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Christmas Through the Ages Right at Home in Santa Barbara

Traditions flourish amid the magic of the season

“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.” — Norman Vincent Peale

Christmastime for many of us heightens our senses, stirs our memories, fuels our appetites, and reminds us of the significance of family, friendships and sharing lasting memories together.

Through the years people embrace tradition, as we string lights on our homes and trees, hang mistletoe above doors, shop for the perfect gift(s) for loved ones, send greeting cards, sip eggnog by the fire, open our hearts and homes to Christmas carolers, and watch streams of children stand in line at Macy’s to sit on jolly old Santa’s lap.

We are lured by aromatic delicacies, as many of our kitchens are the source of every kind of fudge, gingerbreads, beautifully decorated cookies, cakes and holiday drinks that are all guaranteed to increase our waistbands and send us racing to the gym with a New Year’s resolution to drop those extra pounds — many of which were gathered over the holidays!

While America has had a stream of holiday traditions over the years, renowned anthropologist Ralph Linton in his article “One Hundred Percent American,” claims that many of the customs and beliefs we revere in America have foreign origins, and some of those origins actually pre-date the birth of Christ.

Of course, these celebrations were not called “Christmas,” but have other distinctive names like winter solstice, Yuletide, Juvenalia (a Roman holiday to honor children) and the Festival of Saturnalia (another Roman holiday lasting from Dec. 17 to Dec. 24). It wasn’t until the fourth century that the Roman Church instituted Dec. 25 for the Feast of the Nativity. While there is no historical record as to when Christ was actually born, the Feast of the Nativity was established to counter pagan solstice celebrations. Over the next several hundred years, Christmas gained popularity, and by the end of the 18th century, it was considered a qualified holiday.

Christmas tradition in America did not really take hold until after the American Revolution. Part of this was due to some of the beliefs that the Pilgrims brought to America in 1620. In fact, hold on to your horses, Christmas lovers: celebrating Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681, and anyone overtly participating in Christmas cheer was fined five shillings.

Christmas wasn’t declared a legal holiday in the United States until June 26, 1870, and America changed the face of Christmas forever. It went from a feral festival event to the family-centered day of peace and goodwill similar to what we know today.

Washington Irving was instrumental in the evolution of Christmas in America with his collection of essays and short stories, Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., written in 1892. Irving’s eloquent description of Christmas past, binds family relations and friends of all ages under the canopy of peace and love, even in the midst of worldly troubles, and no wall separates culture from this magical experience.

“Of all the old festivals, however, that of Christmas awakens the strongest and most heartfelt associations,” Irving said. “There is a tone of solemn and sacred feeling that blends with our conviviality and lifts the spirit to a state of hallowed and elevated enjoyment.”

Whether one has religious connections to Christmas or not, the ever-popular Santa Claus is a figure that cannot easily be dismissed. While Santa’s origin dates back to the fourth century, when he was known as St. Nicholas, he has remained an icon within American Christmas tradition. Back in the day, St. Nicholas, who was the Roman Catholic Bishop of Myra, was known for his goodness and loving nature toward children and sailors. The Dutch called him Sint Nikolass, which was shortened to Sinter Klaas, and after the Dutch came to America, the New York colonials changed his name to Santa Claus. Emerging in the American press in 1773, this amusing character has captivated the hearts and trust of children for hundreds of years.

Of course, the Santa Claus that has evolved over the centuries is not the same saint that was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church; indeed he is a loose adaptation of the sainted Claus. America most definitely has its own variation of Santa, and he is a fantastical legend that represents human kindness, goodwill toward children, happiness and generosity.

One of the most renowned writings about Santa appeared in Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas.” The classic story of Santa and his team of elves and flying reindeer working in his North Pole workshop is solely American. Illustrator Thomas Nast, who depicted Santa as a little fat man with a long white beard, appeared in many issues of Harper’s Magazine during the mid- to late 1800s, and the favored Rudolph, Santa’s red-nosed reindeer came on the scene in 1939, when copywriter Robert L. May created him in a poem that was an advertising gimmick for Montgomery Ward.

Even during the grip of the Great Depression, Christmas was still a celebrated event that bonded families together. Various churches and schools within a community usually instigated social activities, and almost every home had a hand-cut Christmas tree decorated with homemade ornaments. Ornaments like popcorn garlands, crepe paper cut-outs, old Christmas cards strung together, and tinsel icicles were in vogue.

Christmas caroling, which is also a part of American holiday tradition, actually originated during Medieval times when carolers would form a circle and sing and dance. The word “carole” is the French word for a song that accompanies a dance. Even today, many of our shopping malls, hospitals, hotel lobbies and parks are graced with Christmas carolers from various churches and community organizations, sharing in song the story of the Nativity, the anticipation of Santa’s arrival, and the hope for peace on earth and goodwill toward men.

Irving Berlin’s timeless musicals Holiday Inn (1942), starring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds, and White Christmas (1954), also starring Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney, were not only two of the top money makers in their era, they became a part of the American Christmas experience. These films are shown on television every holiday season, and we still enjoy many of the songs composed for these films. And let us not forget the wonderful classic film Miracle on 34th Street (1947), starring Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara and John Payne, which tells the story of a nice old man who is institutionalized for claiming to be the actual Kris Kringle (Santa Claus).

Here in Santa Barbara County, we have a number of traditions that have been with us for many years, as well as new customs springing up all the time — yes, the magic of the season can be seen vividly throughout the county. The 70-foot Canary Island pine on West Carrillo Street is an eye-catcher, and if you happen to be driving north on Highway 101, you will get a glimpse of Montecito’s mystery tree at the San Ysidro Road exit. (No one will admit to decorating this oversized pine over the years). The Downtown Holiday Parade has a 58-year legacy that began as a tree-decorating event with 40-foot Douglas fir Christmas trees lining the middle of State Street that were lit by the Christmas Fairy. Originally, it was called the Children’s Christmas Parade, and it was held on a Saturday morning, but in 1998, the name was changed and it was moved to a Friday evening.

This year Santa Barbara celebrated its 25th year with the annual Parade of Lights, as thousands of spectators watched beautifully decorated boats parade past the City Pier in the Santa Barbara Harbor. Accompanied by holiday music, a fireworks display, 10 tons of snow, and a visit from Santa, the event is a festive part of Santa Barbara’s holiday tradition.

One does not have to go too far to find Santa during the last couple of weeks of December here in Santa Barbara. In keeping with America’s love for “jolly old Saint Nick,” the Goleta Valley Historical Society hosts the annual Holiday At The Ranch held at the fully restored Stow House, Goleta’s oldest frame house, built in 1873. This 20-year holiday tradition is the perfect combination of Christmas past and Christmas present, with tours of the beautifully decorated house, children’s cookie baking and ornament-making projects, live holiday music and appearances by Santa Barbara’s very own Santa and his entourage.

While Santa Claus brings to mind a certain element of long-established American tradition, make no mistake about it, this Santa is a different kind of Santa! This Santa (Mike Lopez) has seven rein-goats, not reindeer, and refuses to wear a fake beard. Lopez begins growing his beard in February or March, and jokes, “Heck, I’ve had face hair since I was 3, and so I’m just goin’ with it.”

Lopez began his seasonal career as the Stow House Santa more than 20 years ago when he became involved with the Goleta Historical Society.

“It all began with me doing blacksmith work for them, and Santa sort of evolved,” Lopez said.

Lopez didn’t plan on being Santa as a kid, but wouldn’t trade it now.

“Santa gets a lot of attention,” he explained. “Truthfully, this is a mystical space that I get to hold each December that represents love, faith and magic. It’s a bubble that time stops in, and I get to stand in the middle of it, and I am privileged.”

Dressing up like Santa is so much more than a holiday job for Lopez, but it enables him to give back to the community, which he believes is really powerful.

“I wish more would recognize the importance of giving back,” he said.
Bernie Joseph, who is a member of the Goleta Historical Society and who has been a Goleta resident for more than 50 years calls Lopez “one of the best Santa’s I’ve ever seen.  Everyone just loves him.”

Joseph, who admitted she has seen so many changes over the years in Santa Barbara, recalls life in Isla Vista in 1955 when you could rent a beach shack for $55 a month.

“There have been so many changes here, it’s always nice to see a little bit of tradition at the holidays, and the Stow House makes that happen,” she said.

“Hey, I’m the smartest guy in the world,” Lopez said. “The reason is because I recognize that I don’t know anything, and I think this might be the byproduct of being in that space with a child. As Santa, it can never be about me. It’s all about them.

“In fact, it really isn’t even about what they think or want, but it is about what they need. The kid might want the Game Boy, but what he needs is love — space. That child is in the center of the universe, sitting on my lap and is the center of my attention and the reciprocal of love.”

Lopez has concerns that tradition here in Santa Barbara is somewhat dying out, but he has no plans to retire anytime soon. Besides, when he’s not sporting a long graying beard, or suiting up for holiday events, Lopez and his seven goats (Nemo, Eino, Tobias, Louie, Buck, Little Lopez and Baby Frank), take to backpacking out in nature’s splendor. In addition, Lopez is a mentor with Santa Barbara Boys to Men Mentoring Network, an organization that began in 1977 and helps troubled teenage boys learn how to build meaningful and trusting relationships. Lopez also volunteers with Los Padres Forest Association.

One thing is certain, while holiday traditions have changed somewhat over the ages; we all share a common bond. We are a part of this wonderful holiday continuum that adds to the journey of discovery, as we give ourselves permission to step outside of everyday life and experience the joy of giving and receiving.

Happy Holiday
Happy Holiday
While the merry bells keep ringing
May your every wish come true ...”

— Happy Holiday, from The Holiday Inn (1942), Irving Berlin


Swartz, B.K. Jr. “The Origin of American Christmas Myth and Customs”

Lane, Sarah, “The Origin of Christmas Traditions”     

Catholic Online, “Saint Nicholas.” Retrieved Dec. 13, 2010.

Noozhawk contributor Carla Iacovetti can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews or @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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