I open the door to release restless pups, and they gallop into the yard, dawn breaking overhead. I open the refrigerator to grab peppers, onions, garlic, and ginger, with the gorgeous low-on-the-horizon beams flooding my kitchen. I pick out dropped leaves which lie among my flame red poinsettias, no matter how carefully I attend their food-making needs. These observations mark mid-winter. We in the northern hemisphere are inching toward equinox, toward sprouting bulbs and passerine symphonies.
My grandfather was born in 1902, and as a small child was the recipient of many wonderful postcards, including a sizable collection of Christmas greetings. At least a third of this set portrays the night before Christmas, and specifically the visit from St. Nicholas.
When I stand at a bank of Christmas cards today, any box featuring Santa will predictably show a jolly, plump, full-bearded man who is dressed in a red, fur trimmed suit. When I gaze at the cards sent to little Donald Minor, a variety of images are included, representing the diverse origins of the great saint and his gift-giving tradition.
Several cards take the St. Nicholas tradition of walking from house to house and add some northern climate changes. This gift-giver must trudge through snow in warm fur robes and heavy fur boots. He is a rather stern looking old man, lean and weathered.
Another postcard portrays St. Nicholas delivering gifts from his reindeer drawn sleigh – which remains on the ground.
The American version of the gift-bearing winter saint was most likely brought to the United States by Dutch settlers in eighteenth century New York. Sinterklaas – Santa Claus – wore a hat and smoked a pipe as he flew over treetops in his wagon to deliver children’s gifts on Christmas Eve. *¹ That image was expanded upon in Clement C. Moore’s instant classic, the 1823 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, and entered the seasonal imagery throughout the Victorian era. American publishers took advantage of the popularity of this Santa Claus when developing their holiday postcard designs at the turn of the 20th century.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; the stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads; and Mama in her kerchief and I in my cap, had just settled down for a long winter’s nap – when out on the lawn there rose such a clatter, I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter. Away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow, gave a luster of midday to objects below; when, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, with a little old driver so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles hiscoursers they came, And he whistled, and shouted , and called them by name - ”Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donder and Blitzen! To the top of the porch, to the top of the wall! Now, dash away! Dash away! Dash away all! “
As the dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky, so up to the housetop the coursers they flew, with sleigh full of toys – and St. Nicholas too; and then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof the prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head and was turning around, Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot, and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot. A bundle of toys he had flung on his back, and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack. His eyes how they twinkled! His dimples how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, and the beard on his chin was as white as the snow! The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly. He was chubby and plump – a right jolly old elf, and I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head, Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread. He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work, and filled all the stockings then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle. But I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight,
“Merry Christmas to all and to all a Good Night!”
*¹ Irving, Washington. A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1812. 106-07. accessed on line December 21, 2011.
*²Moore, Clement C. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1995.
“I hope Santa will bring you lots of pretty things and that you will have a Merry Xmas and Happy New year. Your friend, Genevia”
As a genealogist the card provides no clues about family threads; as a family historian I can find no details that shed light on a family story. Nor are there clues and details regarding the publisher or printer, other than this Santa message was printed in Germany, as were most cards of the era.
However, the painting is remarkable in a couple of details – Santa is dressed in a purple robe trimmed in brown fur, as opposed to the red suit trimmed in white fur seen in my other cards. This Santa also bears gifts which are wrapped and carried, not stuffed in a sack, and a decorated, potted tree.
I wonder what traditional tales this Santa is drawn from? If you know, dear Reader, I hope you will leave a comment below! Merry Christmas!
Among the postcards in my grandfather’s collection is this lovely set of bells. They look to be mounted to a doorway, to jingle merrily whenever someone comes in from the snowy cold. This card is lightly embossed to give the holly sprigs a bit of dimension. It was sent to six year old Donald Minor by his Aunt Sarah McClure from her home in Carmichaels, Pennyslvania on December 23, 1908.
One of the most fascinating designs on this card appears in the upper left hand corner – on the back. The publishers trademark of the International Art Publishing Company is itself a work of art: an eagle sits atop a globe, which is ringed by a painter’s palette and a quiver of paintbrushes.
What a captivating smile this little boy has! Across the century I can still feel its warmth. Silhouetted against an embossed gold bell, the child’s Christmas outfit looks snug and warm, with a red shirt peeking from beneath the green corduroy coat. I would love to have that matching hat with its neatly trimmed brown fur.
The card was sent from a Morgantown friend or relative to my grandfather, Donald C. Minor. On December 12, 1909, Genevia B. wrote:
“Hello, Donald. This is my Merry Christmas greetings to you. I hope Santa will be good to you.”
Two red-breasted songsters perch on a sprig of holly, which is decorated with a sprig of mistletoe and a golden horseshoe. This brightly colored card is meant to bring the recipient great cheer, that is for certain. Published by the New York-based Samuel Langdorf and Company*, number 841 was one of several designs the company printed in Saxony, Germany in 1910.
Donald C. Minor received this card from his cousin Ralph December 20, 1910.
“Hello Donal. How are you? What do you want Santa to bring you? I want a gun but mama says i can not have it so I will haft (sic) to take what ever I get. Your friend, Ralph”
There are other postcards from Ralph and his younger brother, Blair, in my grandfather’s postcard collection. Using the search engine of Ancestry.com I entered Ralph as living in South Connellsville, PA in 1910 with a sibling, Blair. The return included a interesting match: Ralph Younkin, 10, son of Milton R and May Waychoff Younkin, living with Blair, 8, and grandmother, Jennie Waychoff, in Connellsville, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. I have researched the Minor family fairly well, and the Younkin surname is unfamiliar. Donald’s mother is a Stephenson, and I wonder as I research her background if Younkin/Waychoff will show up. Interesting how a fascination with Christmas postcards intertwines with a family history. Merry Christmas, indeed!
*The winged orb on the back of the card is identified by the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City as the trademark for Samuel Langford and Company, publishers from 1906-1918. Accessed on December 16, 2011.
Born in Greene County, Pennsylvania in 1902, Donald was the youngest son, youngest grandson and youngest cousin of the Francis Marion and Mary Jane Gwynn Minor clan. His parents, Robert and May Stephenson Minor, sent cards from their travels; his older sister, Helen, sent cards while she was attending school in nearby Waynesburg; aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends sent photocards and holiday greetings from all over the United States with great regularity. The resulting Postcard Collection is both a family puzzle and a cultural window to the world of Donald Minor during the first decade of the twentieth century. Today’s card comes from the Christmas Collection.
These American Robins are perched in a shrub, heads turned to some sound – perhaps someone is throwing out a pan of bread crumbs. Helen Minor, age 17, sent this flock to her eight year old brother, Donald, in 1910.
Dear Brother, How many sleigh rides have you had? Do you slide down hill and skate at school? I am busy getting read (sic) for examinations now. Will be through next Wednesday at noon. So will be home Wed. evening if nothing happens.
My mother recently recalled that her grandmother, May Laura Stephenson Minor, had been a great one to write; folks loved receiving her cards. Her son, Donald C. Minor, was just a young boy when relatives and friends started sending their seasonal greetings, which were collected and carefully stored – probably by his card-loving mom.
Ethel of Morgantown, West Virginia, sent Donald this happy Christmas Greeting. The smiling girl sits astride her stick horse which is all decked out with sleigh bells; a ball and a book lie on the ground behind her.
Dear Donald, I want Santy to bring you lots of pretty things. I hope your mama is better so you can all have a Merry Xmas. Ethel
Donald C. Minor of Greene County, Pennsylvania received this Old World Christmas card from his cousin, Carl Minor, when he was just a small boy, about 1907.
Saint Nick is depicted carrying a sack filled with black horses, a billy goat, a doll, a drum, a sword and a book. The picture is hung from a sprig of mistletoe, with bells pealing below.
Hello Donald I suppose you are looking for this old fellow. Come down to our Christmas Tree on Xmas Eve. Carl