I found this article in some old files. I wrote it years ago, but history is still history. 🙂
Ah, Christmas! This festive season of merriment and gratitude has been celebrated through the world for nearly 2000 years. Christmas trees, carols, Yule logs, and turkey dinners have been with us since the days of our Founding Fathers.
Wrong. The American Christmas has been shaped by Puritans, Pilgrims, Italians, Poles, Latins, Lutheran Germans, and Catholic Irish. Christmas today combines miracles and presents, reindeer and camels, religion and commercialism.
How did our Christmas traditions evolve? Christopher Columbus was the first person to receive gifts during the Christmas season in America, after his ship entered the port of Bohio on the island of Haiti on December 6. American colonists first celebrated Christmas here 150 years later.
The Jamestown settlers spent their first Christmas within sight of their homes, having set sail for the New World on December 19, 1606. Although many of them were ill, Captain John Smith reported that they “made the best cheer they could.”
After arriving in America, Captain Smith spent his first Christmas as a captive of the Indian chief Powhatan. The Jamestown settlers later made friends with the Indians, and John Smith wrote of the Christmas they shared:
“The extreme winds, rayne, frost, and snow caused us to keep Christmas among the savages, where we were never more merry, nor fed on more plenty of good Oysters, Fish, Flesh, Wild Fowl, and good bread, nor never had better fires in England.”
This was a strictly male feast with none of the decorations or trimmings because there were no women in the colony initially. The first truly festive Christmas was held in Jamestown in 1619, when ninety women arrived at the settlement.
As Jamestown prospered, the English settlers became known for their hospitality and Christmas merriment. The pleasure-loving Englishmen brought such customs as the ringing of bells, burning a Yule log, playing games, and singing carols. Evergreens decorated their homes and churches, and candles shone through the night.
The Puritans, however, considered Christmas a pagan festival. They did not object to celebrating the Tide of Christ, if kept in the proper spirit. But the pagan customs associated with the Tide of Yule included stage shows, caroling, gaming, and other merrymaking. When the Puritans realized that Christ and Yule had‘ been inseparably intertwined, they cast out the entire holiday.
To purify the custom, the Puritans passed a law forbidding the celebration of Christmas and planned hard work for Christmas Day. By 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts was imposing a five-shilling fine on anyone caught observing Christmas Day. They repealed the law in 1681, but not until December 8, 1686, was a Christmas service conducted in Boston.
For many, Christmas became a time of self-denial. No New England college had a Christmas holiday in 1847, and Christmas was a workday until 1856. As late as 1870, schools held classes on December 25th.
The atmosphere in New England changed gradually, but not until 1856 was the day made a legal holiday in Massachusetts. Unlike the Puritans, the Pilgrims, who came from Holland, caught the spirit of Christmas and brought barrels full of ivy, holly, and laurel on the Mayflower. These were used to decorate tables and weave wreaths for children at Christmastime.
The Dutch settlers were enthusiastic about Christmas. In 1654, the city fathers of one Dutch settlement voted to “adjourn” from December 14 to January 15 for the holiday season. The Dutch trimmed their gabled homes with evergreens and celebrated with gifts, trees, and feasts of turkey, pudding, and pie.
Moravian households in Pennsylvania prepared the traditional Kuemmelbread, sugar cake, mince pies, and Christmas cookies. On Christmas Eve, families attended the “love feast” at the church, where a good-size bun and large cup of coffee were served as a‘ token of fellowship. Before the end of the service, lighted wax candles on large trays were brought into the church. A candle was passed to each person to remind him of the coming of the One who is the Light of the World.
This visually moving tradition is celebrated in many churches to this day. The European Christmas calendar gradually spread from December 25, the agreed-upon date of the birth of Jesus, to a twelve-day period which concluded on January 6, the date of St. Nicholas’ death in A.D. 342.
This twelve-day holiday period carried over to America and was a special time for the signing of treaties and for weddings. In our young nation’s history, George Washington married the widow Martha Curtis on Twelfth Day, January 6. Thomas Jefferson married Martha Skelton on New Year’s Day in 1772.
Although our modern world is too busy for twelve days of holiday, Christmas is still considered a very special time for weddings. During the terrible days of the Revolutionary War at Valley Forge, Washington and his men faced starvation and cold on Christmas. But a day or so before Christmas, the steward managed to buy cabbage, turnips and potatoes, and there was also some meat and fowl. Though scanty, the Christmas dinner was much appreciated by Washington and his men.
Santa Claus was not part of Colonial Christmases. Gifts were limited to tokens of appreciation to servants on the day after Christmas–St. Stephen’s Day–and occasional presents for children on New Year’s Day.
Volleys of musket fire and cannon were common during the‘ holiday season in Jamestown and Williamsburg. This practice evolved into shooting firecrackers on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.
Christmas trees are relative newcomers to the American Christmas, but the tree tradition is an ancient one stretching back to ancient Teutonic cultures where the enduring vitality of the winter evergreen was emblematic of the immortality of the soul.
One of the most popular mystery plays of medieval European churches was the Paradise play, based upon the story of Adam and Eve. To enact the play, a fir tree was brought inside the church, its boughs dripping with fruit.
As mystery plays fell out of church favor, people brought the trees into their homes on December 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve, and hung apples, cookies, and treats from the tree limbs to symbolize the sweet fruit of redemption.
The first Christmas trees in America were found in the German Moravian church’s communal settlement at Bethlehem, PA, in 1747. These were not real evergreen trees, but the European style of wooden pyramids covered with evergreen boughs. They decorated trees with popcorn chains, gilded nuts, frosted cookies, paper dolls, ribbons, berries, peaches, and other fruits. Small candles in gilded egg cups shone in the darkness.
Not everyone liked this innovation. In 1883, a New York Times editor criticized the tree, calling it “a rootless and lifeless corpse–never worthy of the day.” He predicted that the Christmas tree would fade in popularity while the more traditional‘ Christmas stocking would endure.
Ironically, central heating and automatic clothes dryers have made obsolete the common practice of hanging one’s damp socks to dry overnight at the hearth where one morning a year they might be found stuffed with treasures; but the hearty symbol of hope blooming eternal in the midst of winter, the Christmas tree, may well be the most indispensable ingredient to the modern American Christmas.
Whatever traditions your family chooses from our rich heritage, consider the four basic aspects of Christmas: the family, the story, the carol, and the gift. To those you may add whatever traditions you choose, and enjoy the season to its fullest.
Happy decorating (or shopping!)
P.S. For a bit of fun, check out Kathy Mackel’s blog today. Link is to the right.