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Santa gives history lesson at battlefield

December 10, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS | heather.keels@herald-mail.com
  • Kevin Rawlings, dressed as a Civil War era Santa, sings Christmas carols Friday along with others at the Antietam National Battlefield visitors center.
Ric Dugan | Staff Photographer

SHARPSBURG — Dressed in a star-spangled blue coat and red and white striped pants, the Santa Claus who greeted visitors at Antietam National Battlefield Friday might have seemed oddly out of uniform.

Actually, he told his audience, the outfit was one of many Santa has been depicted wearing over the years. In the Jan. 3, 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly, an illustration by Thomas Nast showed Santa decked out in stars and stripes, distributing gifts to children and Civil War soldiers.

The picture was one of many slides of evolving Santa Claus images that historian Kevin Rawlings showed during a free educational program in the battlefield’s visitors center about the history of Santa Claus, Christmas trees and other Christmas traditions.

“I am a real, flesh and blood person,” Rawlings said, in character as Santa Claus, as he told of his origins as Bishop Nicholas, born in 272 AD in what is now Turkey.

“I reside in a cold climate now, but I was born in a warm climate in the Mediterranean,” he said.

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At another point, Rawlings engaged the audience of about 35 adults and children in reciting the names of Santa’s reindeer from ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. When the crowd reached “and Donner Blitzen,” Rawlings cut in.

“Oh, no it was not,” he said. “Originally it was Dunder and Blixem, which is Dutch for thunder and lightening.”

The change is one of about 25 that have been made over the years to the original text of the poem, he said.

Other little-known reindeer facts are that Santa’s reindeer were named after famous racehorses of the period and that male reindeer lose their antlers in the winter, so all of Santa’s team must be female, Rawlings said.

Rawlings is the author of We Were Marching on Christmas Day: A History and Chronicle of Christmas During the Civil War.

Park Historian Ted Alexander, who had been scheduled to speak about Christmas during the Civil War at Friday’s program, was unable to attend, Rawlings said.

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