The History of Modern Christmas

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The History of Christmas to the Present Day

Today, Christmas is celebrated as both a religious and a secular holiday. In the U.S., the celebration involves a complex assortment of traditions gathered from immigrants who originate from many countries. Let’s look at the history of Christmas, its development in the United States, and how it looks today.

The Earliest History of the Feast of the Nativity

During the early years of Christianity, the Church did not celebrate Christ’s birth. The focus was entirely on his crucifixion and resurrection which led up to and culminated in the Easter celebrations. It wasn’t until the late third century and early fourth century that his birth became part of the Church’s annual celebrations.

The earliest known mention of a feast or celebration for the birth of Christ on December 25th comes from an old Roman calendar dating to 336 A.D. However, due to references made in later documents, it appears that the date of December 25th was set a few decades prior, closer to the turn of the fourth century.

The Christian Bible does not specifically refer to which date Christ was born on. However, the story of the Nativity gives several clues. Many Biblical experts speculate the birth was sometime in the spring because the shepherds were in the fields attending their flocks, which wouldn’t be necessary during the depths of winter when fresh grass is not available.

Known as the Feast of the Nativity at first, this celebration of Christ’s birth spread from Rome to many other parts of the Christian world. The first celebrations in Egypt occurred in 432 with it reaching the shores of England by the end of the 500s. Scandinavia had its first celebrations close to the end of the eighth century.

With time, the Feast of the Nativity became part of a 12-day celebration that ran from Christ’s Mass celebrated on December 25th to Epiphany traditionally celebrated on January 6th. The month prior to December 25th was spent fasting, preparing for the arrival of the infant Savior. This entire celebration is still sacred to Greek and Eastern Orthodox congregations.

The Middle Ages and the English Puritans

During the Middle Ages and into the early Renaissance, much of the Christian world did not celebrate Christmas or only acknowledged it as a minor holiday. However, that began to change during the Renaissance. By the late 16th century, the English had made Christmas a time to feast, drink, dance and go to the theater.

This frolicking affair was not appreciated by the Puritans who gained power over England in the 1640s. The Puritans didn’t believe there was any reason to celebrate the date of Christ’s birth as it was not mentioned in the Bible. Plus, all the rousing celebrations were seen as ungodly activities filled with decadence and sin. The connection with the Catholic Church made it all the more evil in their eyes.

While they remained in power, the Puritan leaders introduced a series of laws which basically made celebrating Christmas illegal.

The Earliest Notes of Christmas in America

Christmas traditions varied widely from one American colony to the other. The Puritans held power in much of New England. Their distaste for the celebration of Christ’s birth led to the holiday being made illegal to celebrate in Boston in 1659. That law was rescinded in 1681 though its stifling effects were felt until the mid 1800s.

Other parts of the colonies held and enjoyed Christmas celebrations, even when Boston abstained. People in colonies not governed by Puritans kept many of the traditions they brought from Europe. For example, German settlers in Pennsylvania were especially known for their traditions, with the first decorated trees and nativity scenes appearing in their homes and communities.

During the Revolutionary War, however, the celebration of Christmas took a major dip in popularity. There was a backlash from the rebelling colonists against anything considered English, including Christmas celebrations. While the holiday continued to be celebrated in some areas, it was not nearly as popular as it would become later.

The 19th Century and the Literary Christmas

The rise of the traditional American Christmas began in the early part of the 19th century. Much of the excitement for the holiday rose from literary sources.

Washington Irving, one of the first American authors recognized for his talent in Europe, wrote a series of short stories published in 1819: The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Several of his short stories focused on the Christmas celebrations of an English gentlemen living in the countryside.

Another author published a poem in 1823 which brought the idea of Christmas fun to the American imagination. It was the poem originally titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas", though more popularly known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas", which is its first line. The poem was published anonymously, though many experts attribute it to Clement Clarke Moore.

The third literary contribution was from a rather famous Englishman, Charles Dickens. It is A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843. Its tale of sin, reflection, and redemption spread quickly from England to its former colonies in the United States, solidifying it as a Holiday favorite on both sides of the pond.

These three literary classics helped to revive the celebration of Christmas in the United States and to start the formation of what is now a traditional American holiday.

Traditions with Multiple Origins Find Root in the 19th Century

When you think of the history of Christmas in America, you likely think of a multitude of things, many of which have immigrant origins. Let’s look at some of those traditions formed in the 19th century and how they became a part of the American Holiday.

Christmas Eve Services

Many churches hold Christmas Eve services to mark the beginning of the religious observation of Christ’s birth. This stems from the oldest Christian origins where the start of the day was marked by the setting of the sun instead of its rise. By having services after dark on Christmas Eve, families could observe the religious importance of the Holiday while still being able to enjoy a family gathering and gift giving on the Day itself.

Gift Giving

By Biblical accounts, the first gifts given in celebration of Christ’s birth were the gold, frankincense and myrrh offered by the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus. The tradition of exchanging presents with family and friends has its origins in multiple places.

The Winter Solstice was a time of gift giving in the pagan Roman world. This tradition was kept alive as the Feast of the Nativity rose in popularity with the Christianization of the Roman Empire. It has remained a tradition ever since, with the first Queen Elizabeth requiring her favored subjects to give her gifts. In the U.S., gift giving became a part of the Christmas tradition with the stories of Irving and Dickens.

Nativity Scenes

The first known Nativity scene dates all the way back to 1223. Saint Francis of Assisi wanted to refocus the Christmas celebrations in the central Italian city of Greccio back to the birth of Christ rather than raucous celebrations filled with wine and food. To do this, Saint Francis brought humans and animals into a nearby cave to recreate the Nativity scene.

Living Nativity scenes became popular throughout Catholic Europe. In time, however, the living beings were replaced by statues, making it possible to display them throughout the entire season. In the United States, static Nativity scenes became popular towards the end of the 19th century.

Christmas Trees

Decorating the home with evergreen branches and trees dates back well into the pagan origins of Scandinavia. The branches that remained green throughout the coldest part of the year was considered to originate from the gods. The tradition of bringing in the evergreen remained even after most of Scandinavia converted to Christianity.

The tradition of bringing a decorated tree into the home started in Germany during the 16th century. German immigrants brought this tradition with them when they came to the New World. Many German families had a decorated tree in their homes well before the Revolutionary War. The first public tree display occurred in the 1830s in Pennsylvania, an area heavily settled by Germans.

The Christmas tree remained an oddity until the mid 1840s. A published sketch of Queen Victoria and her family around a Christmas tree caught the eye of East Coast society. If it was good enough for the English Queen, it was good enough for America’s richest families. The tradition started spreading throughout the U.S. after that point, though it took a few decades before it became a wide-spread thing. It’s been a staple of the American home for well over 100 years.

Santa Claus

Today’s version of Santa Claus actually has its origins in the story of Saint Nicholas, a monk who gave up his family’s wealth and spent the rest of his life helping those less fortunate. News of his good work spread even after his death in 373.

In the Dutch Netherlands, the tradition of Sinterklaas arose from the stories told about Saint Nicholas. It became popular during the Middle Ages as a time to give gifts to the poor. After the Protestant Reformation swept the Netherlands, the popularity of Sinterklaas never really died away. In fact, Dutch settlers brought the tradition and stories to the New World.

The publication of the poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas" solidified St. Nicholas as the gift-giving visitor of the American imagination. St. Nicholas became known by several names through the States. Kris Kringle was popular in the 1840s. Krishkrinkle was well known in Pennsylvania. St. Nicholas and Santa Claus became popular in New York.

Thomas Nast, a noted cartoonist of the latter half of the 19th century, helped to establish the iconic American Santa Claus. His cartoons established Santa Claus living at the North Pole and that he was a large, heavyset man.

The Christmas Feast

Enjoying iconic foods and making special meals are part of most American celebrations of the Holiday Season. Certain foods have become synonymous with this season of celebration.

Traditional meats consumed include turkey, roast beef, and ham. Turkey is a flightless bird found throughout much of the Eastern seaboard, making it a popular choice for hunters looking for food to serve on the Holiday. Roast beef was a tradition brought over from England where male cattle were often slaughtered in December to save on feed over the winter. Ham’s popularity started in pagan Germany where boar was sacrificed to appease the Norse god, Freyr. It likely remained popular because smoked ham was a staple of many Northern European winter diets.

By the turn of the 20th century, many of what are known as traditional American traditions were already established in some form. In pre-World War II America, Christmas became a time of family celebrations. People went to church to celebrate the birth of Christ before going home to exchange gifts and to have a good meal. Stockings and trees were staples of the celebrations along with traditional foods.

Post-World War II and the Commercialization of Christmas

Before we go any further, it’s important to understand the commercialization of Christmas actually started far before the end of World War II.

Coca Cola was using Santa Claus in advertisements by 1920. The first Christmas savings accounts were started in 1909. Imported ornaments were being sold by Woolworth in 1880. Macy’s department store offered its first in-store Santa visit in 1862. Christmas cards date back to the 1840s. The act of buying or making gifts goes back to the earliest origins of the Feast of the Nativity.

With the end of World War II, the United States was ready to celebrate. December 25th, 1945, was iconic in the history of Christmas celebrations in the United States. Tens of thousands of troops had arrived home from both the Pacific and Atlantic theaters after the war ended. Many hit land in the days leading up to the 25th. Roads were clogged and people were seeing loved ones for the first time in years.

Food was still being rationed, but there was no need for a feast when you had a military loved one home from the battlefield. For those families who had lost a child, comfort and condolences were given. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief as the New Year dawned.

After the iconic Christmas of 1945, life gradually got back to some level of normal. For the most part the returning GIs went back to work, while their wives left the factories and took up domestic life again. The largest baby boom in history rose in the following years, with over 76 million babies born between 1946 and 1964. The late 20th century commercialization of Christmas was well on its way.

What set post-World War II commercialization apart from its pre-war origins was the way it took hold and escalated.

German imports of Christmas ornaments and toys were gone by the time the war ended. Enterprising manufacturers stepped up to create truly American replacements. The American ornaments and toys were cheaper than their German counterparts had ever been. This made many things affordable to the average American household. This caused their commercial popularity to skyrocket.

Americans remained loyal to the natural Christmas tree well into the 1950s. However, the introduction of space age aluminum trees on rotating stands quickly became popular after being introduced in the late 1950s. Artificial colors and flocking were popular trends throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s.

The first outdoor Christmas light display is attributed to the McAdenville Men’s Club in 1956. The Men’s Club decided to decorate a few trees with lights outside the Community Center, located in McAdenville, North Carolina. Today, millions of households and communities create spectacular displays of Holiday lights and figures for all to enjoy.

The term “Black Friday" was actually first used back in the early 1960s by a retail expert. Its use stayed mainly inside the retail world for well over 20 years. However, it entered the mainstream culture starting in the 1980s.

Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving when retailers offer deep discounts on items they think will be popular gift options. It marks a time when many retailers sell the majority of their products for the year. A good year means they will make a profit or go into the “black", hence the Black Friday reference. For many Americans, Black Friday has become a day to go shopping for deep discounts on holiday gifts as well as other items desired.

Movies and television capitalized on the popularity of the Holiday season throughout the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Two films of the late 1940s showcase this popularity: It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946 and Miracle on 34th Street from 1947. Television Christmas came into their own with classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer first shown in 1964 and A Charlie Brown Christmas first shown in 1965.

The last half of the 20th century brought the American Christmas more traditions than it had before. Families still gathered together for food and togetherness. Except now, it might include a football game on the television and a few more presents under the tree. Kids got to enjoy Uncle Joe’s childhood stories with plans to watch animated Holiday specials after dinner. The history of Christmas shows its ever evolving nature.

Technology and Christmas

With the dawn of the 21st century came the rapid rise of the Internet and related technologies. This rapid escalation had its own impact on Christmas.

Instead of waiting in long lines at the mall to pick up gifts on Black Friday, consumers could now do their shopping completely online. Cyber Monday became a common term referring to people who would do their Holiday shopping online when they go to work after the Thanksgiving weekend. They would wait a few days and the packages would start arriving at their doors.

People have the opportunity to shop from places they would never visit, getting unique gifts for one and all. To compete with this variety, large retailers would offer deep discounts exclusively to those who shopped online.

Due to rising pressures from large retailers, smaller businesses decided to fight back. That is when Small Business Saturday became popular. It is a day specifically set aside to shop at local retailers. Its popularity came from the fact that people were supporting their local businesses and helping them remain profitable.

What All of This Means for Christmas in the 21st Century?

The history of Christmas has a long timeline from its origins in early 4th century Rome to the interconnected world of technology in the 21st century. Its traditions have changed, evolved and adapted over the years, especially in an immigrant rich country such as the United States.

The origins of Christmas are not forgotten by the Christian faithful. They still know where the celebration came from and why it’s important to Christianity. They know that its meaning hasn’t changed in the centuries since it was first celebrated as the Feast of the Nativity.

However, what was originally known as the Feast of the Nativity has become a secular celebration in 21st century America. People from many faiths and cultures use the day to visit with family and friends, exchange gifts, eat good food, and enjoy a day of leisure. Shopping for gifts has become a part of their traditional celebrations. Many rail against the commercialization of the holiday, but enjoy the gifts they receive or buy for themselves.

So, what will the future of Christmas look like in a century or so? With all the technology innovations of the present day, the Holiday of the future may look very different. However, its fundamentals may not change that much. Some things such as visiting with family and friends is something that technology cannot replace. For the faithful, the story of the Nativity will never change.