Some Observations on Christmas Throughout American History

While studying Christmas throughout American history in “Christmas School” this year, I learned quite a few things myself.

The lavish Christmas festivities that are the norm today, (lots of decorations, big meals, and an abundance of gifts), have not existed through most of our country’s history. The only time we really seem a similar, (and often more lavish), celebration is around the turn of the century, when a Victorian Christmas was popular in America. During the rest of our country’s history, the celebrations were much smaller, (if they existed at all), either due to choice, or, more often, necessity. The Christmases of our country’s past were also much more religious for Americans as a whole, although the extent that some groups, such as the Puritans, went to to try to keep joy and celebrations out of this holy day were not necessarily any better than today’s secular atmosphere for many Christmas celebrations.

Here’s a summary of Christmas during some of the major time periods in our nation’s history:

  • Colonial (From European Settlement to 1776)–Christmas was not a big deal yet, (even though the “season” lasted for about three weeks), partly due to Puritan influence, and partly because big celebrations had just not caught on. It was really more of a holiday for adults than for children, and there were often dances and parties for adults held during the Christmas season. If gifts were given, they were usually distributed not on Christmas Day, but in the days following, particularly New Year’s. Church was the main focus of Christmas Day, followed by a nice dinner. Also, the holiday was often greeted by…gunfire.
  • The Era of Good Feelings (1817-1825)–This was when America first saw a glimpse of what Christmas would become in the future.  Washington Irving, and his writings, first introduced Americans to Christmas festivities in England, particularly large meals with special Christmas dishes. Clement C. Moore first gave vision to the American idea of St. Nick and his flying reindeer. These kinds of stories and images encouraged people to start having grander celebrations. Different cultural celebrations also began to be seen at this time, as America began to see immigrants from places other than England, and these new Americans brought their old customs and traditions with them.
  • Pioneer/Frontier (Anywhere from about the 1830s to the late 1800s)–While people enjoyed celebrating the holiday more by this point, because so many settlers lived far away from towns with stores, their celebrations were still simple. Stockings were hung and gifts were given, but the gifts were often either practical, (such as a tin cup), or small, (a stick of candy or a penny). Work still had to be done on farms, even on Christmas Day, and many families lived so far from town that they couldn’t attend a church service, but rather had a quiet time of worship and Bible reading at home. The frontier Santa was even a humbly dressed, skinny fellow, often accompanied by a horse or donkey instead of flying reindeer. For people living in more civilized areas in the mid-1800s, however, Christmas was growing in lavishness.
  • Civil War (1860s)–There is a great deal of overlap between this time period and the frontier period. The celebrations reflecting the Civil War period, however, were often in more settled areas of the country. They were still often small celebrations, because families supporting the war effort didn’t have much, and since most families were missing loved ones due to the fighting, they didn’t feel like having big celebrations. Northern families would have seen bigger celebrations than Southern families, because times were not as hard in the North, but the season was still somber. Thomas Nast is famous for his patriotic portrayal of a “Civil War Santa” during this time.
  • Turn of the Century (Early 1900s)–This was the grandest time period for Christmas in our history, aside from the present day. Wealthy families, in particular, spared no expense in decorating their homes, giving gifts, and hosting elaborate dinner parties. The wealthiest of people traveled to Europe on the now-popular steamships to celebrate Christmas, and brought back more European Christmas traditions, such as the sending of Christmas cards. They did share their wealth with the less fortunate, however, by taking food and gifts to places like orphanages during the Christmas season. It was during this time that the fat, jolly, fur-trimmed, modern version of Santa really came into being, in part due to Norman Rockwell, and his artwork which was showcased in the Saturday Evening Post.
  • Great Depression (1930s)–This was a particularly desperate time in American history. People could barely afford to survive, much less celebrate Christmas. If a family was lucky enough to have a tree, (artificial trees were already popular at this time, so they might have had one from a previous Christmas), they probably couldn’t afford the electricity to light it. Families were again facing separation, due to the fact that many men were forced to leave their homes to look for temporary work in other parts of the country. Gifts were usually handmade, and like the celebrations of the turn of the century, charities depended on the donations of wealthy people to help provide for those less fortunate.
  • World War II (1940s)–Because of rationing during the War, American families had to be very creative with their celebrations. Again, this was a time when most families were missing a family member, making the season a bit more somber. There was no rubber available to make toys, so children again had to be satisfied with practical gifts. Sugar was also in short supply, and so families had to be creative with their Christmas baking. Even travel was limited at Christmastime, because of gas rationing, (only three gallons per week!), and “victory speed limits” which were instituted around the country, which made any kind of travel too lengthy to be practical. Despite all of this, it was still a festive time, with families enjoying the warmth of their homes and children dreaming of things they had seen in the Sears Roebuck catalog, often while spending time together around the radio, listening to what became Christmas radio classics.
  • Post World War II–For the most part, in the time following World War II to the present day, Christmas has remained the same. The prosperity following the War allowed people to return to lavish celebrations. Movies and TV replaced radio as a conduit for yearly Christmas entertainment, especially in the way of the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials that most people are familiar with. During this time, Christmas has become more of a secular holiday than a religious one for many people, with members of faiths other than Christianity, and even atheists, celebrating in some way, whether by having a tree in their home, playing Santa Claus, or hosting/attending Christmas parties. Still, Christmas church services remain important, as does the gathering of family and friends to celebrate the season.

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