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An American Christmas: How did we get our traditions?

Have you ever wondered how our uniquely American traditions of celebrating Christmas came from? If so, you are not alone, many Americans just assume that it was always this way. Of course, many who are asked will also tell you that these special traditions were "passed down through the family". Believe it or not Christmas was not always a holiday that was celebrated in this country. It certainly was not celebrated in the extravagant way in which many of us enjoy it today. The English word “Christmas” — “Christ’s mass” — reveals the holiday’s Catholic origin. With the coming of the Protestant Reformation, though, many Catholic practices and traditions were rejected or at least abandoned.

At first, it faced relatively few challenges in England. When the Anglican Church split with Rome over Henry VIII’s marital issues, it remained relatively Catholic, retaining its Bishops, priests, archbishops and choral music and feast days. On the European continent things were a bit more precarious. In John Calvin’s Geneva and Ulrich Zwingli’s Zurich, only Sundays were observed as days of worship; the other feast days and saints’ days ordained by Rome were abolished. And Calvin’s disciple John Knox, who founded the Presbyterian movement in Scotland, followed the same path. Christmas landed on the chopping block. It wasn’t long before England followed suit.

In 1647, the English Parliament, dominated by Puritans, went beyond Calvin and altogether banned the festival. William Prynne (d. 1669), for example, taught that “all pious Christians” should “eternally abominate” observance of the holiday. According to the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith, “The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.”

Have you guessed what this also meant for all our Puritan ancestors who had arrived in the American colonies in 1620? The reason that many of them had come to America was to escape persecution for their EXTREME views on how pure the Anglican church needed to be. They wanted no semblance to anything that smacked of Rome and the Catholic Church.

While, for example, Christmas was celebrated in colonies where Anglicanism was the established church, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony banned any outdoor celebration of Christmas in early 1620s Massachusetts. Violators — in some cases, even those caught observing the holiday in secret — could be heavily fined.

While the Swiss Reformers Zwingli and Calvin insisted that Christians should worship God only in ways mentioned in the Bible — which says nothing of Christmas — Martin Luther held to the more expansive view that Christians are permitted to worship God in any way that the Bible doesn’t expressly forbid. And Luther loved Christmas, advocating feasts, gift-giving and special church services. He wrote Christmas carols and delivered dozens of Christmas-related sermons. It may be significant that, while Luther’s Protestant Germany and the largely Catholic Bavaria and Austria have greatly enriched our Christmas musical tradition, few if any famous Christmas carols come from Switzerland, which is directly adjacent to them. In fact, “Messiah,” written in just 24 days by the devoutly Lutheran 18th-century German composer George Frederick Handel, can be viewed as an expression of Luther’s musical legacy.

Another prominent Bishop of the Anglican Church in England, Hugh Latimer (1487-1555) observed that “Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas than in all the twelve months besides.” (CPRC 2011) Christmas celebrations during the days before the reformation included drunken feasts, extreme forms of public debauchery and every other kind of “sinning’. Latimer went on to say that, “It was as if men were not celebrating the birth of the holy Jesus, but of Venus or Bacchus.”

By the early 1700’s no congregational churches in Boston, MA. Held Christmas services. Printed calendars of the period often did not include Christmas as an important day. Despite the threat of heavy fines, expulsion from the church and other punishments, the medieval practices that had dominated pre-reformation church practices, were still being practiced by colonists, albeit in secret! These celebrations often included giving away food and drink to slaves and servants, creating a carnival like revelry atmosphere that did not focus on the religious aspects of the day, but one of merriment.

Historian Steven Nissenbaum in his book The Battle for Christmas, theorizes that this mixing of rich and poor classes was becoming socially unacceptable as 18th century America underwent changes in social standing and wealth. As these attitudes changed, so did the focus. Christmas began to be more about the family, with special attention paid to children, who became the objects of charity and benevolence.

By the end of the 18th century most of America had forgotten the Puritan zealots who demanded strict adherence to their rules of religious expression. The age of enlightenment had opened eyes to the wonders of science, medicine, machinery and to the old practices of celebrating Christmas. It might also be noted that America was now a true melting pot of European and English traditions as well as those that had been brought by the introduction of African slaves into the early colonies.

All this culture mixing was bound to create new ways to celebrate Christmas. The earliest known drawing of a Christmas tree in America was by Pennsylvania artist John Lewis Kemmel. Of Dutch descent, he drew a Christmas tree sometime between 1812 and 1819. In 1835 Charles Follen, a German immigrant and Professor at Harvard invited a friend to celebrate Christmas with his family. The visitor observed that “Follen had placed the top of a fir tree on a sturdy table, a toy hung from every branch and he and his wife lit candles that had been fastened to the branches.”

Toys it seems were the first recorded ornaments on an American Christmas tree. It was a way of displaying and distributing them to children. In 1822 Clement C. Moore has written “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, a gift for his two daughters that told the story of a jolly fat man descending the chimney with presents for the children in the house. Moore later told the New York Historical Society that he had based his jolly smiling St. Nicholas on a “portly, rubicund Dutchman in the neighbourhood".

It seems that many of our earliest traditions were borrowed from the Dutch and the Germans. In 1840 Queen Victoria, her husband Prince Albert and their three children were drawn standing around a tabletop fir tree, hung with toys, pretty baubles and lit with candles tied to the branches. This image was widely copied and even in America, Godey’s Lady’s Book published the image with the removal of Prince Alberts sash to make it a more “American looking” family. Christmas and Saint Nicholas had arrived in America and were here to stay.

NEXT WEEK: Santa Claus, Charles Dickens and department store.


Elliot, Jack. Inventing Christmas: How Our Holiday Came to be. New York; Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2001.

Forbes, Bruce David. Christmas: A candid History. Berkley, Univ. Of CA press, 2007.

Nissenbaum, Steven. The Battle for Christmas. New York, Alfred P. Knopf, 1996.

Wabuda, Susan (2004), "Latimer, Hugh (c.1485–1555)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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