite image from their house is a series of painted wooden cut-outs of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that predates the Disney version. I have two of those elves on a set of bookends, and they’ve always given
    my place a cozy vibe!

    Please keep writing; I admire your ability to analyze the
    muck and mendacity swirling about parts of the atheist/secularist community without getting caught up in the mudslinging yourself. Have a merry (secular, nostalgic) Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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