CHRISTMAS (Christ’s Mass) is the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and is celebrated every year on December 25th. It is one of the great feasts of the Christian calendar, others being Easter, Pentecost, and the Epiphany. Undoubtedly, it is the greatest Christian festival of the year. But in early America, Christmas was not celebrated by the first settlers, the Pilgrims. From 1659 to 1681, Christmas festivities were outlawed in Boston and anyone caught with the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. After the American Revolution, Christmas also fell out of favor because of the influence of English customs.
America’s First Legal Christmas Holiday
It wasn’t until the 1800s that Americans again embraced Christmas. It was celebrated as a family day of peace and sentimental reminders of the past. The first States to make Christmas a legal holiday was Alabama in 1836, and then Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838. The Northern States before the Civil War favored Thanksgiving over Christmas, and the Southern States favored Christmas as their significant social event.
American Christmas Customs
After the Civil War, many immigrants came from different countries to America for a new life, and their Christmas traditions were integrated with the existing English customs. It was that mix of ethnicity that contributed to what our Christmas culture has become today. We inherited the customs of giving gifts, attending church, Santa Claus (St. Nicholas) folklore, decorating an evergreen tree, burning a Yule Tide Log, singing Christmas carols, drinking eggnog, roasting chestnuts, baking sweets, hanging candy canes, popcorn, and cranberries, hawthorn, holly, and mistletoe, stuffing stockings, and sending Christmas cards. We also put candles in our windows, hung wreaths and garlands, and celebrated with good food and spirits with family and friends. Then as the years passed, we’ve added Christmas lights (some set to music), train sets and villages, a mix of traditional and popular music as well as seasonal movies.
Christmas time holds different memories for different generations of Americans from different regions of the country. That is why I like to explore the many stories of a Christmas past because they enable me to fall back in time and relive a treasured moment from someone else’s memorable, family experience. Descriptions of the smells of warm pastries, pies, cakes, and hot popcorn that filled their backwoods home; a wood fire in the fireplace; fresh mountain air; kerosene lamps; stone crocks of hot, steaming fall cider; and roasted chestnuts over an outdoor pit of coals offers a vivid, imagery of a Christmas memory centered around family who have little or no money. Immediately, I envisioned similar scenes from Norman Rockwell paintings.
The essential custom for Christmas was snow. Lots of snow. It was the ultimate highlight for those of us who were raised in a snowy winter climate. Christmas Eve and snowfall together was a dream come true. Snow dressed the outdoors in a beautiful, winter-white cover, which created a heavy silence that was deafening. Not a creature stirred. As I tried to walk, all that could be heard was the crunch of wet snow being pressed down under my boots. I saw the hot mist rise as I exhaled from my breath into the cold, crisp air and when I inhaled, I felt the cold air freeze my inner nose and then my throat. The air was filled with the aroma of burning wood of oak, maple, or pine from nearby fireplaces and woodstoves.
Those who did live in the mountains many years ago anticipated Christmas Eve as a big sledding holiday event. Log fires were built down the country hillsides to light runways that were filled with children sledding on old car engine hoods and cardboard flats. Again, I envisioned this scene through Norman Rockwell’s eyes, and I saw the delight on the children’s faces and felt their excitement as I heard them yell and scream as they raced from the top of the hill down to its bottom on their homemade sleds. I, too, remember fond memories sledding with my brothers down neighborhood slopes when we were young, and how happy those times were for us.
From the ancient time when I was a child, the Christmas season began the day after Thanksgiving. Today the season has stretched from Halloween to December 26, prolonging the anticipation for the holiday festivities and allowing more time for media marketing hype, shopping, preparation, meeting obligations, and higher anxiety. All that busyness creates a stressful season for many of us. I can’t imagine that the celebration of Christmas 200 years ago was as stressful as it is today.
Christmas Is Joy, Peace, Happiness, and Hope for All
The real history behind Christmas is the story of how Jesus, our Lord, was born into the human experience. The birth of Jesus made it possible for us to be in the presence of His Father, the Most Holy, and to live in heaven as our eternal home. Jesus came to awaken people to their sinful hearts by offering His love that brings joy, peace, happiness, hope, and eternal assurance for all.
May the Christmas Spirit of Christ bless one and all this season!
Ansley, C.F. (ed.). 1935. Columbia Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press.
Bratcher, D. 2013. The Voice, Christian Resource Institute
DeSimone, D. 2013. Another Look at Christmas in the Eighteenth Century. Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, vol. 16, no. 4, winter 1995-96.
Powers, E.L. 2013. Christmas Customs. “Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, vol. 16, no. 4, winter 1995-96.
The History of Christmas. 2004.