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The Americanization of Santa Claus: the history of Christmas in America, plus a gift list for children both smart and playful.

Christmas celebrations did not always include the giving of gifts. More commonly, it was a day of dramatic contrasts, with both prayerful remembrance and huge meals. At lavish Christmas feasts in the Middle Ages, for example, swans and peacocks were basted with saffron dissolved in melted butter. Saffron, being very expensive, made the dish "fit for royalty," and, in fact, it was only rich and royal families who could afford Christmas celebrations. It was not a commoner's holiday.

Not until the middle of the 1800s in America, that is. It was the development of the modern "Santa Claus" that embedded Christmas into the American way of life. In 1862, German immigrant Thomas Nast was working as a writer and artist at Harper's Weekly when he created a drawing to accompany Clement Clark Moore's 1821 poem, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. Remembering his Bavarian childhood, Nast came up with the All-American Santa Claus, depicting him as cherubic and pot-bellied--and bringing gifts of Harper's magazines to Union soldiers. This made Nast among the first to combine imagery (Santa Claus) and commercialism (selling Harper's) into the American marketplace.

The gifts Santa brought children during the Civil War were always homemade. In those days, children were happy to receive just small hand-carved toys or such goodies as cakes, oranges, or apples. General Sherman's soldiers played Santa to impoverished Southern children by attaching tree-branch antlers to their horses and mules as they delivered food to the starving families in the war-ravaged southern countryside.


The most famous Christmas gift of the Civil War was sent by telegram from William Tecumseh Sherman to Abraham Lincoln on December 22, 1864: "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 100 and 50 guns and plenty of ammunition, also about 25,000 bales of cotton." The gift, of course, was not the guns, the ammunition, or the cotton, but the beginning of the end of the Civil War.

Still, Christmas was not yet a time for extravagance for the average family. Ten-year-old John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s Christmas presents in 1884 were "several books, letter paper, sealing wax, purse, and a beautiful large picture of a little boy with golden hair." He celebrated the day by going sleighing with his sister and that evening with the family enjoyed "a delightful entertainment with a Magic Lantern."

Rockefeller's father, although quite wealthy, passed along to his son a sensible frugality in personal matters, but a giving spirit where the less fortunate were concerned. In a little more than a century (1855-1960), the combined charitable and philanthropic giving of John D. Rockefeller and his son, John D., Jr., totaled more than a billion dollars, and over the years any number of these bequests were made in connection with Christmas. It was the Rockefeller family, of course, that also instituted the tradition of the New York City Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

Through the years, many great acts of generosity, and small acts of kindness, have had Christmas as a backdrop and raison d'etre. Famous incidents in both World Wars saw enemy soldiers meet in neutral territory to share cigarettes, brandy, and small talk. American billionaire Ross Perot tried to airlift 28 tons of medicine and Christmas gifts to American POW's in North vietnam in 1969, but his attempt was stymied by North vietnamese dictator Ho Chi Minh. And today, as they always have, American school children write cards and wrap small presents to send to U.S. soldiers, this time sending them to Iraq and Afghanistan instead of Europe or Korea.

Of course, there is also the materialistic side of the holiday and, if kept in balance, there is no reason not to enjoy gifts both modest and extravagant. The children you buy for this year, whether your own or someone else's, will appreciate your realizing that they like to learn just as much as they like to have fun. And so we present to you, dear readers, a very special gift list, for kids both smart and playful.





The most secretly guarded toy of the pre-holiday season is very hard to find. Over the years, Elmo has tickled America's funny bone, rocked out on his guitar and even performed his own version of popular songs as Chicken Dance Elmo, Hokey Pokey Elmo, and other incarnations. On the 10th anniversary of Tickle Me Elmo, T.M.X. Elmo (the "X" stands for "10"), the furry red phenomenon will have kids rolling on the floor with laughter. Recommended for children over 18 months; six "AA" batteries required (included).


Kids will zoom into action with the Power Wheels Ford Mustang, a two-seat, 12-volt battery-powered vehicle that drives at a speed of 5mph forward and 2.5mph in reverse. Available exclusively at Toys "R" Us, this vehicle comes with realistic styling, chrome accents, a radio with pre-recorded music and car engine "rev" sounds, and is perfect for tooling around the house or yard. Rechargeable battery included; ages 3 and up.


The Wherifone is the world's first GSM/GPS locator cell-phone designed to give parents the ability to quickly locate and communicate with their children. Created with pre-teens in mind, the Wherifone comes in four trendy colors and features a 20-number phone book, an SOS button, and three programmable buttons that let kids stay in touch with family and friends--or summon help--with one-touch dialing.

Rechargeable battery included; recommended for ages 6 to 10.




The next generation of robots is here with the strongest, smartest and most advanced LEGO robot ever, the Mindstorms NXT. Kids use their imagination to design, build and program their robot to obey their commands, using drag-and-drop software that works with PCs and Macs. The built-in Bluetooth technology means the robot can even be controlled with a cellular phone. Six "AA" batteries required (not included; for ages 10 and up.

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Author:Greene, Diane
Publication:Celeb Staff Magazine
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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