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First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross

From Rudolph To Santa, The Fascinating Origins of Holiday Symbols

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It’s the time of year when many of us bemoan the commercialization of Christmas. We mourn the loss of the “reason for the season.”

But actually, the symbols of Christmas and the entire ‘holiday season’ are in many ways a product of commercialization, says Nathan Rousseau, sociology professor at Jacksonville University and author of Society Explained.

"Christmas would not be Christmas as we Americans know and enjoy it without commercialization," says Rousseau. "The commercialization of symbols is powerful, religious and otherwise- and this process changes what they signify to people."  

Consider the story of Rudolph, the classic tale of the misfit reindeer who saves Christmas.  How could such a heartwarming tale have crass commercial roots?

It turns out the story of Rudolph was written in 1939 by Robert May, who worked in advertising for the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward & Company.  The 34-year-old May was asked to come up with a Christmas story in booklet form to give to shoppers as a promotional gimmick. 

"May based the story of Rudolph on the existing tale of the ugly duckling," says Rousseau. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is ultimately the story of the American Dream – be yourself, work hard, and you will succeed – set within a Christmas motif."

But what about the ultimate symbol of the season, Santa Claus?

"The thing that's really surprising about Christmas is that we as nation didn't really begin to celebrate it until after the Civil War," says Rousseau.  "If you go back to the Puritan era, they actually created laws against the celebration of Christmas."

But in 1822, poet Clement Moore penned his classic 'Twas The Night Before Christmas.  That brought Santa to the American masses for the first time. 

"And then what happens is, after the Civil War, industrialization breaks out, commercialization begins, and people start to like the secular aspects of Christmas," says Rousseau.  "And these symbols take hold."

“While neither merchants nor preachers intend to transform the meaning of religious themes, they still do so by relying upon American and Christian values and images in order to gain attention,” he said.

For Melissa's interview with Rousseau check out today's episode of First Coast Connect

You can follow Melissa Ross @MelissainJax.