Greetings: “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays!”
Christmas was not declared a holiday in the US until June 26, 1870. It’s believed that December 25th was chosen in the 4th century as the day Jesus was born to absorb the traditions of earlier pagan mid-winter festivals like Saturnalia. Some evidence suggests that Jesus was actually born in the spring. Initially called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom of celebrating the holiday spread to Egypt in 432 then to England in the 6th century. By the middle ages, Christianity had mostly replaced the festivals but became a time of drunken and raucous behavior for believers after attending Christmas church services.
Puritan forces took over England in 1645 and vowed to do away with decadence and cancelled Christmas as part of their efforts. When King Charles II returned to the throne, Christmas celebrations returned.
Pilgrims arrived in America in 1620 and brought their strict Puritan beliefs with them. Christmas was outlawed in Boston between 1659 ad 1681. If anyone was caught celebrating, they were charged a fine. English customs fell out of favor after the American Revolution and Christmas was declared a federal holiday in June of 1870.
In the 19th century Americans began to embrace Christmas. It evolved into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. This was in contrast to the prior conflicts that often occurred between the disenchanted and upper classes during the season.
Around this time, Charles Dickens wrote the classic tale, A Christmas Carol, about the miserly and mean character Ebenezer Scrooge, showing the importance of charity and good will towards all humankind. Families were also becoming more sensitive to the emotional needs of children during the 1800’s. Christmas provided the opportunity for them to lavish attention and gifts on their children without seeming to “spoil” them.
As the Christmas holiday became more widely accepted and embraced, people looked to the customs of Catholic and Episcopalian churches for inspiration on how the day should be celebrated. Over the next 100 years, Americans would build a Christmas tradition that included the customs of many other cultures from around the world. This included decorating trees, sending holiday greetings and giving gifts. This borrowing from other cultures re-invented a holiday to meet the needs of a growing nation then and now.
Today in the US, for many the Christmas season officially begins the Friday after Thanksgiving. This day has become known as Black Friday because it begins the traditional shopping season and is the time when retailers are in the black, or turning a profit. Many retailers display holiday merchandise long before this time, some as early as late September. The windows of businesses, streets of towns and villages and just about every public building will be decorated with beautiful and often spectacular seasonal designs.
Around Thanksgiving and the day after is also when many cities hold Christmas parades. One of the most famous is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade which has been held since 1924 in New York City. Over the days and weeks to come Christmas trees go up and the bright and shiny lights and decorations of the season come to life. Stockings are hung and wreaths grace the doors of many homes across the nation. Plans are made for holiday gatherings and feasts and the focus turns to joy, giving and holiday festivities.
Children pay a visit to Santa Clause during this time to tell him that they’ve been good and to share their well- thought-out Christmas lists. Some write a letter to Santa at the North Pole hoping that on Christmas day their wish for a special gift is granted. A part of the tradition of visiting Santa is that each child takes a photo to remember the occasion. Children’s hearts burst with joy in anticipation of Christmas Eve when Santa and his team of reindeer lead by the most famous reindeer of all, Rudolph, will land at their house while they are sleeping bringing special gifts and toys to be opened on Christmas Day.
A traditional Christmas dinner in the US often includes turkey, ham, roasts, dressing and cranberry sauce. Side dishes and desserts today vary as much as the ethnic diversity and backgrounds of the holiday participants. Assorted cakes, pies, cookies and other confections are made and sold during this time including endless varieties of candies and other sweets.
Traditions, A Guide Book, The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, 1999