Category Archives: Holiday

A History of Santa Claus

Santa Claus developed from religious traditions and secular Christmas practices. The character’s earliest influence is the fourth-century Turkish Christian bishop St. Nicholas who was known for being a kind and generous man. For example, there is a well-known story that St. Nicholas saved three daughters from being sold into prostitution by supplying them with dowries so they could secure husbands.

St. Nicholas died in the mid-fourth century and December sixth became his feast day. Into the Renaissance, parents celebrated St. Nicholas Day by giving their children gifts. St. Nicholas was given qualities that resembled the Norse god Odin; an old man with a white beard who could fly and who encouraged children to practice moral behavior. St. Nicholas remained a popular saint throughout Europe until the Protestant Reformation of the mid-1500s, when changing religious attitudes discouraged Christians from honoring saints.

The Dutch, however, never stopped appreciating St. Nicholas. To continue honoring him, they invented the character of Sinterklaas, whose name was the Dutch nickname for St. Nicholas. Men dressed up as Sinterklaas by donning the robes and mitre and distributing candy and other treats to children and the poor. Dutch families  and friends gathered to celebrate the saint on the night of December 5, the day before St. Nicholas Day. Children would then leave their shoes by the fireplace so that Sinterklaas would leave presents in them by the next morning.

These Sinterklaas traditions arrived in the United States, particularly in the New York region, by the late 1700s as it was settled by the Dutch. It was in the United States that St. Nicholas started to modernize and transform into what he would become, the Christmas character known as Santa Claus, with this name being derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas.

Christmases in early America were raucous, alcohol-driven celebrations and were not accommodating to children. In the early 1800s, several American writers and other figures were determined to reinvent Christmas as a family holiday, and used the Dutch St. Nicholas traditions to produce the Santa Claus figure.

These efforts included: Washington Irving’s book History of New York (1809) that described St. Nicholas as a man wearing a three-cornered hat and red waistcoat, smoking a pipe, and flying through the air in a wagon delivering presents to good children. The 1821 poem “The Children’s Friend” brought the emerging Santa Claus into modernity by describing a man dressed in furs carrying a birch rod (that could be used to punish disobedient children) and sitting in a sleigh being pulled by a reindeer. Clement Clarke Moore composed the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas” that  described a fat, jolly Santa Claus who rides a flying sleigh.

Thomas Nast, a cartoonist, was responsible for standardizing the image of Santa Claus in Harper’s Weekly in the late 1800s. Nast portrayed Santa Claus as an obese, white-bearded, Caucasian old man wearing a red suit and furs and smoking a pipe. Nast images of Santa showed him carrying a sack full of toys and indicated Santa Claus could be contacted by writing to the North Pole.

Santa Claus was modernized once more in the early 1930s, when the Coca-Cola Company sought a realistic Santa image for one of its magazine advertisements. The company employed illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create the image. This Santa Claus first appeared in a 1931 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Later advertisements depicted the Santa figure delivering toys, reading a child’s letter, and visiting with children who waited for him to arrive at their home.


Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2016, “Santa Claus.”

Nast, Thomas Harper’s Weekly, 1881.

A Brief History of Halloween

While the origins of Halloween are not entirely clear, is definitely intertwined with religious practices and celebrations of the past. Wiccan and Pagan groups are amongst largest groups who celebrate the holiday, while some Christian groups fear that demonic activity increases around this time of the year. A pre-Christian Celtic holiday called Samhain is thought by many to be the precursor to the holiday, Halloween, we celebrate today. It is difficult to completely trace its origins, as it was Christianized in the fourth or fifth century; we are unsure today what traditions and ideologies were added on because of this. Samhain was a day of heightened spiritual activity, and they believed that fairies, spirits, and souls of the dead could pass through their world to ours much easier that day. To protect themselves from these spirits and possible demons, the Celts would build massive bonfires, they would burn crops, and they wore costumes to ward off the spirits.

giphy[2]However, the Halloween we know today is a concoction of several different, borrowed traditions; many rituals of Halloween we see today are derived from times later than that of Samhain. In the 600s, Pope Boniface IV named November 1st All Saints’ Day to honor saints and martyrs. Some believe that picking that day was deliberately meant; they wanted to Christianize Samhain, which happened just the day before. Despite this coincidence, it is not clear if this was the intention. On All Saints’ Day, people would dress up, possibly to ward off spirits they thought were coming back from the dead. At this time, people in England went around and practiced “souling”, a practice in which they would ask for food and in return would give them a prayer for the dead. This is a possible precursor for trick-or-treating, especially because as time progressed, people would give out the soulers sweet “soul cakes”, mimicking the candy we get today. These are only possible origins for Halloween, as its true ones are not entirely certain or uncovered yet.

Works Cited:

Giphy. “Vintage Halloween.” (accessed October 30, 2017).

Henry, Andrew. “History of Halloween.” ReligionForBreakfast. (accessed October 30, 2017).

Jabaji, Rawan. “Halloween.” Public Broadcasting System. (accessed October 30, 2017).

Word of the Week: Acolytes

As in: “The twentieth century marked the appearance of the second element in our hybrid union of acolytes and aficionados. This was the organized groups of admirers, under the wide umbrella of mass commercial entertainment, attached to specific entertainers, works of literature or film, or sports clubs and players” (Nelson, 2012, p. 51).bookcovergothicka

Nelson, V. (2012). Gothicka: Vampire heroes, human gods, and the new supernaturalCambridge: Harvard University Press.

In Honor of Flag Day

Cushing_Library_Groundbreaking_Jun_2_1963(1)_alt (002)

“We identify the flag with almost everything we hold dear on earth, peace, security, liberty, our family, our friends, our home… But when we look at our flag and behold it emblazoned with all our rights we must remember that it is equally a symbol of our duties. Every glory that we associate with it is the result of duty done.”

— Calvin Coolidge

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, January 18, 2016

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart…’”[1]

Join the Cardinal Cushing Library in remembering and celebrating the great civil rights activist and leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition to the wide array of print and e-book resources available be sure to check out the following databases for more information. Please see each resource’s listing for details on search terms and filters. The Reference Librarians are always happy to assist with your searching.


Remembering Dr. King’s emphasis on service to others, Emmanuel’s Mission & Ministry and the Office of Multicultural Programs are co-sponsoring a MLK Jr. Day of Service on Saturday, January 23rd, at various Boston sites. If you are interested, please RSVP to Deirdre Bradley-Turner ( via email by Wednesday, January 20th.

[1]King, M.L. (1968). The Drum Major Instinct: A Sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Atlanta, GA: Ebenezer Baptist Church. Retrieved from:

Word of the Week: Aegis

As in: “The moral fortification of the home—under the aegis of Book Cover: Thanksgivingthe enlightened homemaker—against the rough-and-ready masculine world of business and politics became a dominant middle-class fixation in the antebellum period” (Baker, 2009, p. 79).

Baker, J. W. (2009). Thanksgiving: The biography of an American holiday.  Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press.

Observing Memorial Day

Explore the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans.

Search the United States Department of Veterans Affairs Nationwide Gravesite Locator for burial locations of veterans and their family members.

Attend the 66th annual Boston Memorial Day Service, Saturday May 26 11am-1pm at Sgt. Charles A. MacGillvary Veterans Memorial Park.