A Brief History of Christmas in America

The History Files

Today, as I write this, it is December 21, the day the Earth is most tilted away from the sun, limiting our sunlight to 9 hours and 5 minutes, the least of any day all year. It is the Winter Solstice.

For centuries, the winter solstice has been a time of celebration – celebrating the light and birth in the darkest days. The end of December feasting always featured slaughtered cattle along with enjoyment of the fermented wine and beer that was now ready for drinking.

It was during this time that pagan gods were celebrated and honored. For example, in Germany, the pagan god Oden was honored during the mid-winter holiday. The Germans believed he made night flights throught the sky to observe people and decide who would prosper or perish. (Sound like anyone you know… he see you when you’re sleeping.)

These ideas are the setting for the traditions of Christmas and its celebrations.

Early Christians didn’t celebrate the birth of the Christ child, mainly because the date is not stated in scripture and is uncertain. But during Christ’s time, the Romans celebrated feasts and festivals in the winter solstice. They too were honoring their gods, like the god of agriculture, Saturn in the festival of Saturnalia.

It was in the second century, that Sextus Julius Africanus, a Christian historian proclaimed December 25 as Christ’s birthday. Then during the fourth century, church officials instutituted an official holiday for the birth of Christ. Pope Julius I chose December 25 to dethrone the pagan gods and place the Christ child in the seat of worship. This was first called “The Feast of the Nativity” and spread to Egypt in 432, and reached England during the sixth century where it was renamed Christmas.

Unfortunately, these English Christmas celebrations involved church attendance that was followed by drunkenness, wanton sex, carnival atmosphere in the streets, and mobs terrified the people.

In the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans took over England with religious reformations. The Puritans not only cancelled Christmas celebrations but made it illegal to celebrate.

“Anyone who observed the sacreligious and satanical holiday by exchanging gifts, dressing in fine clothes or feasting would be fined 5 shillings.”

1645 AD

During the preRevolutionary War era in America, the early settlers brought the debate about Christmas with them. Many thought it should be celebrated minus the immoral activities. However, not all agreed. Therefore each state made it’s own laws and observing Christmas was taboo in some states and illegal in others until 1870.

Thanks in large part to the American novelist, Washington Irving, and the fictional characters and settings he created in his book, “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent” in 1819, American’s views on Christmas began to change. Irving’s admirer, Charles Dickens followed with his own book, “A Christmas Carol”, in 1843, and now American’s were rethinking and reimagining Christmas as a family time of hope, of gift giving, benevolence and cheer.

It was in 1870 that President Grant, proclaimed Christmas as a national holiday. It seemed his main desire was to bring the nation together in the aftermath of the Civil War, and to remind American’s of their common faith in Christ – The Prince of Peace. By the late 1800’s Christmas was celebrated much like it is today. Trees lit in homes and parks, cards shared, stockings hung, gifts and meals shared, and Santa Clause visiting.

Our American Christmas traditions come from many parts of the world, just as our people do.

We can thank the Germans for the trees and wreaths. The yule log and 12 days of Christmas come to us from Norway. Queen Elizabeth I brought us gingerbread houses and cookies. And Saint Nicholas, the parton saint of children comes to us from Turkey. (In 1774, when the Dutch families in New York gathered to honor his death that Sinter Klaas -Dutch for St. Nick was born. By 1804, St. Nick with his familiar look became popular.) The Catholics brought us the tradition of keeping a small nativity scene in our home.

Christmas is both a secular and a sacred holiday in America, as well as a world wide phenomenon.

Christians world wide celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas. The account of his birth is found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. They tell of a miracle child, born of virgin birth, being promised and being born in a lowly stable in Bethlehem. This child was the Son of God, Emmanuel, Jesus, savior of the world. He came to bring life, light, hope and peace to all mankind.

This is the world wide phenomenon – Jesus.

As you join with family and friends to feast and share good cheer, or as you attend a church service, I pray your Christmas history also include the celebration of Jesus’ birth, as you celebrate Christmas in America.

Merry Christmas,

Debbie

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