The American history of modern day Christmas

Here are facts of some traditions of our modern day Christmas celebrations as they have developed in the United States in the 1800’s. You may be surprise to know that many of our traditions, from gift-giving to Santa Claus, are less than 200 years old. The facts below are from an informative article in The Economist entitled,  Knock yourself out, Fox: Americans have vied over Christmas for centuries

  • Between 1659 and 1681 it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts, as it was in England around the same time. The Puritans of the Plymouth Colony considered it wasteful, illicit and heathen as Christmas was timed to match the winter solstice and Roman Saturnalia. It had ancient pagan attributes, including gorging, licentiousness and role reversal.
  • Christmas was a regular working day everywhere until Alabama, in 1836, made it a public holiday.
  • The wealthy bourgeoisie that emerged in New York during the early 19th century feared Christmas for more selfish reasons. Its members disliked the drunken revellers who, each wild Christmastide, claimed a subversive right to their provisions and hearth.
  • New Yorkers set about domesticating the Christmastide festival, out of which effort came America’s biggest contribution to it: Santa Claus. The modern standard was set in 1822 by a rich slave owner called Clement Clarke Moore, author of “The Night before Christmas”. Where the historical St Nicholas was a lofty Greek bishop, his version was a jovial proletarian figure. Instead of demanding gifts, as the wassailers at Moore’s gate did, however, he delivered them. Stephen Nissenbaum, a historian of the American Christmas, sees this as an inversion of propertied New Yorkers’ fears of the festive mob. It was an exercise in taming Christmas.
  • A festival long associated with excess, now rededicated to spoiling close relatives in America’s richest city, Christmas rapidly became commercialized. Coca-Cola is often said to have established the fur-clad image of Santa Claus in a famous series of adverts in the 1930s.
  • The adoption of the Germanic Christmas tree in the 1830s was, for its promoters in New England, an effort to return the festival to a more innocent folk tradition. The attempt was later encouraged by Queen Victoria’s Anglo-German festivities.
  • The classic American Christmas has changed relatively little since the 1850s and its core ideas have been defined by both America and Britain. America contributed its most famous poem and Santa Claus; Britain its most famous novel—Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.”
  • After Thomas Edison’s business partner strung electric bulbs around a tree in New York in 1882, tree lights were soon being mass-produced.
  • The Hall Brothers (now Hallmark) produced the first folded Christmas card in 1915.
  • Towns up and down the country rebranded themselves as seasonal theme parks (“It’s Christmas all year round here in Bethlehem,” goes the slogan for that Pennsylvanian town).
  • Since the publication in 2005 of “Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition”, over 13m households have been persuaded to “adopt” a toy elf (with the book, it can be yours for $32.95).

Chris George is an Ottawa-based government affairs advisor and wordsmith, president of CG&A COMMUNICATIONS. Contact:

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