Saturday, December 19, 2015

Santa and the chimney

In an earlier post on Saint Nicholas, I noted how our current version of Santa Claus is a curious mix of a Byzantine patron saint of children, Dutch traditions celebrated in nineteenth-century New York by Washington Irving, the "Night Before Christmas" poem, and Coca-Cola commercials.

But how about the chimney?  Why is Santa landing on our roofs and trying to stuff his rotund form down a narrow space uniquely designed to get black soot all over a nice red velvet suit?

The chimney goes back to the Italian Renaissance.  One of the stories told about the original Saint Nicholas was that he saved three lovely but impoverished sisters from ending up in the brothel, by tossing dowries in through their window.  In the ancient Roman Empire, and again in the Renaissance, a young woman really couldn't get married without a dowry.  Indeed, if she moved in with her husband without one, she was officially just a concubine by Roman law.

In the Renaissance, country girls often moved to town to find work and save up money for a dowry, because their families wouldn't have the cash to provide one.  But their working life was tough, and the pay was bad.  If they couldn't save up enough, they might well end up in the municipal brothel.  Many well-to-do Renaissance townspeople became concerned and formed San Niccolò societies, to help these girls as the original saint had helped the lovely but impoverished sisters.

These societies would provide dowries to poor-but-deserving young women, to make sure they were able to be married.  The societies would also sponsor church windows in honor of the saint.  In these images, poor-but-honest scullery maids would be depicted in front of the big kitchen fireplace, having fallen asleep there out of sheer exhaustion, after having scrubbed all the pots.  The saint would come down the chimney, wearing his red bishop's robes, and drop bags of dowries into their laps.  The laps were significant, because the dowry protected their "honor."  Perhaps it's not well to think too hard about how the laps became stockings.

(For that matter, the song "Santa Baby," where a torch-singing woman invites Santa to "slide down my chimney," doesn't seem aimed at children.)

The image from the Renaissance stained glass windows made its way into one of the subtle influences shaping the nineteenth-century Santa Claus.  In "The Night Before Christmas," however, the Saint Nicholas who comes down the chimney is not a saint but an elf.  In fact, he is a rather small creature.  His flying sleigh is drawn by "eight tiny reindeer."  (Washington Irving's Saint Nicholas had driven a flying cart drawn by a horse.)  This one had no trouble fitting down the chimney.

More recent Santas have become enormously fat, as well as full-height men.  One has to wonder how they fit down the chimney.  But this is probably the least of their worries, given how many children's houses they are supposed to visit in the brief hours between when the parents finally get to bed and the kids wake up.

For more on Santa, see my essay, "Contested Christmas," available as an ebook on Amazon and other ebook platforms.




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