On Christmas Eve, 1823, a mysterious, white-haired stranger appeared in Montfermeil carrying a large bundle. From this bundle, he magically produced the exact doll that a sweet little girl had been longing after.
What I’m saying is that Jean Valjean is pretty much Santa Claus.
But what about the part where he leaves town with a freed child in tow? That might seem like a sinister sort of Santa, but it turns out that’s a much deeper part of Saint Nicholas lore than the reindeer or red suit. Before St. Nick became fat, jolly, and commercialized (more on that in a moment), he was revered as a fourth-century Turkish bishop with a soft spot for the poor and oppressed. This extended beyond mere alms-giving; he straight-up helped people escape slavery.
If you’ve ever listened to David Sedaris’ so-funny-you’ll-cry “Santa Claus and the Six to Eight Black Men,” you know that the Dutch Santa is always portrayed as being accompanied by a guy named “Black Peter.” And okay, yeah, depictions of Black Peter can be pretty awkwardly racist, but to focus on European caricatures of him is to miss the point that this is a man whom Saint Nicholas freed from slavery. The saintly bishop was so horrified when he saw a slave market in his hometown that he flew into a rage against the slavers and bought Peter’s liberty. Peter was thereafter so devoted to the man who saved him that he became Nicholas’ constant companion.
But whence the chimneys and the gift-giving? Surprise, more opposition the slave trade! Nicholas got wind that a poor man in town was about to sell his “spare” daughters into (presumably sexual) slavery, so took some bags of gold from the church (hi, Bishop Myriel!) and threw them down the man’s chimney so that he wouldn’t need to exchange his children for the money he needed to pay off his debts. This gave birth to the tradition of special almsgiving in the weeks leading up to Christmas for centuries to come.
Secretly giving money to the poor…rescuing little girls from servitude…something about a tricky bishop who makes unapproved use of church money when vulnerable lives are at stake… The Valjean we know and love is starting to come into focus. But it’s super intriguing how Valjean’s sack with Catherine the doll points towards today’s Christmas myths, so let’s take a quick look at how the commercial Santa took shape, at least in the US.
The Santa floodgates were released with the printing of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (now better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), which was, in an almost Hugolian coincidence, published in a New York paper for Christmas of 1823 – the same night that Valjean rescues Cosette. That charming tale of Santa Claus (from the Dutch Sinte Klaas for St. Nicholas) was an instant hit, but gained further iconographic steam from the likes of Thomas Nast in the 1860s and the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930s. I don’t know enough about how that Santa has spread around the world, but AFAIK he’s the dominant children’s myth in cultures that celebrate Christmas. Now the “jolly old elf” in a silly hat is far more a part of our consciousness than the Myriel-like bishop who diverted church funds to help the poor.
And it is so intriguing to think about where Valjean stands in this development, because he isn’t purely the liberating churchman; he’s not Myriel. He’s a layman in a funny outfit who materializes at the perfect moment with gift for the abused “good little girl” but who leaves nothing for the bullies who torment her. Éponine and Azelma find themselves on the naughty list.
Now, I’ll confess that these musings are pretty US-centric, and I’d need to learn a lot more about the development of Père Noël lore before saying anything about what Hugo was trying to accomplish with Valjean’s stint as Father Christmas. But if I were to try to retrospectively identify the literary pivot point between Saint Nicholas the liberator and Santa Claus the gift-giver, I couldn’t help but linger on Jean Valjean’s actions on Christmas Eve, 1823.
TL;DR Valjean is Santa, but, like, the old-school, slave-freeing Saint Nicholas. And “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” was written for Christmas Eve 1823, the night when Valjean saves Cosette, which is some pretty crazy stuff. Merry Christmas!
A.J. Bayes’ 1889 illustration for Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Match Girl”.
My father recently dug out a box of old home videos—recordings I remember being made but which I had never seen. They spanned from 1988 to about 1995. They are all of our family’s video records, these five or six tapes, and in them it is always Christmas.
Christmas envelops us (at least, those of us in the U.S.) like a blanket. The songs are in your supermarket, the lights in your neighborhood, the specials on your TV, the tree in your office lobby. There is no escaping its reach if you spend any portion of your time interacting with the outside world, regardless of the religion you were (or were not) raised in, of what faith you do (or do not) practice now. If there ever was a war on Christmas, let it be noted that Christmas won.
In the videos, my brothers and I look like we’re attached to some kind of electrical current, our eyes wide and fists clenched, legs bouncing up and down. We are not allowed to see the tree, or our presents, until the filming ritual is finished. We sit on the steps of our DC home with our mother (our father operates the camera) and speak, year after year, almost in song: “Merry Christmas 1990,” “1991,” “1992”—a childhood measured in holiday.
According to my local Rite-Aid, Christmas starts sometime in late September and ends in early January. It is neither an event nor a day but in fact a season, as legitimate in this Christianity-steeped country as autumn or winter, even as it overlaps both. And how do you grapple with a month? Two months? Or, by Rite-Aid’s figures, around four? No holiday is as pervasive or long lasting: one does not so much celebrate Christmas as live through it. The train will come regardless of what you or I will do.
The sheer number of Christmas symbols staggers the mind. From religious (an infant, a manger, a star) to pagan (a Yule log, a Christmas tree), horticultural (holly, mistletoe, poinsettia) to animal (turtle doves, reindeer), meteorological (snow) to geographical (the North Pole, Bethlehem), decorative (wreaths, lights, bells, stockings) to culinary (fruitcake, candy canes, gingerbread, goose), active (sleigh rides, ice skating, caroling) to passive (chestnuts roasting, children sleeping), not to mention all the music, poetry, plays, movies, ballets, TV specials dedicated to the subject, much less Santa Claus and his retinue of iconography—this motely, gargantuan, and still growing body of symbols speaks to the broad range of influences this winter celebration has drawn from. There is a Christmas for every taste—from medieval polyphony to Die Hard—and it is hard to take the measure of it.
Though the holiday is irrevocably, irreducibly a religious one (even the shortened Xmas seems to ominously nod towards the cross), its secular manifestations first began to emerge with the cult of Santa Claus in the early 19th century and Dickens’s near irreligious A Christmas Carol a few decades later. “Jingle Bells,” what’s considered the first secular Christmas song—though it was originally intended to be sung at Thanksgiving—was published in 1857. Today one could, if one wished, go full throttle Christmas without one mention of the Christ child: all Rudolphs and elves, sleigh bells and silver bells, Nutcrackers and Wonderful Lives, Frosties and Grinches.
The holiday’s emphasis on family and generosity also has young roots: born from Scrooge’s redemption and Clement Clarke Moore’s “Visit from Saint Nicholas” and even Queen Victoria’s adoption of the Germanic Christmas tree. Large, rowdy groups of singers going door to door demanding food and drink (not unlike SantaCon) had dominated earlier celebrations in England, so it’s little wonder that both England and Boston had separately banned the holiday during parts of the 1600s. Many New Englanders only began to celebrate the holiday after its fashionable Victorian makeover; the U.S. government didn’t make it federal holiday until 1870. Though Christ’s birthday was celebrated as early as the 4th century CE, and perhaps even before then, the practices and cultural objects we know as the Christmas tradition were, by and large, introduced within the past 200 years.
At once very old and very new, Christmas resists generalizations. What it always is, however, is a feast, one held during the Northern Hemisphere’s darkest hour. And perhaps because of the annual onslaught of night, the fundamental reality of darkness we all grapple with this time of year, Christmas, throughout its permutations, has carried with it a disturbing but persistent current of tragedy.
Death hovers above so many Christmas songs and stories. Though Wenceslas’s page is saved by his liege’s miraculously warm footprints in the 1853 carol, by the forth stanza of the song he is near death: “I can go no longer.” In “We Three Kings” (1863), the third magi describes his gift of myrrh—an embalming oil—to baby Jesus, who has a “life of gathering gloom,” born as he is for death: “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying / sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” The 16th century “Coventry Carol” carries with it none of the joy or hope that characterizes so many acclamatory Christmas songs. In it, a mother sings a lullaby to her dead child, murdered by Herod during the Massacre of the Innocents: the song is all despair.