Christmas in America Before the 1940s
The American Christmas tradition was always evolving because it always reflected a mixing of religious and cultural influences.
Some aspects of the American Christmas tradition can be traced to ancient celebrations of the winter solstice, which often merged with birthday festivals for deities. Ancient Romans, for example, celebrated “Saturnalia” in late December with feasting, gift-giving, and a subversion of social norms.
Christians did not celebrate a Feast of the Nativity until the fourth century. The date was set after Emperor Aurelian designated December 25 as the day to celebrate the birth of the Roman deity, Sol Invictus.
As Christianity spread through Europe, Christmas intertwined with traditions such as the Norse feast season known as Yule. A tension between the pagan and Christian aspects of the celebration persisted through the Middle Ages and then became pronounced during the Protestant Reformation. While Catholics generally attended Mass and indulged in merriment, Calvinists condemned the latter. Under the Puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s, England banned it entirely, punishing those who celebrated Christmas in public with fines and imprisonment.
As Puritans waged their “war on Christmas,” the American colonies provided a new battleground. Puritans in Massachusetts denounced Christmas as a vestige of paganism and Catholicism, and they fined those who engaged in “frolicking.” Quakers in Pennsylvania followed suit.
As the colonial population grew more diverse, however, Christmas traditions proliferated. Colonists in Maryland, Virginia, and elsewhere feasted, drank, gambled, sang, and danced. Many donned masks and other disguises, paraded through neighbors’ homes, and fired guns long into the night.
The restoration of the English monarchy in the 1660s brought some renewed tolerance for Christmas, but Puritan opposition in the colonies remained strong. In the 1690s, Congregationalist minister Cotton Mather associated “Christmas-keeping” with Salem witchcraft. Such tensions continued well into the eighteenth century, even as other civic and religious holidays provided a source of British unity.
After declaring independence, Americans removed all British holidays from their calendars. Whether to observe Christmas thus became even more of a local matter. A New York Huguenot lamented the growing divergence: “Our Protestant Faith affords no religious holidays and processions like the Catholics.”6
Religious divisions grew during the early decades of the nineteenth century. Divisions tied to slavery and economic inequality strained American society as well. The desire for a Christmas tradition that could unite all Americans — or at least all Protestants and Catholics — began to grow stronger.
Some of the pieces soon emerged. Clement Moore’s poem, “The Night Before Christmas” (1823), encouraged children to hang stockings for “Santa Claus” to fill. Merchants created a Christmas shopping season with evening hours and colorful window displays. After Prince Albert gave Queen Victoria a Christmas tree in 1840, the German tradition became popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Although public revelry remained common, the domestic aspects of the season were becoming paramount.
Between the 1830s and the 1850s, fourteen states made Christmas an official holiday. In the wake of the Civil War, the desire for national unity — and for unifying traditions — grew even stronger. Charles Dickens toured the U.S. in 1867 and delivered dramatic readings of A Christmas Carol (1842). The novella hardly mentioned Christianity, but its message of generosity, redemption, and goodwill resonated widely as the nation recovered from war. In 1870, Congress finally declared Christmas a federal holiday.
The industrializing nation faced a new array of challenges in the coming decades. Many Americans responded with an embrace of what they thought were time-honored traditions, including those that came to define Christmas. They decorated pre-cut trees with factory-made ornaments and electric lights, wrapped and exchanged store-bought presents, sent store-bought cards with pre-written sentiments, sang “timeless” carols written in recent decades, and shared stories of Santa Claus — a figure whose image Thomas Nast perfected in the 1880s.
The Christmases that Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby “used to know” were those of the early twentieth century, but even then, the American Christmas tradition was continuing to evolve.
Shared rituals — private and public — remained at the heart of the holiday season. Americans decorated trees, and many admired the nation’s first “public Christmas tree,” erected in New York City in 1912. They shopped for presents, and many watched as Macy’s launched the shopping season with its first annual Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924. They also began to seek out holiday entertainment, tuning their radios every year to hear Crosby himself sing “Adeste Fidelis” and other carols, beginning in 1935, and Lionel Barrymore perform as Ebenezer Scrooge, beginning in 1936.
Christian sentiments remained important, too. A contributor to The Atlantic noted in the 1930s that her family always went to midnight Mass. “To be among hundreds of people of all colors and races, of all walks of life, who are drawn together by a common emotion, a common faith,” she wrote, “is to be at once in harmony with the Christmas mood.”7
Yet the 1930s also brought the global hardships of the Great Depression, which exacerbated racism and anti-Semitism, fueled imperialism and fascism, and ultimately led to war. Berlin and Crosby knew this all too well.
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