Where do American Christmas traditions come from?
A brief history, including evergreen trees, gifts, and Santa Claus.
Each season the celebration of Christmas has religious leaders and conservatives publicly complaining about the commercialization of the holiday and the growing lack of Christian sentiment. Many people seem to believe that there was once a way to celebrate the birth of Christ in a more spiritual way.
Such perceptions of Christmas celebrations, however, have little basis in history. As a specialist in transnational and world history, I have studied the emergence of Christmas celebrations in German cities around 1800 and the global spread of this holiday ritual.
While Europeans have participated in religious services and religious ceremonies to celebrate the birth of Jesus for centuries, they have not commemorated him as we do today. Christmas trees and December 24 gifts in Germany did not spread to other European Christian cultures until the late 18th century and did not reach North America until the 1830s.
Charles Haynes Haswell, engineer and columnist of daily life in New York, wrote in his Memories of an octogenarian from New York City (1816-1860) that in the 1830s, German families living in Brooklyn dressed Christmas trees with lights and ornaments. Haswell was so curious about this new custom that he went to Brooklyn on a very stormy and humid night just to see these Christmas trees through the windows of private homes.
The first Christmas trees in Germany
It was not until the late 1790s that the custom of erecting a Christmas tree decorated with wax candles and ornaments and exchanging gifts emerged in Germany. This new practice of the feasts was completely external and independent of Christian religious practices.
The idea of putting wax candles on evergreen foliage was inspired by the pagan tradition of celebrating the winter solstice with bonfires on December 21. These bonfires on the darkest day of the year were meant to remind the sun and show it the way home. The lit Christmas tree was essentially a domesticated version of those bonfires.
English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave the first description of a decorated Christmas tree in a German home when he reported in 1799 that he had seen such a tree in a private house in Ratzeburg, northwestern Germany. . In 1816, the German poet ETA Hoffmann published his famous story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”. This story contains the first literary recording of a Christmas tree decorated with apples, candies and lights.
From the start, all family members, including children, had to participate in the giving of gifts. The gifts were not brought by a mystical figure, but openly exchanged between family members, symbolizing the new bourgeois culture of egalitarianism.
From German roots to American soil
American visitors to Germany in the first half of the 19th century realized the nation-building potential of this celebration. In 1835, Harvard professor George Ticknor was the first American to observe and participate in this type of Christmas celebration and to extol its usefulness in creating a national culture. That year, Ticknor and his 12-year-old daughter, Anna, joined the family of Count von Ungern-Sternberg in Dresden for a memorable Christmas party.
Other American visitors to Germany, such as Charles Loring Brace, who attended a Christmas celebration in Berlin almost 20 years later, saw it as a specific German festival with the potential to bring together the people.
For Ticknor and Brace, this holiday tradition provided the emotional glue that could bring families and members of a nation together. In 1843, Ticknor invited several prominent friends to join him for a Christmas celebration with a Christmas tree and gifts at his Boston home.
Ticknor’s Christmas party was not the first Christmas celebration in the United States with a Christmas tree. German-American families had brought the custom with them and had already planted Christmas trees. However, it was Ticknor’s social influence that ensured the spread and social acceptance of the alien custom of planting a Christmas tree and exchanging gifts in American society.
The introduction of Santa Claus
For most of the 19th century, the celebration of Christmas with Christmas trees and gifts remained a marginal phenomenon in American society. Most Americans were skeptical of this new custom. Some felt that they had to choose between ancient English customs, such as stockings hanging for gifts on the fireplace, and the Christmas tree as a suitable space for placing gifts. It was also difficult to find the necessary ingredients for this German custom. First, we had to create Christmas tree farms. And ornaments had to be produced.
The most important steps towards integrating Christmas into American popular culture took place in the context of the Civil War. In January 1863, Harper’s Weekly published on its front page the image of Santa Claus visiting the Union Army in 1862. This image, which was produced by German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast, represents the first image of Santa Claus.
Over the following years, Nast developed the image of Santa Claus as a cheerful old man with a big belly and a long white beard as we know him today. In 1866, Nast produced “Santa Claus and His Works,” an elaborate drawing of Santa’s chores, from making gifts to recording children’s behavior. This sketch also introduced the idea that Santa Claus was traveling in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
Declaring Christmas a federal holiday and installing the first Christmas tree at the White House were the final steps in making Christmas an American holiday. On June 28, 1870, Congress passed legislation that made Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving Day public holidays for federal employees.
And in December 1889, President Benjamin Harrison began the tradition of installing a Christmas tree in the White House.
Christmas had finally become an American holiday tradition.
This article was originally published by The Conversation. It is published here under a Creative Commons license.
is Associate Professor of International and World Studies at the University of Arkansas.