We Americans take our holidays for granted. We celebrate President's
Day, Independence Day and a handful of other days each year, but
we give little thought to
the origin and history of these celebrations.
Of special importance is our celebration of Christmas - a day
that has become preeminent on our yearly calendars. How did our
celebration come about? The Hoover Presidential Library Museum
tells the story in this online exhibit.
Christmas wasn't always celebrated the way it is today. In fact,
the Puritans of Massachusetts banned any observance of Christmas,
and anyone caught observing the holiday had to pay a fine. Connecticut
had a law forbidding the celebration of Christmas and the baking
of mincemeat pies! A few of the earliest settlers did celebrate
Christmas, but it was far from a common holiday in the colonial
It is hard to pinpoint the first decorated Christmas trees in
America. Some say the tradition began with the Moravians of Bethlehem,
Pennsylvania who decorated trees in the very early 1800s. Others
say the first American Christmas tree was set up by Hessian soldiers
at Trenton, New Jersey, in 1776. We do know that by the early
1800s there were numerous decorated trees throughout our country,
but the term "Christmas tree" was not in common use until 1830.
The Christmas tree tradition was spread across America by German
immigrants beginning in the early 1800s. The Germans baked fancy
ornaments for their trees and then ate the ornaments when the
trees came down. After Christmas, these frugal people would strip
the needles and wrap the branches in cotton to extend the tree's
life for several Christmases to come.
Before the Civil War, the North and South were divided on the
issue of Christmas, as well as on the question of slavery. Many
Northerners saw sin in the celebration of Christmas; to these
people the celebration of Thanksgiving was more appropriate. But
in the South, Christmas was an important part of the social season.
Not surprisingly, the first three states to make Christmas a legal
holiday were in the South: Alabama in 1836, Louisiana and Arkansas
In the years after the Civil War, Christmas traditions spread
across the country. Children's books played an important role
in spreading the customs of celebrating Christmas, especially
the tradition of trimmed trees and gifts delivered by Santa Claus.
Sunday school classes encouraged the celebration of Christmas.
Women's magazines were also very important in suggesting ways
to decorate for the holidays, as well as how to make these decorations.
By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, America eagerly
decorated trees, caroled, baked, and shopped for the Christmas
season. Since that time, materialism, media, advertising, and
mass marketing has made Christmas what it is today. The traditions
that we enjoy at Christmas today were invented by blending together
customs from many different countries into what is considered
by many to be our national holiday.
Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum's
temporary exhibits are funded by
The Roy J. Carver Trust, William B. Quarton and
the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association