By Myra Lee Adams Goff
I’m writing about iconology, the study of icons. The word “icon” has been stretched thin over the years. Originally it referred to “a painting of religious personages on a wooden panel in the Eastern Church”. In advertising, we have icons for almost everything. Christmas icons are the symbols that make us think of Christmas.
Go all the way back to the 1844 emigrant landing on the coast at Indianola. Soon after, at Christmas time, a coastal oak tree was procured and covered with candles. The lighted tree as an important icon lives on. Protestant Reformer Martin Luther is given credit for the lighted tree when he noticed the brilliance of the stars peeking through the snow-covered trees. He rushed home to put candles on his fir tree.
The Puritans were against decorations, including trees, but when German and Irish emigrants arrived in America, the Puritan legacy was stamped out by long-standing ethnic traditions. Meanwhile in the Texas Hill Country, the only tree that came close to resembling the fir tree was the “don’t touch me, I have stickers” juniper. Christmas trees changed from juniper, to imported fir trees, to artificial trees.
Candles were the only tree lights until electricity was invented around the turn of the 20th century. Those early electric lights were problematic; if one globe went out, the whole string went out. Much time was spent looking for that one burned-out globe. With time, that problem was solved and now we have LED lights.
Decorations, too, have changed over the years. The Sophienburg has some glass globes brought from Germany. Fast forward to the 1920s, before children chewed on trees, some very dangerous decorations appeared on the scene. For example, there was spun glass called angel hair, tinsel icicles made of lead, and globes made of mercury glass.
In America the most iconic symbol of children’s Christmas is Santa Claus. Long before the big guy dressed in red and was made famous by an illustration by Haddon Sundblom for Coca Cola, a similar character appeared in Europe. He was Saint Nicholas and his story was brought by the settlers from Germany. The more judgmental Nicholas filled stockings hung somewhere in the house on Dec. 5th with candy and fruit for good children and a switch or a potato or a piece of coal for a “bad” child. But “bad or good” there was hope for all children because there was still two weeks to straighten up before Santa Claus came.
Locally, Bill Vollmar was given much credit for bringing Santa Claus to New Braunfels. Vollmar owned a local 5 and 10 cent store. The picture shows Santa arriving on a train. Hearsay says he also arrived in an airplane and, of course, the vehicle of choice was not a reindeer, but a fire truck.
Gift giving has always been a big part of the holidays. Here’s a short list of advertised gifts: a Kodak camera at Voelkers Drug Store (1898); Tigress, Woodhue, and Tabu perfumes plus Tangee lipstick (1940s); hand carved dolls and marbles (ancient cultures).
Stores had toys for sale, but the first toy store was Tante Amelia’s Christmas Store next to Henne Hardware. Tante was a sister to the Hennes and the toy store was only open for two weeks. When it wasn’t a toy store, it held kitchen supplies.
Church activities dominated the Christmas season. The Germans celebrated Christmas Eve with a light supper and then gift opening. In the old days the tree was closed off to children until the gift opening ceremony. This was the first time that children saw the tree and gifts. A midnight candlelight church service followed.
In the Catholic Hispanic community, Dec. 24th was a time for friends and neighbors gathering together at one home. They would have a rosary by the nativity scene at the home and place the baby Jesus in the empty crib to remain there until Feb. 2nd. Another tradition was Las Posadas (the Inns), an old ceremony commemorating the journey of Mary and Joseph as they sought lodging preparing for the birth of Jesus.
As more and more Americans moved to New Braunfels, traditions gradually blended together. New Braunfelsers have their own icons of German, Hispanic, and American origin. Tamales, chili, poinsettias, sausage, cookies, pralines, divinity, toffee, piñatas, bells, all blend together, so–
Fröliche Weihnachten, Feliz Navidad, and a New Braunfels Merry Christmas to all!