Inventing Christmas

Before the 19th century, Americans had no unified vision of how Christmas should be celebrated or even if it should be celebrated at all. Communities may or may not have had their own ideas about what should occur on December 25 depending upon the heritage of the citizens. For those of German extraction, there may have been the tradition of a decorated tree and for the descendants of Dutch colonists, a December 5 (St. Nicholas Day) visit from Sinterklaas who left gifts may have been anticipated, but there was no one concept of an American Christmas. That began to change in the early 1800’s. Penne Restad, writing for History Today, cites several reasons for the shift to what we today think of as an American Christmas. Among those were the rapid changes brought about by industrialization, growing urbanization, advances in communication and transportation, immigration, and the trauma of the Civil War. Even good change is stressful and America was undergoing monumental change. With that change came a nostalgia for a time perceived as simpler and more stable: familiar songs, a tree, a family gathered around the hearth, stockings hung on the mantle, a visit from Santa Claus.[1]

The establishing of what we today know as American Christmas traditions began gradually. Washington Irving may have been the first nationally known figure to give an image of Santa Claus that modern Americans would recognize. In his satiric A History of New York, first published in 1809, he mentioned St Nicholas riding his “wagon over the tree tops” in order to bring gifts to children. An 1821 poem published in a children’s book by New York City printer, William Gilley is the first to describe “Santeclaus” in a sleigh pulled by a single reindeer. The next incarnation of Santa and probably the best known today occurred with the December 23, 1823 publication of Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Moore did not simply set already familiar traditions to rhyme, he moved Santa’s arrival and gift giving date from December 5 to December 24 and gave the “jolly ole elf” “eight tiny reindeer,” each with his own very individual name.

Englishman Charles Dickens extolled Christmas traditions and encouraged the Spirit of Christmas to extend beyond the family hearth to include the poor and destitute through the publication of A Christmas Carol in 1843. He injected the idea of caring for mankind into the holiday, echoing the Christian expectations of loving one’s neighbor as oneself and doing unto others as one would have done unto oneself. When the novel arrived in the US just before Christmas, 1844, it became a best seller and quickly became a beloved tradition. Readings of the story are still very popular and at least 20 feature films and TV movies have been made based on Dickens’s villain turned biggest “keeper of Christmas” ever, Ebenezer Scrooge. My personal favorite is the 1951 portrayal by Alister Sim. One must think that the outpouring of giving every December can, at least in part, be attributed to the lessons found in A Christmas Carol.

Gilded Age political cartoonist Thomas Nast gave us our modern depiction of Santa. As an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, he was assigned the task of creating covers. His January 3, 1863 cover “Santa in Camp” was a hit. It showed a patriotic Santa with his sleigh in a Union camp being greeted by soldiers with a welcome sign. He continued to draw Santa and Christmas themed covers and pictures for many years. He is also credited with placing Santa’s home at the North Pole and charging him with managing a workshop full of toy-building elves before his fabled annual Christmas Eve flights.

Christmas trees did not become part of White House holidays until 1889 when President Benjamin Harrison and his young grandchildren decorated their family tree with toy soldiers and glass balls. The New York Times did a front page spread about Christmas at the White House and the gifts the presidential grandchildren would receive. By the middle of the 20th century, trees at the White House had become a tradition.

Next week, we will celebrate Christmas with church services, presents, special dinners, and most of the traditions we have come to expect and enjoy. Even though Christmas 2020 will not include choirs singing carols or Messiah, will be socially distanced, and maybe not include all the extended family, it will still be the special day we have come to love.

At this time of year, Becky and I want to wish you and yours the happiest of holidays and wishes for a better and prosperous 2021!

History Imagined will be on holiday hiatus until Jan. 15.