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An American Christmas Introduction


An American Christmas
Decade by Decade

How We Came to Celebrate
Christmas as a National Holiday

 

Introduction

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 era.

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 1838.

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.

The 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