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Your Great-Grandparents Didn’t Celebrate Christmas Like You Do

Your Great-Grandparents Didn’t Celebrate Christmas Like You Do

Artist: Edmund Restein

As we enjoy the Christmas season, many people are thinking about tradition. For us here in America, Christmas has become a time of family traditions, where we look back to a simpler time and rekindle memories of our youth and imagined memories of our grandparents’ youth, as well.

But the traditions we think of as “old traditions” aren’t as old as we like to think. The Christmas celebration, as we know it, is much different than Christmas of old. While many of the symbols we recognize as being part of Christmas existed in the beginning of the 1800s, they weren’t all widely used. It was through the years of the 1800s that our Christmas traditions, as we know them today, became widespread American traditions.

This was actually an important part of American history, as the country was very divided through the 1800s. Not only did we fight the Civil War during that time, but society as a whole was fragmented. Cultural groups were widely separated and geographic distance made it difficult for there to be any cohesion in a land as vast as the United States of America.

But communications also were growing during those years. In 1860, the Pony Express connected the East and West Coasts in a way that had not previously existed. The very next year the Pony Express was supplanted by the first intercontinental railway, allowing people to travel from coast to coast in three and a half days. All this happened at the same time as an ever-faster means of communication – the telegraph. The first telegraph lines to cross the continent were strung by the railway right of way.

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This increased communication heightened the need for unifying the country, but it was war that found us first. On April 12, 1861, the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Four long years later, it ended, and the people of the United States started on the even longer road to healing. A part of that healing process was the unifying of our Christmas traditions.

Solely A European Holiday?

While Christmas existed as a holiday before this time, it wasn’t celebrated by all. Basically, it was a European holiday and so was only celebrated by those whose ancestors had come from Europe. Even then, not everyone joined in the celebration. The early Pilgrims didn’t celebrate Christmas, because they didn’t see it mentioned in the Bible. Of all of the European countries, Germany made the most of Christmas; many of our traditions can trace their roots to that country.

Those early Christmas celebrations weren’t the mass-marketed, highly commercialized festivities we have today. Rather, the Christmas celebration was something done in the family, in the church and in the neighborhood. Church was an important part of the celebration, with many people going to church both on Christmas Eve and then again on Christmas Day.

Gift-giving was always a part of Christmas — for those who could afford it. But the gifts that were given were largely homemade. Being personal, they were considered superior to anything store-bought. As with clothing, store-bought gifts were only for those who couldn’t do any better.

Your Great Grandparents Didn’t Celebrate Christmas Like You Do

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Eating a feast was an important part of celebrating Christmas, much as it is today. Cooking started weeks in advance, as mincemeat and plum pudding needed time to ferment. Christmas cookies and pies were common, as people ate the best of what they had. For those who could afford it, that meant beef or a ham.

Christmas became a very social time, with carolers going from door to door, singing. It would be impolite not to invite them in for a warm cup of wassail, turning every caroling event into a moving party, with time taken at each home to visit and wish the inhabitants a Merry Christmas.

Christmas Gets Commercialized

The commercialism of Christmas didn’t really start until after the Civil War and was stronger in New England — where much of the country’s wealth was concentrated — than it was in other parts of the country. Merchants responded to the needs of those celebrating the holidays first in providing factory-made ornaments for the home, then Christmas cards and finally the gifts that people gave.

Commercial gift-giving also lent rise to the idea of wrapping gifts, increasing the suspense and thereby the recipient’s joy. Large retailers began offering simple wrapping as a way of making those gifts more special, so that they could compete with homemade gifts. Eventually, the tradition of wrapping gifts became the norm and wrappings were developed specially for that purpose.

But even then, gift-giving was much more limited than what we have today. Our English and German ancestors brought to those stores the idea of Father Christmas, who eventually became our beloved Santa Claus. Children hung stockings for Father Christmas to fill, which at that time were real stockings.

Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), the creator of Little House on the Prairie, wrote of her Christmas treasures in one year’s stocking. She was delighted to find a shiny new tin cup, a peppermint candy, a heart-shaped cake and a brand new penny. In that time, that was a treasure trove of wealth on Christmas morning.

Your Great Grandparents Didn’t Celebrate Christmas Like You Do

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Christmas cards were a unique American invention, albeit by a German immigrant. Louis Prang (1824-1909) brought the idea to the forefront as a substitute for inexpensive gifts. Originally, these cards were small works of art, intended to adorn the home after the holidays were over. Prang even had art contests every year, seeking our original artwork to put on his cards.

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Early Christmas trees weren’t bedecked with commercial ornaments. That didn’t come about until the 1870s and later. Instead, families would decorate their trees with what they had on hand. This often included the bounty they had gleaned from nature, as fruit and berries were the early ornaments, following after the Jewish tradition of decorating the Sukkah for the Feast of Tabernacles. Ribbons, cookies and hard candies were added to the fruit, nuts and berries, making those trees into a multi-colored joy.

The lights on the tree were originally candles. While dangerous, they were normally only lit on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The idea was started by Martin Luther, the same man who started the Reformation. He had been in the woods praying at night and saw the beauty of the starlight reflecting off the icicles on the pine trees. Wanting to share this with his children, he put candles on the family tree. When German Christians immigrated to the United States, they brought this tradition with them.

All of these traditions, most of which have survived to today, helped to bring the American people together, not as separate ethnic groups living in the same land, but as Americans. Celebrating a common holiday, with common traditions, helped to make us one common people.

Sadly, there are those who want to squash some of those traditions, taking Christmas, and especially Christ, out of the holiday. Yet it was the celebration of His birth which helped our country to heal and brought people together after the Civil War. The destruction of such a unifying celebration can do nothing to bring us closer together, but rather the opposite; it could become one more wedge, used to separate the American people into smaller and smaller groups, driving a wedge between us.

Let us continue to celebrate Christmas as what it is. Better yet, let us revive some of the old customs, sharing time with family, friends and neighbors. Let it become once more a unifying force, bringing the nation back together again.

What are your thoughts on Christmas and its celebration? Share them in the section below:

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  1. Stopped doing xmas 5 years ago. Went back to the biblical feasts. We celebrate Christ’s birth at the feast of Sukkot. The Sukkah being a 3 side structure with a thatch roof (what most know as a manger) He was born in the bread box, as He is the bread of life. Sukkot also know as Tabernacles as He came to tabernacle with us. It’s really quite clear. Shalom and Yah bless you all. Hallelu’Yah

    • Thank you for pointing this out. I came across some references to the correct birthday of Christ a couple of years ago, and I believe it is supposed to be the last day of the Feast of the Tabernacle. I believe they were able to arrive at this date based on the timing of Elizabeth’s husband’s religious service for that event, and the timing of their son John’s birth. If I recall correctly Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant when Mary went to visit her. By combining all of the timing of all of the events leading up to the birth of Christ they were able to place it at the last day of the Feast of the Tabernacle. This festival coincides with another, longer one, which I believe is the Sukkot you refer to. Because the calendar days vary to a slight extent from year to year, and with the Jewish calendar using the moon cycles for their calendar, the date varies a little from one year to the next, but will always fall somewhere between the middle of September thru the middle of October. Sorry I can’t remember John’s father’s name at the moment. I am not a Bible scholar, but I do look into religious stuff from time to time. Came across a reference to Susanna, from the Book of Daniel in an article today, and as I usually do, I looked that up a short time later. This business about the real birthday of Christ interested me for decades, so I was glad to finally find out the facts. I now make a note of it in my phone calendar every year. Don’t have other calendars. One of my siblings is somewhat of a Bible scholar, and does prefer the real birthday of Christ, so I try to remember to email him about it when the day arrives, but we all still celebrate the December 25 one also.

  2. Stopped doing xmas 5 years ago. Went back to the biblical feasts. We celebrate Christ’s birth at the feast of Sukkot. The Sukkah being a 3 side structure with a thatch roof (what most know as a manger

    Good Things! Praise Yah! Praise His Sacred, Most Powerful, Great Name! IAUE (Yah, Yahu, Iahu, Yahuah)

    Forever and his son, who carries his Father’s Name in his (as a legitimate son would!) Yahshua, or more fully, Yahushua!

    So glad for you, my friend. You are courageous and love the truth, May our Creator-Father and his Son bless you and your loved ones

  3. I am an American and I do celebrate Christmas.

    WE listen to Christmas music, bake, create different gifts according to what those we love wished for and/or needed. WE pray and give thanks before eating.

    I do not shop. A few of my family still do, and what they offer is welcomed as much as that created. Usually they are the ones with multiple jobs and less time. WE use the time to play cards, catch up on what is going on, etc. We also go out and do fun competitions with our neighbors on horseback, etc.

    Life is what you make it, and it is mostly attitude. Don’t let others decide for you what your attitude and beliefs must be. Understand that when you see the words “Happy Holidays”, etc somewhere that this is PROPAGANDA at work to subvert and destroy our nation from within. That when those within our schools and government do NOT honor our country and OUR beliefs, but instead show honor to foreign ways it shows that they are NOT working for our nation, but against it – even is small ways such as these decorations that make it seem that our ways are shameful and selfish. But would one not think that those whose ways are NOT from here, yet shove them down our throats at every moment are the truly selfish ones. Remember, THEY came here. Most people do not even realize this is going on.

    So to all of you


  4. what astounds even me, I am now the grandparent and can tell all how different it was. we no longer take the time we must to truly appreciate our lives. all our wants are delivered under instant gratification. what happens when we run out of things to try? what man has always done when they think others have something they dont! War! It is what we do. can we change it? they haven’t in the seventy five years I have lived. it will be up to the people to decide do you want the Christmas I had? or the plastic one purchased with credit!

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