For generations, Christmas has been a time of magic and wonder for millions. In the rush of modern America, that is sometimes forgotten in the maddening swarms of crowds at stores, mistaken orders from online retailers, and even near-riots over special discounts. Christmas is celebrated around the globe, and each corner of the Earth has its own special traditions that go along with the season. In the United States, Christmas traditions have changed steadily over the years; and millions still hold faithful to the original purpose of veneration of the birth of Christ and celebrating the message of peace and harmony.
Many American Christmas traditions are a mix of different cultures thrown in with stories and songs that have grown in adoration over the years. Some of the most famous Christmas carols are centuries old. As more immigrated from Europe to the United States, the different Christmas traditions so adored by these new families began filtering through the nation.
Early Christians celebrated Easter more with the death and resurrection of Jesus as the embodiment of Christian ideals. However, by the fourth century, the birth of Jesus also began to be noted with special church observances also. The Christmas Eve mass or communion service is still an important Christmas tradition for many American families.
By the sixteenth century, Christmas slowly became more than a church service. In Germany especially, the day became a celebration noted for singing, parties, feasts, and drinking. The Puritans who arrived in New England in the early 1600s were appalled by such displays, which they considered sinful. As a result, Puritan leaders banned observances of Christmas well into the eighteenth century.
It was knowledge of the differences by which New Englanders and Germans typically observed the day that inspired George Washington to cross the Delaware River on Christmas Night 1776 to stage a surprise attack on the Hessian outpost at Trenton, New Jersey. After a brutal series of losses that summer and fall, Washington knew he had to turn the war around. He knew the German mercenaries the British had hired to pursue them would be too distracted by their own Christmas parties to suspect an attack during winter. At dawn on December 26, he surprised and overwhelmed the exhausted and hungover Hessian revelers to change the course of history.
The tradition of the Christmas tree originated in Germany in the 1500s when candles were attached to evergreen trees. It was not until the late 1700s that Christmas trees were introduced to the United States by German settlers.
But Christmas as a holiday emerged slowly. Louisiana was the first to declare Christmas a state holiday in 1837, and only a handful of states followed suit within the next few years. It did not become a federal holiday until 1870.
Even the tradition of exchanging gifts did not emerge quickly. However, the gift-giving tradition expanded rapidly in the 1820s and 1830s, with merchants quickly looking to capitalize on the holiday.
Santa Claus went through many changes in the process. The original St. Nicholas was an early bishop from modern-day Turkey in the fourth century known for his generosity toward the poor and children. The Catholic feast day celebrating St. Nicholas always fell on December 6, but Protestants merged the holiday with Christmas over the years. Santa Claus emerged from the St. Nicholas stories in Holland before becoming part of American lore in the late 1700s. Christmas trees began being sold in large numbers by the 1850s in the North, with decorations, almost all homemade, steadily becoming more elaborate. Though some families still used candles on trees, many opted not to do so for the obvious safety reasons of not exposing flame near a drying tree. The first electric lights were used on trees in 1882, not long after the invention of the light bulb. As electricity became more widely available in the early twentieth century, colored electric lights became popular and safer alternatives. Still, most American families did not have Christmas trees in the early 1900s. In fact, the National Christmas Tree at the White House did not become an annual tradition until 1923.
Rudolph was added to the sleigh team as part of a poem written in 1939, but country singer Gene Autry popularized his story with his rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1949 and was followed by his equally-popular “Frosty the Snowman” in 1950.
Songs and stories surrounding Christmas became even more popular in the 1960s as new television specials introduced them to a new generation. A Charlie Brown Christmas became an instant classic in 1965 as Charlie Brown looked for the real meaning of Christmas, upset that Christmas had become way too commercialized, even in the mid-1960s. His dismissal of the aluminum trees popular at the time in favor of a real tree was connected with the collapse of the aluminum tree’s popularity by the end of the decade.
Christmas is celebrated today even in non-Christian households as the spirit of giving and peace has transcended its original religious meaning for some. Far from the shopping crowds, Christmas still has a magical place in the heats of young and old alike. In a quiet moment, many remember that Christmas is still a time of generosity for others. And Christmas is still a time of peace in our hearts and in the world, as we are reminded of the gift of one precious life, of brotherhood, and of the harmony for which the holiday was born.
Special Note: Merry Christmas to Kaleb and Toby. Love, Dad.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.