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History Tidbits: An American Christmas

by Allison S | Dec 23, 2016
Image of vintage Christmas Card via Calsidyrose flickr page

Editor's Note:  Have you checked out The Genealogy Center's monthly E-Zine, Genealogy Gems?  You should!  The content for this post, written by Genealogy Librarian Allison, appeared in the November 30 issue of this year and is the third in a series of articles focusing on holiday customs. 


Christmas brings visions of family gathered around the crackling fire with steaming mugs of hot chocolate, snow falling softly while children glide swiftly over the glistening white land with a new sled, carolers huddled around the garlanded front door, singing timeless Christmas melodies that our ancestors sang, and gifts given out on a brisk December morning while coffee is savored in the background. Do any of these narratives sound like your family home on Christmas? What about your ancestors in America? How did they celebrate Christmas?

To answer these questions, one needs to look at the time period in which one’s ancestors moved to the United States and where they lived. The Puritans in the northeastern colonies did not celebrate Christmas. They considered the day to have morphed into a secular celebration, and it fell against their religious beliefs. In the southern colonies, Christmas was celebrated with a feast and a few trinkets for the young. The traditions we currently ascribe to the holiday were not yet American traditions. There were no Christmas trees, holiday cards, or stories of Santa Claus coming down the chimney. It was a simple holiday for friends and family to spend time together. 

Washington Irving attempted to interest Americans in Christmas with a series of tales in his book, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., published in installments between 1819 and 1820. While the book included such famous sketches as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” less well known were his “Christmas Eve,” “Christmas Day,” “Christmas Dinner,” and “The Stage-Coach,” all of which captured the public’s imagination for Yule celebrations. Since his book was both a commercial and critical success in America and England, his stories helped to bring the observance of Christmas into more homes. 

Another author we need to thank for bringing us more Christmas cheer is Clement Clarke Moore and his poem, " A Visit from St. Nicholas". Originally written by Moore for his children, a friend sent it to the Troy Sentinel to be published anonymously in 1823. Moore claimed ownership of the poem in 1844 by including it in a published book of poetry under his name, though he had already received attribution from the original publisher of the poem and many others. Decades later, the family of the deceased Henry Livingston, Jr, claimed that he was the actual author of the poem. While the style is complementary to Livingston’s, the poem is generally still attributed to Moore.

It was not until the Victorian Era that Christmas truly became the holiday we know and love today.  The image of Queen Victoria with her family gathered around an opulent Christmas tree inspired the rest of the world to emulate that scene. It is important to note that the first time Queen Victoria sat for a drawing with her Christmas tree was in 1848, a time that corresponds with Americans purchasing Christmas trees. The year 1843 saw the advent of the Christmas card with Henry Cole commissioning the first one. Soon, families across England and then the world were sending and receiving both purchased and homemade Christmas cards. 

Santa Claus became the jolly man in red in 1863 when cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “Old Saint Nick” for Harper’s Weekly. Not until 1870, however, was Christmas even declared a federal holiday in the United States. Previously, decorating the home at Christmas was minimal at best. During the Victorian Era, it grew into an art form, with evergreens, holly, and ribbons. Publications offered directions so that the lady of the house did not make a mistake in her Christmas décor. The centerpiece of the table became turkey during the Victorian Era. Previously it would be any type of meat available, but wealthier families began to use turkeys. Eventually this tradition drifted down to the middle classes and beyond, when turkeys became easier to obtain. 

Caroling had been a part of gatherings for decades as a source of entertainment. Not until the Victorian Era did the words of the songs begin to reflect the holiday, and a collection of carols were published. Charles Dickens played an integral part in solidifying Christmas as an important holiday with his book, A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843. Tiny Tim and Scrooge reminded readers to be good, giving people, and that Christmas was a holiday to celebrate with friends and family. While the book was slow to be accepted in the United States, Americans could not hold out for long from loving this Christmas tradition. A Christmas Carol has never been out of print. We have had 173 years to enjoy this story, and it will continue to be for generations to come.

While we have only touched upon a few of the age-old traditions that take a place in our Christmas-time hearts, it might inspire us to learn more about how our ancestors celebrated (or did not celebrate) the holiday. Perhaps this is a fun holiday project to do with your children, grandchildren, nieces, or nephews. Gather your loved ones around and take a look at how grandparents, great-grandparents, and other family members would have celebrated the day in their respective eras. You might be surprised and find a new tradition to add to your family experience. Above all, "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"

Shared with permission.  Each issue of Genealogy Gems examines a variety of topics related to family history.  To view previous editions or to subscribe, click here.

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