The Brief History of Christmas in America

Christmas in America is full of traditions that most assume were brought over from Europe but, many of our Christmas traditions are fairly new in comparison to the rest of the world. Christmas as a holiday did not catch on until the 19th century in America.  During the 18th century, Virginia planters were known to use the occasion to feast, dance, gamble, hunt and visit with friends and relatives. The only resemblance to a modern Christmas in that is the feasting and visiting with relatives.

The traditions and symbolism that we know now, did not truly start until about the 1820’s. Some of our traditions come from foreign countries and some from our own citizens.

The Christmas tree:

In 1832, Harriet Martineau wrote she had “little doubt” that the Christmas tree would “become one of the most flourishing exotics of New England.” By 1850, Christmas trees starting showing up in more than just German and New Englander homes. During this time sales of Christmas trees began to pop up in town squares across the country. By the year 1900, 1 in 5 homes had a Christmas tree. Decorations for these trees could include: nuts, strands of popcorn or beads, oranges, lemons, candies and homemade trinkets. During the 1870’s tree decorations became big business. Store owners imported ornaments from Germany made from glass, tin and wax. One advertisement proclaimed “So many charming ornaments can now be bought ready to decorate Christmas trees that it almost seems a waste of time to make them at home.”

Christmas Cards:

In the early 1850’s, R.H. Pease a printer who lived in Albany, New York; distributed the first American made Christmas card. England had been producing Christmas cards a decade before we started. The English were partial to using poverty, cold and hunger as the backdrop for their cards; Americans however used images of Santa Claus, reindeer, dancers, foods enjoyed during the season and presents. This was to symbolize the bounty and joys of the season as opposed to the English’s view which was charity and giving. In 1875, Louis Prang made Christmas cards more popular than before by his use of the Chromolithograph illustration process. For this, he has been called the “Father of the American Christmas”.

Gift Giving:

The tradition of gift giving during this season started to see a rise in popularity in the 1820’s. Prior to this mostly trinkets and handmade gifts were exchanged. Starting about this time importers, crafts persons and storekeepers made sure the public knew what wares could be purchased and exchanged during this season as gift exchanging became more popular. Gift giving hit its height in the 1870 and 1880s. The decorations were only a backdrop to the elaborate gift giving rituals that is very similar to today. Even at this time in history, some people worried that the material aspect of the holiday would take over the religious aspect. It was about this time that wrapping gifts came into vogue. This designated the object as a gift. Many gift givers at this time, preferred store bought gifts over handmade gifts. Harpers magazine in 1856 commented on this tradition before it really took off, “Love is the moral of Christmas…….What are gifts but the proof and signs of love.”

Image of Santa Claus:

The modern image of Santa Claus started to take shape in 1837 in the Clement Moore book “An Account of a visit from Saint Nicholas” (it was published anonymously in 1823); better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and “The Night Before Christmas”. Thomas Nast shaped the final version of the modern Santa Claus in his illustrations from the 1860’s and 1870’s.  He made him taller, dressed him in red, gave him a workshop and ledgers to record children’s behavior; thus giving us the naughty or nice list! Moore had given us the sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. Other accounts throughout the rest of the 19th century added symbols like the North Pole, elves and Mrs. Claus.

A Christmas Carol:

“A Christmas Carol” was published in 1843 and written by Charles Dickens. To this day, Christmas is associated with this story of family and charity. The story helped revive the feeling of Christmas and seasonal merriment. The practice of saying “Merry Christmas” came from Dickens as well. Popular amusements of the characters in the book influenced our traditions such as dancing, family gatherings, seasonal food, drink and festive spirit. The character of Ebenezer Scrooge became a synonym for a miser and the saying of “bah humbug!”

Queen Victoria:

Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 until 1901, during this time she was the leading influence in trends in America including fashion, customs and holidays. In the 1840’s Queen Victoria popularized the German tradition of having a Christmas tree in the house when she married her German cousin Albert. The family’s Christmas tree was illustrated in 1848 in an English magazine and reprinted in 1850 in an American magazine.

Christmas Carols:

In 1833 the first Christmas carols were published; “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern”. After “A Christmas Carol” was published, songs from the book were put into print; “The First Noel”, “I saw three ships”, “Hark the herald angels sing” and “God Rest Ye merry gentlemen”. These songs have become classics.

Making Christmas a National holiday:

In 1860, 14 states had made Christmas a legal holiday but only on June 28th, 1870 Christmas was official made a United States holiday. Until this point Christmas had been a mostly New England and German holiday.

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