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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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