An American Christmas History, by Melanie Khuddro

When we think of the roots of our Christmas customs, we might typically think of nineteenth century England. The Victorian Royal family popularised the indoor, decorated tree in an image of them gathered around one which was published in Illustrated London News in 1848. Tom Smith introduced an embryonic form of the Christmas cracker soon after, with small items such as chocolate and fans wrapped in paper that ‘snapped’ when pulled. The first commercially produced Christmas card was designed by English illustrator, John Callcott Horsley in 1843, which featured a large family sat around a table and raising a toast.[i] And, of course, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol captured the spirit of Christmas in the public imagination; charity, family, forgiveness, and goodwill.

The first ever Christmas card, commissioned by Henry Cole.

It’s import into the United States generated some traditions we continue to uphold, though we might neglect to recognise their American origins. Bostonian composer, James Lord Pierpont, published One Horse Open Sleigh, or ‘Jingle Bells’,in 1857. It became the first ever recorded Christmas song in 1889.[i] The popular image of Father Christmas can also be traced to the US and is possibly the single greatest American contribution to Christmas culture that persists across the Western world. Thomas Nast gave Santa Clause many of his modern-day distinct characteristics during his career as a cartoonist for the American magazine, Harper’s Weekly.[ii] Dutch settlers in New York brought with them the fictional character Sinterklass, based on Saint Nicholas, that was phonetically Anglicised into Santa Clause. The notion of a flying wagon used to bring children presents by Saint Nicholas was imagined by Washington Irving in his 1809 satirical book, Knickerbocker’s History of New York.[iii] This evolved into a sleigh in the children’s poem Old Santeclaus with Much Delight– now better known as ‘Twas the Night before Christmas– published anonymously in New York in 1821.

Nonetheless, the majority of America’s festive influence was cultivated slightly later. Commercialism advanced towards the new millennia, harnessing a culture of consumerism that excelled in the US.[i] The post-war era experienced a flourish in prosperity and, with it, the creation of iconic Christmas symbolism in music, film, literature, and toy production. So much familiar imagery – from little drummers to the Grinch to red-nosed reindeers – were conjured during this period of productivity. Its effect is so recent that, for some, their origins are still in living memory. However, it is so impactful to our collective vision, that we unassumingly associate it with Christmas as if it were a custom as long-standing as our Victorian ones.

So, why has the American effect come so recently?  Although Christmas is now celebrated across the nation in a similar fashion than in the UK, if not more fervent and extravagant, this was not always so. A brief history of America’s turbulent relationship with Christmas might go some way in explaining why it took much longer to take hold.

Original Puritan colonies decisively rebuffed the importation of Christmas from England and, particularly in the older settlements of Massachusetts, such sentiments proved hard to shake. Their dislike of Christmas came from two sources. The first was a sceptical view of its Christian heritage. Religiously devout and cynical of European authorities as the early settlers were, they recognised the lack of historical and biblical rationale to celebrate the birth of Jesus in December. For shepherds to be with their flock in the field, it would have been unlikely that the event took place during winter solstice. Puritans also identified the origin of its seasonal placement to have come from a morphing of pre-Christian festivals by the fourth Century Early Church. The Romans marked the period of the 17th and 24th of December in the name of the God of Saturn, Saturnalia– and the 25th of December was observed as the birth of Mithras, the God of light.[ii]

The second source of animosity towards Christmas came from the general social disruption it caused. The period had become synonymous with disorderly conduct; drunkenness, promiscuity, rioting, and theft were a few of the complaints raised by clergymen. Wassailing, which we now think of in relation to children trick-or-treating for Halloween, was used as an excuse for people enter strangers’ households and, in extreme cases, harass and assault them.[iii] Another frowned upon practice was known as Mumming. This was when men and women would swap clothes and then go to their neighbour’s houses and “make merry with them in disguise”.[iv]

In an attempt to pacify the wantonness that the festive period stimulated, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony legally prohibited citizens from observing Christmas in 1659. The penalty for contravening was a fine of five shillings. It was only upheld for 20 years, during which time, no prosecutions were made.[v] But it goes some way to demonstrating that anti-Christmas feeling that engulfed the State during this time.

A public notice in Boston in 1659 describing dressing in fine clothing, feasting, and exchanging presents to be ‘sacrilege’ and ‘satanical’.

Practicing Christian traditions appeared to be the antithesis of Christian behaviour to some of the early colonies and it was a sentiment that long prevailed in the history of the nation. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that America witnessed a slow thawing of the Puritanical mood. Louisiana became the first state to instate the 25th of December as a holiday in 1830. Massachusetts expressed the most reluctance and followed suit much later, in 1856. Christmas Day was then inaugurated as a federal holiday on the 26th of June, 1870. Some 150 years later, Christmas is now quite comfortably subsumed into twenty-first century American culture.

Although its fundamentally Christian roots and practices persevere, it has increasingly transitioned from a religious custom to one which denotes nationality and more secular iterations of cultural identity. Such a transformation has been understandably criticised by some for the dilution of its sacrality. Christmas has become such a widely celebrated and well recognised holiday in the US, that it has permeated the populace beyond its practising Christian demographic. Its status is now at such odds with its contentious history that it makes it hard for the modern reader to conceptualise a period in American history when Christmas simply did not exist.

[i] A copy is held LDPHT The Postal Museum, Calthorpe House. Accession Number: OB1996.4/8.

[ii] Peter Nagy, ‘Voices of Christmas Past’, The Dawn of Sound, (02/12/2008) [Accessed: 1st of December 2022].

[iii] Robert C. Kennedy, ‘Cartoon of Thomas Nast by de Grimm’, HarpWeek, (Website) HarpWeek: Cartoon of the Day [Accessed: 1st of December 2022].

[iv] Washington Irving, Knickerbocker’s History of New York: From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty [1809] (Independently published, 2021), Book 2, Chapter 5, p. 28.

[v] ‘Christmas Cartoons by Thomas Nast in “Harper’s Weekly,” 1863’, The Homestead Museum Blog (13/12/2018) [Accessed: 1st of December 2022].

[vi] Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of our most Cherished Holiday (Random House, 1997), pp. 138–40.

[vii] Rodger Beck, ‘Ritual, Myth, Doctrine, and Initiation in the Mysteries of Mithras: New Evidence from a Cult Vessel’, Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 90 (2000),pp. 145, ft. 2. 

[viii] S. Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas, pp. 16–8.

[ix] Ibid., p. 7.

[x] Christopher Klein, ‘When Massachusetts Banned Christmas’, History Stories (21/12/2020) [Accessed: 1st of December 2022].

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