This is the second in a series of explorations about holiday traditions, Christmas in 19th-century America. This blog was first published on 12/14/15.
Christmas season bustles. We decorate trees, shop, give gifts, and hold holiday parties. Children also may write letters to Santa Claus. But I wonder what Christmas was like for my grandparents in the late 19th and early 20th century. How were the traditions of Christmas handed down through the generations of our multi-ethnic heritage? I found that most of the modern holiday celebrations and activities emerged from Christmas in 19th-century America.
Christmas Holiday Barely Noticed
Americans, religious or not, northern or southern, barely noticed the Christmas holiday until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The “creation of an American Christmas responded to social and personal needs that arose at a particular point” in our history, concludes Penne Restad in History Today. The customs that emerged, addressed the insecurities, conflicts and confusion created by the Civil War, urbanization and industrialization.
So, Christmas was not a holiday in the early American colonies. In fact, the holiday was anathema and illegal for the Puritans who considered it raucous and sinful. They also banned any celebration because “Christmas” does not exist in the Bible. Nor did they believe that Jesus was born in December but rather in September.
However, Christmas is often traced to the effort by Pope Julius I who chose December 25. This date celebrated the birth of Christ by co-opting a Roman pagan ritual characterized by food drink and revelry. Thus, Christmas lacked any real theological justification. And so the holiday emerged in America as an event celebrated by diverse ethnic, mostly Christian, immigrants to this country. The “American” Christmas holiday captured conflicting themes of the 19th-century. According to Restad, commercialism and artisanship, as well as nostalgia and faith in progress, defined late 19th-century culture.
The Christmas holiday grew in popularity after the Civil War. Certainly, the message of peace and goodwill resonated with Americans who yearned for reconciliation and unity. By the end of the nineteenth century many familiar components and traditions of our modern Christmas had taken hold throughout the country. Robert McNamera describes them in “The History of Christmas Traditions.” German settlers had introduced the tradition of the Christmas tree. Then, it became widely popular outside German communities, due to Prince Albert. The German-born husband of Queen Victoria decorated a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in the 1840’s. Decorated Christmas trees, boosted the practice of gift giving commercially. And, sending Christmas cards also blossomed in the 1870-80’s.
Early Dutch settlers gave us St. Nicholas and the practice of hanging stockings. Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” often called “The Night Before Christmas” in 1823. Thomas Nast, a famous cartoonist is credited with creating in 1863, the modern portrayal of Santa Claus showing him on a sleigh and introducing the notion that Santa lived at the North Pole keeping a workshop with elves. In 1897 a young girl wrote to a New York newspaper and received a response from editor, Francis Pharcellus Church. It became the most famous newspaper editorial ever printed. The eloquent editorial asserted in an often quoted sentence, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
Christmas Traditions Firmly Established
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the popular traditions of Christmas celebration were firmly established broadly throughout the country. Ethnic Christian and Jewish communities added their own traditional twists. Families from humble circumstances found ways of sharing the joys of the season with handmade Christmas decorations and gifts, writing Christmas letters instead of purchasing cards and cooking more modest meals to share with family and neighbors.
What Are Your Family Traditions?
Do you have special traditions in your family? Are there special decorations that have been handed down? Do you have favorite foods that are served at Christmas dinner? Did Santa or St. Nick visit your house? How do you imagine the holidays were celebrated by your ancestors? Please share your traditions and stories below.