Nostalgia

Learn The Fascinating And Complex History Of Christmas In America

Laura by Laura Caseley
Laura is a writer, illustrator, and artist living in New York City.

Few people know this, but Christmas — the warm, cheerful, joyous holiday we all love to celebrate — was once outlawed across the country.

While it’s a very commonplace holiday now, Christmas actually has a long, complex, and pretty fascinating history — especially in the early days of the U.S., when the country was still figuring out its cultural identity.

We know that many of our Christmas traditions come from other countries and times, and their histories are much richer than they might seem — like the fascinating and ancient history of Santa Claus.

But to learn more about the holiday itself, let’s take a trip into the past and see what Americans who came before did for Christmas — and learn how our attitude towards the holiday has changed drastically over the years.

So while you’re enjoying your own family’s special traditions, remember that history really is complicated — but the more you know about it, the more special your own traditions and memories seem!

Please SHARE if you love learning our nation’s history!

1600s: Christmas is hated and outlawed in New England.

1600s: Christmas is hated and outlawed in New England.

In the New England colonies, the Puritan population was staunchly against Christmas and its celebration.

They saw it as a holiday associated with Catholic and pagan traditions, which they opposed.

In 1659, Christmas was officially outlawed in Boston, with a 50-shilling fine for anyone caught observing the holiday.

This law was revoked in 1681 by a non-Puritan governor, but by that time, Christmas had simply been forgotten, and wouldn’t catch on again until the mid-19th century.

1700s: Christmas is celebrated and enjoyed in certain American Colonies.

1700s: Christmas is celebrated and enjoyed in certain American Colonies.

Already becoming a mix of different cultures, colonists in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania celebrated Christmas. There were plenty of festivities, but typically, these were adults-only.

In Pennsylvania especially, which attracted a large German population, Christmas was popular.

It’s in Pennsylvania that the first records of Christmas trees and nativity scenes appear in the Americas.

1770s-80s: Christmas is considered unpatriotic.

1770s-80s: Christmas is considered unpatriotic.

During the American Revolution, the holiday and its traditions were seen as English holdovers, and so many American families dropped them — if they had been in the habit of celebrating them at all.

Interestingly, Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware River took place on the night of December 25, and resulted in the Battle of Trenton the following day.

1822: A poem popularizes Christmas, and Santa.

1822: A poem popularizes Christmas, and Santa.

Clement Clarke Moore published his poem A Visit From St. Nicholas — which today is known by its first line, “‘Twas the night before Christmas” — and, along with some Christmas-themed short stories by Washington Irving, captured Americans’ interest in Christmas again.

By this time, it would be more family-oriented and less a strictly religious observance.

 

1820s: People start shopping.

1820s: People start shopping.

It’s around this time that gift exchanging — and shopping for gifts — became popular, and holiday shopping started have economic significance.

It would also be around this time that some would become concerned about the growing commercialization of the holiday.

 

1843: Christmas gains worldwide popularity thanks to A Christmas Carol.

1843: Christmas gains worldwide popularity thanks to <i>A Christmas Carol</i>.

Charles Dickens published the now-seminal Christmas story, A Christmas Carol, in 1843, hoping to encourage readers to celebrate family and generosity.

The phrase “Merry Christmas” was widely popularized by this story.

Dickens saw Christmas as an opportunity for acts of charity and altruism, as well as spending time with and celebrating loved ones.

1870s: Trees start making appearances in American homes.

1870s: Trees start making appearances in American homes.

The history of the decorated tree is a long and complicated one that’s still shrouded in mystery today — but people have been decorating trees in various parts of the world for centuries.

But we do know that they only became staples in homes during the Christmas season in the 1870s.

They first became popular in England, after Queen Victoria had one in the 184os.

1875: Christmas cards are introduced in the U.S.

1875: Christmas cards are introduced in the U.S.

Louis Prang, who illustrated these festive frogs, is considered the “father of the American Christmas card” for introducing the custom to people in the U.S.

Cards had been popular in England for some thirty years prior.

1885: Christmas is officially declared a federal holiday.

1885: Christmas is officially declared a federal holiday.

It took up until the 20th century for Christmas to become a federal holiday, but then the concept of federal holidays only started in 1870.

This means that government offices were officially closed on Christmas all across the country.

 

1910s: Shopping and must-have presents become standard.

1910s: Shopping and must-have presents become standard.

By the early 20th century, the commercial aspect of Christmas was in full swing, with advertisements cashing in on the holiday to make sales.

This was also the time when electric lights, rather than candles, started appearing as decorations.

Today: It's a festive free-for-all!

Today: It's a festive free-for-all!

Today, people celebrate all kinds of holidays in the winter, and bring their own cultural and personal traditions with them.

Some people like to keep things traditional, while others like to celebrate with modern new festivities — like “ugly Christmas sweater” parties!

Still, most of these traditions focus on what really matters: love, kindness, and compassion during the chilly winter months.

Whatever and however you celebrate, it’s all pretty fascinating!

Remember to SHARE this history with your history-loving friends — and then share some Christmas cheer!