A Brief History of Christmas in America
CHRISTMAS IN AMERICA
Christmas celebrations in New England were illegal during parts of the 17th century, and were culturally taboo or rare in former Puritan colonies from foundation until the mid-18th century. The Puritan community found no scriptural justification for celebrating Christmas, and associated such celebrations with paganism and idolatry. Indeed, Christmas celebrations in 17th-century England involved Carnival-like behavior including role inversion, heavy drinking, and sexual liberties. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings.
After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas! In fact, Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America’s new constitution.
In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. The North and South were divided on the issue of Christmas, as well as on the question of slavery. Many Northerners saw sin in the celebration of Christmas; to these people the celebration of Thanksgiving was more appropriate. But in the South, Christmas was an important part of the social season. Not surprisingly, the first three states to make Christmas a legal holiday were in the South: Alabama in 1836, Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Americans re-invented Christmas, and changed it from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. But what about the 1800s peaked American interest in the holiday? The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season. In 1828, the New York city council instituted the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot. This catalyzed certain members of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.
A NATIONAL HOLIDAY
After the civil war, the country was looking for ways to look past difference and become united as a country. In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant declared it a federal holiday. And while Christmas traditions have adapted with time, I think Washington Irving’s desire for unity in celebration lives on. It’s become a time of year where we wish others well, donate to our favorite charities, and give presents with a joyful spirit.
MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY HOLIDAYS So, where ever you may be, and whatever traditions you follow, I wish you the merriest of Christmases and the happiest of holidays!