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14 Dec
2015

The Holiday Traditions We Owe to Our European Ancestors

 

victorianchristmastree3This is the second in a series of explorations of the holiday traditions at the time of my grandparents, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Last time we looked at Thanksgiving traditions.

As this Christmas season bustles with tree decorating and shopping, gift giving and holiday parties, and children’s letters to Santa Claus, I wonder what Christmas was like in the time of my grandparents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  We often think that the traditions of Christmas have been handed down through the many generations of our multi-ethnic heritage. I discovered that most of the holiday celebrations and activities we observe today emerged in mid-nineteenth century America.

Christmas Holiday Barely Noticed

Americans, religious or not, northern or southern, barely noticed the Christmas holiday as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century. The “creation of an American Christmas was a response 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.

Christmas was not a holiday in the early colonies of the Puritans.  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.  Christmas is often traced to the effort by Pope Julius I who chose December 25 to celebrate the birth of Christ to co-opt a Roman pagan ritual characterized by food drink and revelry.  Thus, the lack of any theological justification for Christmas allowed the holiday to emerge in America as an event to be celebrated by the diverse ethnic, mostly Christian, immigrants to this country.  The ‘American’ Christmas holiday captured the sometimes conflicting themes of “commercialism and artisanship, as well as nostalgia and faith in progress, that defined late nineteenth-century culture”, according to Restad.

Albert_Chevallier_Tayler_-_The_Christmas_Tree_1911Popularity Grew

The popularity of celebrating the Christmas holiday grew after the Civil War, and the message of peace and goodwill resonated with many Americans who yearned for reconciliation and unity. By the end of the nineteenth century many of the familiar components and traditions as described by Robert McNamera in “The History of Christmas Traditions” of our modern Christmas had begun to take hold throughout the country. German settlers had introduced the tradition of the Christmas tree. It became popular outside German communities after Prince Albert, the German-born husband of Queen Victoria decorated a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in the 1840’s.  Decorating Christmas trees and the commercially boosted practice of giving gifts and sending Christmas cards blossomed in the 1870-80’s.

St. Nicholas was considered the patron saint of Early Dutch settlers who practiced the ritual 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.”

Santa_Coming_Down_the_Chimney_DrawingChristmas 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.

Next time, I’ll explore how I imagine my grandparents may have celebrated the Christmas holiday on the mid-western prairie.

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.

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