views updated Jun 11 2018


The history of Christmas in America is rich and diverse. Beginning as an occasion that was prohibited by the Puritans, it has become what is arguably the most elaborate and socially visible holiday in American culture. On the way to achieving this status, the "traditional" American Christmas has incorporated a variety of myths and traditions with both religious and nonreligious origins.

Christmas and the Puritans

The Puritan movement against the holiday began in England in the seventeenth century, when they labeled the celebration of Christmas as "pagan" and an "Antichrist's Mass" (Whitaker, 2000, p. 72). In an effort to rid England of the holiday, Puritan soldiers went so far as to invade private homes on Christmas Day and put a stop to any feasting or celebrating they encountered. When the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts in 1620, they treated December 25 as an ordinary day. However, as immigrants began to import Christmas customs to the New World, the Puritans outlawed the celebration of Christmas, along with any "such ffestivalls as were superstitiously kept in other countrys, to the great dishonnor of God & offence of others" (Woodward, 1997, p. 32). Anyone feasting or celebrating on Christmas Day, or choosing to take the day off from labor, was fined five shillings.

Stephen Nissenbaum observes the Puritans believed they had good reasons to outlaw Christmas, for at the time its celebration was characterized by a ritualistic inversion of the social order. During the holiday, the poor believed it was their right not only to call upon the wealthier members of society and demand gifts and money, but to celebrate these new acquisitions by drinking heavily and engaging in riotous behavior in the streets of the young New England cities. As Elizabeth Pleck observes, the colonial celebration of Christmas "was often celebrated as a drunken festival of carousing, begging, overeating, and masquerading" (p. 45). The Puritan law banning public celebrations of Christmas remained in place until 1681, when Charles II of England demanded its repeal.

Emergence of Christmas as a National American Holiday

Although Christmas was reinstated, Americans did not regard it as a national holiday until the early nineteenth century. Penne Restad asserts, in fact, that until that time, most Americans, regardless of geographic location or religious beliefs, did not celebrate Christmas. Those who chose to celebrate the holiday did so by keeping their own personal or subcultural traditions. For example, planters in Virginia celebrated by feasting, gambling, dancing, and hunting, emulating what they believed to be the Christmas customs characteristic of the manor-born in England. In short, across the regions of the United States, there was no nationally recognized holiday or even similarity of traditions.

The national regard for Christmas changed in the nineteenth century when the many variants of the holiday began to converge into a "more singular and widely celebrated home holiday" (Restad, p. 13). During this time, Americans began to take old traditions and combine them with new symbols and traditions, to help create the Christmas Americans know today. The strongest reemergence of the holiday began in the Northeast. The industrialized, urbanized nature of that region meant its residents began to long for the intimacy they had felt in their towns or villages prior to the proliferation of large cities. As they began looking for something to unite them with a common past, they hit upon celebrating Christmas as the solution.

By the 1850s, the newfound tradition of Christmas was making its way to the South via the railroads and increased cross-country communication. These innovations helped disseminate ideas and customs to previously isolated areas of the country. Just a decade later, the Civil War further helped solidify the status of Christmas as a national holiday. Restad attributes this popularity to an increased desire for celebrations of the family in the wake of soldiers who had left home. The holiday also brought the message of peace and goodwill, which "spoke to the most immediate prayers of all Americans" (Restad, p. 13). While the war helped to promote the celebration of Christmas, much of the actual shaping of the modern holiday can be attributed to the Northern victory. Since the North gained control of the publishing trade and became the most powerful region of the country, myths and traditions that had begun in the immigrant-rich North became integral aspects of the American Christmas.

Around the end of the Civil War, Christmas also began to reemerge as a religious holiday. The first indication of this reappearance occurred in Sunday Schools during the 1860s and 1870s. During this time, the American Sunday School Society began integrating Christmas programs into their Sunday School lessons. According to Cynthia Hart, John Grossman, and Priscilla Dunhill, the clergy had mixed feelings about these curricular materials, but became convinced that the teaching of the Nativity was a great learning tool for the children, as well as a way to boost attendance in churches.

Elements of the Victorian Christmas

Although religion began to play an important part in the Christmas celebration, the establishment of what became known as the Victorian Christmas is attributed to Charles Dickens. Beginning in 1867 and 1868, Dickens began reading his popular work A Christmas Carol in sold-out theaters, with audiences of up to 35,000, painting the picture of "a glowing warmth of the family circle" (Hart, Grossman, and Dunhill, p. 75). The popularity of Dickens's tale contributed to the strong emergence of Christmas as a family holiday in Victorian times. This new emphasis on the family was supported by the widespread adoption of the Christmas feast, which typically required several weeks of preparation, and resulted in dinners of three or four hours in length with up to eight courses (Hart, Grossman, and Dunhill, p. 75). A family Christmas program, in which celebrants would contribute tableaux, recitals, and music for entertainment, and would participate in group sing-alongs and parlor games, followed the family dinner. Such games included snap dragon, a game where players tried to retrieve raisins out of a dish after the rim was set on fire, as well as blind man's bluff, drop the handkerchief, musical chairs, charades, and reenactments of historical events.

Christmas Symbolism

During the nineteenth century, many myths and rituals definitive of the modern Christmas celebration began to emerge. One of the most prolific and enduring symbols of the American Christmas is the image of Santa Claus. Joe Woodward argues that the original character of Santa Claus is largely based on the Catholic Saint Nicholas. He asserts that a combination of Saint Nicholas's alleged generosity toward children, combined with the fact that his death fell just nineteen days before Christmas, makes him the most likely model for this figure. Although the Puritans had attempted to suppress interest in Saint Nicholas (as well as all other saints), the character reemerged under the names of "Father Christmas" and "Kris Kringle" in England and Germany, respectively.

Woodward dates the broad dissemination of the Santa Claus figure to the American public to 1809, when Washington Irving included the character in a collection of Dutch-American tales entitled The Knickerboeker History (1995). Publication of this book seemed to greatly enhance the popularity of Santa Claus, because shortly after, a children's book entitled The Children's Friend featured a character called "Santeclaus" driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer. While these pieces of literature helped to introduce Santa Claus, Woodward maintains the Santa Claus myth we know today really captured the attention of the American public in 1822, when Clement C. Moore wrote the poem "The Night Before Christmas." The article states that this poem introduced the "eight tiny reindeer" concept along with the description of Santa Claus that was fashioned after Moore's childhood memories of white-bearded Dutch merchants who carried leather bells and wore red coats. While the concept of Santa Claus was now firmly entrenched in the minds of Americans, the final step in the visualization of the Santa Claus image occurred forty years later during the Civil War, when the cartoonist Thomas Nast drew the jolly, portly, costumed version of Santa Claus that became the standard for future journalistic and commercial depictions.

A second major symbol of the American Christmas is the Christmas tree. While this artifact was already in existence as far back as the 1300s, Hart, Grossman, and Dunhill attribute its inclusion in the American celebration to a custom imported by German settlers in Pennsylvania. Pleck observes that by the 1830s, neighbors were invited to see the trees decorated by German families. By 1848, the Christmas tree was a commodity in Pennsylvania markets. However, the success of the tradition is attributed to a New York merchant, Mark Carr, who began selling Christmas trees on the New York City docks in 1851. Hart, Grossman, and Dunhill report that less than thirty years later, there were as many as 400 tree merchants in New York City alone, with tree sales amounting to up to 200,000 a year.

Soon to follow the popularity of Christmas trees was Christmas tree decoration. Penne Restad states that the early Christmas tree decorations were homemade items, consisting of strings of nuts, popcorn, and beads. However, it was not long before an entire industry devoted to Christmas ornaments emerged in the United States. In 1870, merchants began to import large quantities of German ornaments and sell them in the marketplaces. Such items as wax angels and metal and glass-based decorations, which were vastly different from the original homemade food-based ornaments, began to dominate the Christmas trees of Americans. Most ornaments were based on popular styles and materials of the time, but some aspects of the Christmas tree decoration also have religious origins. Woodward attributes the custom of lighting the Christmas tree to Martin Luther, who fixed candles onto his fir tree to "remind children of heaven" (1997, p. 34). He adds that the tradition of placing a star atop the tree was meant to symbolize the Bethlehem star that the Magi followed on Christmas Eve.

Another Christmas tradition that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century was that of exchanging Christmas cards. A New York storeowner named R. H. Pease created the first American-made Christmas card in the 1850s (Restad). However, the expansion of the Christmas card custom was largely due to the entrepreneurial efforts of Louis Prang, a German immigrant. In 1870, Prang owned approximately two-thirds of the printing presses in America and first distributed the cards at the 1873 International Exhibition. After this event, he added a Christmas greeting to the cards and introduced them to America in 1875. Restad observes that the increased mobility and urbanization of America meant people viewed Christmas cards as adequate substitutes for the more time-consuming traditions of Christmas letters and visits.

The 1870s and 1880s similarly saw the rise of the American gift-giving tradition at Christmas. Prior to these decades, gifts had played only a small role in family Christmas celebrations. Personal gifts became regarded as a way to sort out and maintain personal relationships; likewise, gifts were used as a means of offering charity to the less fortunate. The blossoming of gift popularity led to a divide between store-bought and homemade gifts, and this discrepancy ultimately led to the introduction of another tradition: gift wrapping. In short, the wrapping of presents heightened the experience of receiving a "special something," and also helped to transform the gift from an ordinary commodity that anyone could buy to an item that would be properly regarded as a gift.

Another popular holiday tradition is the singing of Christmas carols. Ian Bradley states that Christmas carols were suppressed by the Puritan regime, only to be rediscovered in Victorian times. Moreover, a voluminous amount of new carols were written during this era. Many of these carols were written with more than religious themes in mind. For example, a popular theme of Victorian carols was moralizing, through such lyrics as "Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as He" from Cecil Frances Alexander's carol "Once in Royal David's City" (Bradley, p. 42). It was during the Victorian era that the sentiment for a "white Christmas" became popular, through Christina Rosetti's "In the Bleak Mid-Winter," which added snow to the Nativity story.

Other Christmas myths that remain somewhat popular include hanging mistletoe and holly wreaths. Woodward observes that the hanging of mistletoe began as a Dutch fertility symbol; subsequently, the English borrowed both the tradition and the meaning and brought it to America. The holly wreath is derived from religious origins, which according to Woodward symbolized Christ's blood, placed into a wreath to symbolize Gods' eternity.

Christmas Shopping

Despite the growing popularity of Christmas, gifts, cards and wrappings, the creation of the holiday shopping season is attributed to something else entirely besides the Christmas Spirit. Richard Henderson observes that, while there was a large surplus of mass-manufactured goods at the beginning of the nineteenth century, sluggish economic times meant there was essentially no market for them. Thus, leaders of the Industrial Revolution felt compelled to devise ways to boost sales that would permeate the consciousness of Americans who were just beginning to embrace the tenets of consumer culture. Henderson credits Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker, founder of one of the first department stores in the United States, as being the driving force for the proliferation of commercial Christmas gifts, through the invention of new advertising media as well as innovative retailing techniques. Prior to Wanamaker's efforts, holiday gifts had been given more commonly at New Year's, but there was no real organized effort by retailers to encourage people to exchange gifts.

Other innovations in technology also helped to encourage people to purchase items beyond the traditional gifts of Bibles and decorative books that had dominated the early decades of the 1800s. Henderson credits the inventions of lightbulbs and plate glass, which were used to create window displays, with the development of the pastime of window shopping. This activity, he argues, helped lure shoppers into the stores, increasing their desire for mass-marketed goods. Moreover, the advent of cast iron as a building material allowed retailers to create much larger retail establishments than ever before, with more room for displays. All of these factors combined to help encourage consumers to embrace the concept of Christmas shopping as real and important ritual work.

Controversies Surrounding Christmas

As Christmas became reconfigured as more of a commercial holiday, two objections to this transition arose. The first was from religious conservatives, who argued it was important to "put the Christ back in Christmas" (Pleck, p. 44), and to focus on making the celebration one that focused on heavenly virtues such as charity and sacrifice, rather than more earthly desires. The second controversy emerged as the nation began to engage in a dialogue around the issue of what it means to live in an increasingly multicultural, multiethnic society. John Leo argues that the underlying Christian theme of Christmas means those who embrace other religions such as Judaism and Islam—as well as those who do not share a European heritage—feel excluded from such a culturally pervasive celebration. Elizabeth Pleck asserts that Jews have responded by elevating Hanukkah, a relatively minor holiday that occurs around the same time as Christmas, to a more elaborate holiday. Leo asserts that, rather than trying to include these new religions, civic authorities have taken steps to eliminate any religious theme or allusion to Christmas. Such measures include the banning of Christmas trees, Nativity scenes, and poinsettias in public places, and banning religious themes in workplaces. Moreover, the pervasiveness of Christmas has led to a reemergence of the debate on religion in schools, and even the banning of holiday celebrations from the curriculum by some educators.

Even as the commercial and religious aspects of Christmas and the holiday season are rescinded in schools and workplaces, those same themes seem to have become more entrenched in the media. Both Elizabeth Pleck and Jeremy Lott contend that portrayals of Christmas in films have become "a normal part of the holiday hustle and bustle" (Lott, p. 45). Christmas movies now encompass all film genres, from children's movies to comedy to religion to drama. Moreover, producers in both the television and film industry have even satirized the commercialism that drives their own business. Lott offers the film Jingle All the Way, which jokes about parents fighting over the "hot toy" of the Christmas season, as an example of this phenomenon.

In summary, Christmas in America has had a long and often controversial history. No doubt the Puritans would be dismayed at the way Christmas has captured the American consciousness—and checkbook—with a vengeance. The celebration of Christmas has affected many segments of American society, including religion, tourism, shopping, entertaining, and media offerings. Moreover, many of its traditions—such as decoration of trees and gift wrapping—have contributed to the growth of other holidays. Finally, Christmas has become one of the central engines driving American consumer culture today.

See also: Easter


Bradley, Ian. "Sing Choirs of Angels." History Today 28 (December 1998): 42–47.

Carrier, James. Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism Since 1700. London: Routledge, 1995.

Hart, Cynthia, John Grossman, and Priscilla Dunhill. Joy to the World. New York: Workman Publishing, 1990.

Henderson, Richard. "Christmas Shopping." Billboard 113, no. 22 (September 2001): 63.

Leo, John. "Undecking the Halls." U.S. News and World Report 24 (December 2001): 47.

Lott, Jeremy. "It's a Wonderful Movie." Newsmagazine 131 (16 December 2002): 45.

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Pleck, Elizabeth H. Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Restad, Penne. "Christmas in Nineteenth-Century America." History Today 45 (December 1995): 13–19.

Whitaker, Mark. "When Christmas Was Illegal." New Statesman 129 (25 December 2000): 72.

Woodward, Joe. "The Enduring Power of Saint Nicholas." Alberta Report 23 (18 December 1995): 24.

——. "A Ffestivall Superstitiously Kept." Alberta Report 25 (22 December 1997): 32.

Cele C. Otnes


views updated Jun 11 2018


Since time immemorial European cultures have pursued a great many different activities connected with the winter solstice, and that pervasive human instinct is the basic reason for observing Christmas in December. Pre-Christian festivals in the Mediterranean world included many variations on Saturnalia, a period of revelry scheduled at the end of each calendar year. Other celebrations stemmed from Syria and the Mithra cult and were associated specifically with the sun. By 274 c.e. the Roman emperor Aurelian designated December 25 as natalis Solis Invicti, birthday of the unconquerable sun, the point where cold and darkness yielded once more to warmth and light. In northern Europe there was similar notice of the winter solstice in festivals featuring gifts, food, greenery, and lights. Germanic peoples made the yule log conspicuous in such observances, and the Celts used mistletoe and holly as symbols of longevity and endurance.

It was only in the late fourth century that churches began to designate a special place for a Mass of Christ in the liturgical calendar, a feast called Cristes-maesse in Old English. There is no evidence that early churches attributed much importance to the physical birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and the date of the actual event is not known. But when a Christian holiday was named for it, church officials deliberately chose December 25 in an attempt to supplant the pagan rituals that were already in place. Once incorporated theologically as well as liturgically into the ecclesiastical calendar, Christmas provided a general focus for a cycle of related feasts that stretched from Advent to Epiphany ( January 6). Songs about "The Twelve Days of Christmas" refer to those between Christmas and Epiphany. Western churches say that the Magi appeared to adore the newborn infant on Epiphany, whereas Eastern Orthodox churches designate that day to commemorate Christ's baptism.

Christmas celebrations have always exhibited a mixture of ecclesiastically sanctioned religious observances and remnants of pre-Christian practices that vary widely with local custom. Many sixteenth-century Protestants condemned Christmas festivals because of the pagan and frivolous qualities that persisted despite Christian overtones. Calvinists were particularly emphatic in this regard, and wherever Puritan influence was strong in the American colonies, Christmas festivities were outlawed. The holiday did not become legal in New England until 1856. Puritan repressions have largely disappeared from today's world, however, and celebrations surrounding Christmas are now quite varied and widespread.

In colonial times the Dutch introduced traditions related to St. Nicholas, especially the custom of giving gifts to children. In time the practice spread throughout America and expanded to include presents for adults as well. When people from different ethnic backgrounds tried to pronounce the saint's name, there were many versions, but the most widely accepted reference became "Santa Claus." Ideas about this Santa Claus were greatly influenced by the poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," first printed in 1823. Clement C. Moore, a seminary professor, wrote the poem as a present for his children, and when a New York newspaper published it, the narrative that begins " 'Twas the night before Christmas . . ." became one of the most frequently recited verses of the season. Though St. Nicholas had previously been depicted as old and thin, Santa Claus became universally described as plump and jolly, clad in fur-trimmed red clothing. This visual image was due to Thomas Nast, a cartoonist who began drawing Santa Claus this way in 1863. Moore's poem and Nast's pictures established a pattern that has remained much the same through current times. No other figure dominates Christmas festivities in the United States as much as Santa Claus.

Nineteenth-century England also witnessed an expansion of Christmas observances, most of them Germanic in origin because of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband. Christmas trees decorated with ornaments, and tinsel, holly wreaths, bells, carols, and exchanging Christmas cards all added to the general atmosphere of merrymaking. These influences quickly made their way across the Atlantic and have remained basic elements in U.S. popular culture for well over a century. Of all British influences that have shaped ideas about the season, probably the most important was A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens in 1843. That story, which depicted the callousness and eventual repentance of Ebenezer Scrooge, together with humble faith and forgiveness in the Cratchit family, has become another perennial feature of the modern North American Christmas.

Public affirmation of and participation in Christmas have increased throughout the twentieth century. Religious observances of Christ's birth still give central purpose and meaning to the holiday for many people. But in contemporary times commercial interests have dominated public awareness of the season, forcing theological-liturgical considerations into a place of secondary importance. While many traditions still focus on children and family, others now include celebrations in the workplace, school plays, and municipal pageants. Exchanging gifts has become so widespread as to include friends and acquaintances at virtually every level of contact. It has made the Christmas season a boom time, one of the most important parts of the commercial year for selling consumer goods. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City (inaugurated in 1924 and widely emulated throughout the United States), featuring Santa Claus and many huge balloons, is often taken as the signal for Christmas shopping to begin. In more recent times people have begun seasonal shopping even earlier. Christmas creates many extra jobs as temporary sources of income, and in business corporations it is often the occasion for bonuses and promotions. Buying and spending for home decorations are quite widespread, as is consuming rich foods such as eggnog, roast turkey or goose, and mince pies. The choice of foods, types of presents, and party activities differ widely according to the many cultures that make up modern North American life, but all of them emphasize a time of celebration, indulgence, and sharing. Jewish Americans have made much of Hanukkah, or Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, as a way of sharing common elements of the holiday season while still emphasizing their own faith and cultural heritage. Many African Americans have begun observing Kwanza for similar reasons.

Music has always played a part in Christmas festivities, and that is still the case in contemporary usage. Classical performances often feature Handel's oratorio The Messiah, as well as many renditions of the aria "Ave Maria." Several hymns or carols such as "Silent Night" and "O Little Town or Bethlehem" remain perennial favorites, too. On a more popular level, perhaps the best-loved song of all is "White Christmas," written by Irving Berlin and first sung by Bing Crosby in 1942. Many other vocalists recorded versions of the standby thereafter, and additional songs enrich Christmas music, but none has superseded the original in popular esteem.

The movies and television have contributed heavily to the generalized sentimentalism that characterizes Christmas today. Hollywood has produced a bewildering variety of Christmas films, some of which are only loosely connected to holiday themes. Almost a dozen versions of Dickens's tale about Scrooge have appeared, and each year new films emerge that both reinforce and exploit popular sympathies. Two movies that receive much attention every year are Holiday Inn (1942) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947), whose plot turns on the Macy's parade, Santa Claus, and childlike trust in human goodness. Many television programs further these sentiments, too. Popular favorites each year feature animated versions of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman, plus many others, notably Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

For most of the twentieth century, Christmas observances have included a display of manger scenes on municipal properties, indicating how deeply ingrained the holiday had become in accepted American routines. But in recent decades several non-Christian groups have challenged activities that recognize the holiday of just one religion at the expense of all citizens. Lawsuits backed by the American Civil Liberties Union have been successful in several states, where courts have found it unconstitutional for governmental offices to aid or further any religious interest. Exhibiting crèches has been singled out as a particularly blatant abuse of this sort, and therefore such displays have disappeared from public squares in many parts of the country. Arguments over separation of church and state will continue in this area for some time to come. But no litigation will ever succeed in suppressing all the symbols connected with Christmas, private and public, sacred and secular, because their protean meanings have become so inextricably mixed with contemporary culture.

See alsoAdvent; Celtic Practices; Chanukah; Church; Church and State; Epiphany; Food; Liturgy and Worship; Lived Religion; Music; Posada, La; Ritual; Secularization.


Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festival Holidays. 1964.

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition:Christian and Pagan. 1913.

Robbins, M., and J. Charlton. A Christmas Comparison. 1991.

Rulon, P. Keeping Christmas: The Celebration of an American Holiday. 1990.

Schmidt, Leigh E. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. 1995.

Henry Warner Bowden


views updated May 23 2018


CHRISTMAS. The word "Christmas" means the mass of Christ and is the name for the Christian observance of the nativity of Jesus on 25 December. In liturgical importance, Christmas was originally in fourth place, following Easter, Pentecost, and Epiphany, yet in terms of popular observance it has become the most important feast day of the year and the basis for a vast commercial retail industry derived from it, even in countries like Japan and Korea, where Christianity is not the predominant religion.

The early Christians were not initially concerned with the Nativity of Christ, and even in the fourth century C.E. it was not a universally fixed observance among Christians. The choice of 25 December is considered arbitrary and not based on evidence provided in the New Testament, the Christian text dealing with the life of Christ. Many theories have been put forward for the choice of the 25 December as Christ's Nativity, but that it fell during Roman Saturnalia is now largely dismissed. It appears to have been fixed in relation to Epiphany (6 January), counting backward twelve days (now the twelve days of Christmas) or thirteen nights by the lunar calendar. It also falls three days after the winter solstice, a date when a number of pagan gods underwent resurrection after the shortest day of the year. This includes Sol Invictus of the Roman state religion during pagan times, a cult associated with the deification of the emperor. Whatever the explanation, it is evident that the early Christian Fathers, in their struggle for political and psychological supremacy, turned the interpretatio romana (the process of romanizing foreign gods) on its ear by expropriating a number of pagan symbols and observances and providing them with new Christian meanings. For this reason, Christmas and especially the foods associated with it represent a fusion of diverse pagan strands varying widely in emphasis from one country to the next. The celebration of Yule in Scandinavia has become one of the most distinctive aspects of the holiday as observed in northern Europe. The tradition of St. Nicholas of Myra in the Netherlands and the Franciscan cult of the Bambino Gesu in Italy are examples of the many forms these fusions have taken. All are expressed symbolically in food.

The mass and the various mystery plays dealing with the Nativity and the ales, or community-wide feasts, were the core of the old observance. The mass was often preceded by abstinence, a period called the vigil, that was then broken at midnight with a large meal in which the entire village or community participated. Such midnight feasting was practiced in many predominantly Roman Catholic countries, such as Poland and Spain, into the twenty-first century.

Outside of the church but parallel to its liturgies existed the folk customs carried over from pagan beliefs. Thus the ales exhibited a prevalence of mumming (playful imitations of old gods and their stories), antlered beings, pigs (associated with butchering, of course), and other oral traditions given the shape of festive breads and cakes or reflected in the choices of certain foods, such as roast goose, or dishes containing blood, such as blood soups, blood sausages, and black puddings, from which English plum pudding and mincemeats evolved. In the Orthodox tradition of the Eastern Church, which broke with Latin practice, Epiphany remained the official Nativity of Christ, and dishes containing blood are fully absent from the diet, festive or otherwise.

The late Middle Ages retained community feasting, although it became more centered on the manor house, a practice later continued on the plantations of the American South, while in towns it moved into the private homes of wealthy merchants and the nobility. The Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on individual salvation, broke down the old community-wide feasts in favor of the family and home. This shift brought a widespread erasure of older village and folk customs (in England and northern Germany, for example) and the rise of the commercial Christmas. Gingerbreads, marzipans, and various festive foods hitherto made and sold by monks or by nunneries, moved into the general marketplace and become available to anyone with the financial means to purchase them. Dutch paintings from the seventeenth century often depict domestic feasts that present holiday foods in great abundance. In Protestant areas, the alms formerly associated with Christmas doles for the poor disappeared and did not return until the rise of urban missionaries in the nineteenth century.

The American Christmas, the primary theme of this article, inherited its major characteristics from England during the colonial period. Some religious groups, such as the Puritans of New England and the Quakers of Pennsylvania, abjured the observation of Christmas altogether on the theological basis that the day was fixed artificially by the early Church and therefore was not a real holiday. The Puritans originally created Thanksgiving as a substitute for Christmas. Thanksgiving subsequently became attached to the Christmas holiday, more or less marking the commercial beginning of the Christmas season.

Other American regionalisms gradually emerged into mainstream custom. The Christmas tree, with its huge array of food ornaments, first appeared among the Pennsylvania Dutch in the form of table-top branches of cherry trees (which were forced to bloom) or a large limb from an evergreen shrub, such as mountain laurel or cedar. These table-top trees were set into large flower pots and surrounded with plates of festive food. The shift to small table-top trees is well-documented by the 1790s, and their appearance in store windows is noted in a number of newspapers during the 1820s. Later, in the 1840s, the Christmas tree custom was further reinforced by German immigrants, and it quickly became a symbol of status in Victorian households. While its origins are undoubtedly pagan, the tree was adopted by many churches during the Sunday School movement of the 1840s and 1850s as a means of teaching Christian values to children.

Likewise, during the revival of medieval themes led by the Oxford movement in England, St. Nicholas (called Santa Claus in America), the old gift bringer of the New York Dutch, underwent a complete rejuvenation, especially after his popularization in newspapers and magazines by the immigrant artist Thomas Nast. Thus by the beginning of the twentieth century the American Christmas had acquired a new and much less liturgical focal point, that is, Santa Claus and the exchange of gifts, including a tree under which the family displayed symbols of its economic well-being.

Throughout these evolutionary changes, the basic foods of the American Christmas remained the same, especially the format of the Christmas dinner. The dinner is based on eighteenth-century English models, and at its centerpiece is a roast, normally turkey. This centerpiece is surrounded by side dishes reflecting regional tastes and often ethnic backgrounds. Italian families may add a dish of pasta, although in households adhering to a more traditional Italian fare, the "five" fishes are served. African-American families may feature sweet potatoes and cowpeas, and Mexican-American families may incorporate a salsa and the custom of breaking a piñata, which culminates the festivities on Christmas Eve. The traditional explanation for the piñata custom is that the image symbolizes the devil, and, by breaking it, he is destroyed. The act is thus rewarded by a shower of good things to eat. However, the custom of creating a shower of plenty has numerous parallels with other pre-Christian fertility rites, most of which are associated in some manner with Christmas. The earliest recorded Christmas trees (in seventeenth-century German guildhalls) were left ornamented with food until Second Christmas (December 26) or New Year's Day, when they were shaken violently to shower the food on a mob of happy children. In other parts of Germany and central Europe, apple trees were shaken on Christmas Eve to ensure that the trees would bear a good crop of fruit.

The Christmas Day meal continues to evolve as newer immigrants add their own symbolism to the old theme or as older groups create new variations, as in the case of Kwanzaa of African Americans. Ethnic nuances aside, the basic meal focuses on roast turkey, repeats much the same meal format as Thanksgiving, and finishes with a variety of traditional desserts, including pumpkin pie, mincemeat pie, and fruit cake. It has been said that the unchanging quality of the Christmas dinner has endeared it to Americans, who find a sense of continuity in its year-to-year repetition.

See also Christianity ; Epiphany ; Feasts, Festivals and Fasts ; Kwanzaa ; Thanksgiving.


Restad, Penne L. Christmas in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Shoemaker, Alfred L. Christmas in Pennsylvania. Edited by Don Yoder. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole, 1999.

Weaver, William Woys. The Christmas Cook. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

Weber-Kellermann, Ingeborg. Das Weihnachtsfest [The Feast of Christmas]. Lucerne: Bucher, 1978.

William Woys Weaver


views updated Jun 11 2018


For Americans, the celebration of Christmas is often considered one of the most important holidays of the year. Because of the diverse heritages and customs, in addition to Kwanzaa, a tradition begun in the later part of the twentieth century, the American Christmas consists of traditions from not only the German, but English, Dutch, and other Eastern European countries as well. Having religious significance, Christmas also celebrates the child found in each individual and the desire for peace. Falling during the same month as the Jewish observance of Chanukah or Hanukkah (the Feast of Lights) and the African-American celebration of Kwanzaa, the season of Christmas serves as a time of celebration, feasting, and a search for miracles.

While Christmas generally is considered the celebration of Jesus's birth, the early Puritans, who settled the New England region, refused to celebrate the occasion. Disagreeing with the early church fathers who established the holiday around a pagan celebration for easy remembrance by the poor, the Puritans considered the observance secular in nature. Set during the winter solstice when days grow dark early, Christmas coincides with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia; the date, December 25, marks the celebration of Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, or the birth day of the Unconquered Sun by the Romans. Puritans believed that these pagan customs, which included no work, feasting, and gift giving, were inappropriate for the celebration of the Lord's birth. While the northern colonists did not observe the day, the southern colonists celebrated in much the same style as their British counterparts—with banquets and family visits. Firecrackers or guns were used to welcome the Christ Child at midnight on Christmas. The residents of New York (New Amsterdam) celebrated the season in a similar fashion as their Dutch ancestors had with St. Nicholas Day (December 6), established to honor the patron saint of children. Gradually, all observances became centered around the date December 25, with traditions becoming mixed and accepted between different ethnic backgrounds.

With these strong ties to religion, Christmas serves an important role for the Christian faith. The four Sundays before Christmas, or the season of Advent, prepares the congregation for the arrival of the Messiah. With wreathes consisting of greenery, four small purple candles, and one large white candle, church members are reminded of the four elements of Christianity: peace, hope, joy, and love. This season of the church year ends with the lighting of the Christ candle on Christmas morning, signalling the two week period of Christmastide.Nativity scenes, or creches, adorn altars as a visual reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.

While attendance at church services and midnight masses seems commonplace, the first visible sign of the Christmas season appears in the decoration of the home. Some families decorate the outside of their home with multi-strings of colored lights, while others focus their decorations around an evergreen tree of spruce, fir, or cedar. In the 1960s, a new type of Christmas tree appeared on the market which allows families to prepare for the season early and leave their decorations up well into the New Year. Artificial trees have ranged in style from the silver aluminum trees (1960s) to the imitation spruce and snow-covered fir. A custom attributed to Martin Luther, the Christmas tree often appears decorated with lights and ornaments consisting of family heirlooms—a central theme which had meaning to the family—or religious symbols. Christmas trees became widely used after 1841 when Prince Albert placed one for his family's use at Windsor Castle. Originally, the Christmas tree was decorated with candles. With the introduction of electricity, however, strings of small and large bulbs ranging in color from white to multi-color illumine the tree. The lighting of the tree dates back to the days when light was used to dispel the evil found in darkness. Around the base of the tree, gifts, creches, or large scale displays of Christmas villages represent some important memory or tradition in the family's heritage or life.

The Christmas tree is not the only greenery used during the holiday season. Wreaths of holly, fir, and pine appear on doors and in windows of homes. Each represents a part of the mystical past or ancestors' beliefs. The holly, which the ancients used to protect their home from witches, also represents the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at His crucifixion. The evergreen fir and pine represent everlasting life. Mistletoe, a Druid tradition and hung in sprigs or as a Kissing Ball, brings the hope of a kiss to the one standing beneath the spray. The red and white flowering poinsettia, native to Central American countries and brought to the United States by Dr. Joel Poinsett, represents the gift of a young Mexican peasant girl to the Christ Child.

Christmas serves as a time when gifts are exchanged between family and friends. This custom, while attributed to the gifts brought by the Magi to the Christ Child, can be traced to the earlier celebration of Saturnalia by the Romans. While the name varies with the country of origin, the bearer of gifts to children holds a special place in people's hearts and comes during the month of December. The most recognized gift-giver is based on Saint Nicholas, a bishop of Myra in 300 to 400 A. D., and the tradition was brought to America by the Dutch of New York. Saint Nicholas' appearance went undefined until the early 1800s when he appeared in the stories of Washington Irving.

While Irving's stories would include general references to Saint Nicholas, Clement Clark Moore would give Americans the image most commonly accepted. A professor of Divinity, in 1822 Moore wrote "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," also known as "The Night Before Christmas," as a special gift for his children. A friend, hearing the poem, had it published anonymously the following year in a local newspaper. Telling the story of the visit of Saint Nicholas, the poem centers around a father's experience on Christmas Eve; the poem reveals and establishes a new vision of St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas drives a miniature sleigh pulled by eight reindeer named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. Moore's description of Saint Nicholas describes the clothing worn by the man. "He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot, /And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot; /A bundle of toys he had flung on his back, /And he looked like a peddler just opening his sack." For the nineteenth century reader, the image of someone dressed like a peddler with a bag of toys on his back could be easily visualized.

Moore did not end his description here, but gave a physical description of the man as well. With twinkling eyes and dimples, Saint Nicholas has a white beard which gives him a grandfatherly appearance. In addition, Moore added: "He had a broad face and a little round belly, /That shook, when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly." The jolly gentleman of childhood Christmas fantasy has become a reality. The description is so vivid that artists began to feature this portrait of Saint Nicholas in their seasonal drawings. In 1881 Thomas Nast, a cartoonist in New York, would define the gentleman and give him the characteristics for which he has become known. Saint Nicholas's name has changed to the simplified Santa Claus and has become a lasting part of the Christmas tradition.

Santa Claus and his miraculous gifts have played such a part of the Christmas celebration that many articles, movies, and songs have been written about the character. The most famous editorial "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus," appeared in The Sun in 1897 after a child wrote asking about Santa's existence. The response to the child's letter is considered a Christmas classic, with many newspapers repeating the editorial on Christmas Day. This same questioning regarding Santa Claus' existence is portrayed in the film Miracle on 34th Street (1947), where a young girl learns not only to believe in what can be seen but also in the unseen. Johnny Marks adds to the legend of Santa Claus and his reindeer with the song "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" (1949), which is performed most notably by Gene Autry. This song, while using Moore's names for the reindeer, adds a new one, Rudolph, to the lexicon of Santa Claus.

The spirit of Santa Claus has not only given the season a defining symbol, but has also created a season with an emphasis on commercialization. Santa's bag of toys means money for the merchants. Christmas items and the mention of shopping for Christmas may begin as early as the summer, with Christmas tree displays appearing in retail stores in September and October. Christmas has become so important to the business world that some specialty stores dedicate their merchandise to promoting the business of Christmas year-round. Shopping days are counted, reminders are flashed across the evening news, and advertisements are placed in newspapers. The images of Christmas not only bring joy, but also anxiety as people are urged to shop for the perfect gift and to spend more money.

While the season of Christmas symbolizes various things to different people, the Christ Child and Santa Claus represent two differing views of the celebration. The traditions and customs of the immigrant background have merged and provide the season with something for everyone. Adding to the celebration the Jewish festival Chanukah, and the African-American celebration Kwanzaa, the season of Christmas seems to run throughout the month of December. With the merging of the sacred and the pagan, magic is revisited and dreams are fulfilled while money is spent in the never-ending cycle of giving.

—Linda Ann Martindale

Further Reading:

Barnett, James H. The American Christmas: A Study in National Culture. New York, Macmillan Company, 1954.

Barth, Edna. Holly, Reindeer and Colored Lights: The Story of the Christmas Symbols. New York, Seabury Press, 1971.

Moore, Clement C. The Night Before Christmas. New York, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1999.

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Weinecke, Herbert H. Christmas Customs Around the World. Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1959.


views updated May 08 2018


CHRISTMAS is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. The name, English in origin, means "Christ's Mass," that is, the mass celebrating the feast of Christ's nativity. Names for Christmas in Romance languages are derived from the Latin nativitas. The French Noël comes from either nativitas or nowell, meaning "news." German employs the term Weihnachten, meaning "holy (or blessed) night." Another name for the whole season is Yule. Originally this name did not have Christian connotations but derived either from the Germanic jol ("turning wheel"), with reference to the gain of sunlight after the winter solstice, or from the Anglo-Saxon geol ("feast"). The name of this pre-Christian winter feast of the solstice was eventually applied to the whole of the Christmas season.

There is no certain knowledge of the origin of the Christmas feast. It may have been celebrated as early as the beginning of the fourth century in North Africa, but certainly it was observed at Rome by the middle of the same century. Two theories have been advanced for the occurrence of the feast on December 25. One theory argues that Christmas originated in opposition to or competition with the Roman Feast of the Invincible Sun (Sol Invictus) that had been celebrated on the old date of the winter solstice. The computation theory, on the other hand, argues that the birth of Christ was calculated on the basis of the idea that the conception of Christ coincided with his death, which supposedly occurred on March 25.

By the end of the fourth century the observance on December 25 of the feast of Christ's nativity had spread throughout most of the Christian world. At Antioch, Chrysostom regarded it as the actual date of Christ's birth. In the mid-fifth century the Jerusalem church, too, accepted the December 25 date, which then replaced the older celebration of the nativity there on January 6. The Armenians, however, have never accepted December 25 as the Feast of the Na-tivity.

The Western Christian observance of Christmas was strongly influenced by the celebration of this feast in the city of Rome. Three masses came to be celebrated by the pope on Christmas Day. The original mass was held at Saint Peter's on Christmas morning. But in the course of the fifth century a second mass was added "in the middle of the night" (first at cockcrow and later at midnight) at the shrine of Christ's crib, which had been erected at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore as a replica of the crib at Bethlehem. Finally, during the Byzantine period of the sixth century a third mass was added in Rome, this one at dawn at the Church of Sant' Anastasia, a martyr whose feast was celebrated in Constantinople on December 25. Probably for the sake of convenience, in the course of the eleventh century the original mass celebrated at Saint Peter's was transferred to Santa Maria Maggiore, already the site of the second mass. Since the eighth century the Western Christian celebration of Christmas has been provided with an octave, or eight days of liturgical observance, in imitation of the feasts of Easter and Epiphany.

In the early sixth century the emperor Justinian made Christmas a public holiday. The feast was extremely popular in all European countries during the Middle Ages, inspiring the composition of music and liturgical drama. The observance of Christmas received added impetus in the early thirteenth century when Francis of Assisi originated the devotion of the Christmas crib.

After the sixteenth century most of the Reformation churches retained the Christmas feast. Martin Luther, for example, showed great devotion to Christmas in his preaching. However, the English Puritans tried to do away with the celebration of Christmas altogether in the course of the seventeenth century. The feast was revived with the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, but on a somewhat more secular basis. Under the Puritan influence in early America, especially in New England, Christmas was a regular workday until the middle of the nineteenth century.

The customs of Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere include, in addition to Christian religious practices and midwinter feasting, various celebrations of the returning light of the sun. In northern European folklore, the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany are a time when the evil spirits are considered to be especially active, combating the coming of spring and the gradual victory of sunlight over darkness that follows the winter solstice; thus Christmas Eve is called there "the devil's funeral." To celebrate the victory of life over winter's death and to combat evil spirits, homes are decorated in this darkest period of the year with lights and evergreens of all kinds. Similarly, the Yule log was kindled on Christmas Eve in northern countries and kept burning until Epiphany, and remains of the log were kept to kindle the next year's Yule fire. The Christmas tree itself seems to be of rather recent origin: it may be as late as the sixteenth century that Germans first decorated a fir tree with lights, fruits, and tinsel. From Germany the custom spread quickly and became universally popular, even in the Southern Hemisphere.

The custom of sending special greeting cards at Christmas originated in nineteenth-century England. Giving gifts at Christmas probably originated with the pagan Roman custom of exchanging gifts (strenae ) at the New Year. The popular gift bringer, Santa Claus, is an American invention; he combines features of the traditional children's saint, Nicholas of Myra, with some elements of the Germanic fire god, Thor, who fought the giants of ice and snow from his home in the polar regions.

Other customs of the Christmas season include the baking of special foods, the cooking of poultry dinners on Christmas Day, and the singing of special songs, notably carols, a species of simple song that originally had wider application than as Christmas music. The celebration of Christmas thus includes both Christian observances and wider folkloric customs, the latter relating to general festivity at the time of the winter solstice.

See Also

Gift Giving; Sol Invictus; Winter Solstice Songs.


For a complete bibliography, see Sue Samuelson's Christmas: An Annotated Bibliography of Analytical Scholarship (New York, 1982). The most comprehensive treatment of the history of the Christmas celebration is still Hermann Usener's Das Weihnachtsfest (Bonn, 1889). For a survey of the liturgical development of the feast, see Ildephonso Schuster's The Sacramentary (New York, 1924). A good treatment of the customs associated with Christmas may be found in Francis X. Weiser's Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (New York, 1958), as well as in the same author's The Christmas Book (New York, 1952). For a treatment of the feast from the perspective of the history of religions, see E. O. James's Seasonal Feasts and Festivals (New York, 1961).

John F. Baldovin (1987)


views updated Jun 11 2018

110. Christmas

  1. Amahl and the Night Visitors lame shepherd boy gives crutch as gift for Christ Child; first opera composed for television (1951). [Am. Opera: EB, VI: 792793]
  2. Befana fairy fills stockings with toys on Twelfth Night. [Ital. Legend: LLEI, I : 323]
  3. carols custom originating in England of singing songs at Christmas. [Christian Tradition: NCE, 552]
  4. Childs Christmas in Wales, A nostalgic remembrance of Welsh Christmases. [Brit. Lit.: A Childs Christmas in Wales ]
  5. Christmas feast of the nativity of Jesus Christ (December 25). [Christian Tradition: NCE, 552]
  6. Christmas tree custom originating in medieval Germany of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas. [Christian Tradition: NCE, 552]
  7. Christmas, Father legendary bringer of gifts; another name for Santa Claus. [Childrens Lit.: Father Christmas ]
  8. Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly traditional Christmas carol. [Western Culture: Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly in Rockwell, 146147]
  9. First Noel, The traditional Christmas carol. [Western Culture: The First Noel in Rockwell, 136137]
  10. Gift of the Magi, The O. Henrys Christmas story of love and self-sacrifice. [Am. Lit.: Rockwell, 7780]
  11. gold, frankincense, and myrrh given to the infant Jesus by the three Wise Men. [N.T.: Matthew 2:111]
  12. Grinch hating the delights of Yuletide, he steals Christmas presents but eventually relents and joins in the merriment. [Childrens Lit.: Seuss How the Grinch Stole Christmas in Weiss, 210]
  13. Hark! the Herald Angels Sing traditional Christmas carol. [Western Culture: Hark! the Herald Angels Sing in Rockwell, 132133]
  14. holly symbol of Christmas. [Flower Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 174; Kunz, 331
  15. Jingle Bells yuletide song composed by J. S. Pierpont. [Pop. Music: Van Doren, 200]
  16. Joy to the World! traditional Christmas carol. [Western Culture: Joy to the World! in Rockwell, 138]
  17. Kringle, Kris Santa Claus in Germany. [Ger. Folklore: LLEI, I: 277]
  18. Lord of Misrule formerly, person chosen to lead Christmas revels and games. [Br. Folklore: Misc.]
  19. Miracle on 34th Street film featuring benevolent old gentleman named Kris Kringle. [Am. Cinema: Halliwell, 493]
  20. mistletoe traditional yuletide sprig under which kissing is obligatory. [Br. and Am. Folklore: Leach, 731]
  21. Night Before Christmas, The poem celebrating activities of Christmas Eve. [Am. Lit.: The Night Before Christmas ]
  22. O Come, All Ye Faithful traditional Christmas carol. [Western Culture: 0 Come, All Ye Faithful in Rockwell, 142143]
  23. O Little Town of Bethlehem traditional Christmas carol. [Western Culture: 0 Little Town of Bethlehem in Rockwell, 120121]
  24. red and green traditional colors of Christmas. [Christian Tradition: Misc.]
  25. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer his nose lights Santa on his way. [Am. Music: Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer]
  26. Santa Claus jolly, gift-giving figure who visits children on Christmas Eve. [Christian Tradition: NCE, 1937]
  27. Scrooge, Ebenezer the great miser during season of giving. [Br. Lit.: A Christmas Carol ]
  28. Silent Night traditional Christmas carol. [Western Culture: Silent Night in Rockwell, 130131]
  29. Star of Bethlehem announces birth of the Christ child. [Christianity: N.T.: Matthew 2:2]
  30. yule log log burned at Christmas. [Western Tradition: NCE, 552]
  31. We Three Kings of Orient Are traditional Christmas carol. [Western Culture: We Three Kings of Orient Are in Rockwell, 122123]

Christmas Drinks

views updated May 29 2018


CHRISTMAS DRINKS. Christmas is celebrated at the time of the winter solstice, and in the passage from one year to the next. The hopes and fears triggered by these two dates in the world's calendar have shaped the customs that cluster around Christmas itself, while the joy of that festival has cast a glow over the entire season. In the course of centuries, many ingenious ways have been devised to defy the darkness, feast on the bounty of the year's harvest, and perform good-luck rituals, half in jest and half in earnest, to ensure health, happiness, and abundance in the next twelve months. Christmas calls for a tightening of social bonds, and an enlargement of social sympathies. Drink, with its power to raise spirits and relax constraints, plays an important part in the characteristic ceremonies of the holiday.

A touch of extravagance, indeed excess, matches the spirit of the season and marks many traditional Christmas drinks. France and Spain may be content with a fine champagne or the best wine available, but other countries favor more elaborate concoctions. Wassail and punch in Britain, heated mulled wine in cold northern countries, and their cooling equivalents in the warmer south have one characteristic in common. They are mixed drinks, in which some combination of sugar, spice, and fruit juice has been added to the principal ingredient, whether that be ale, cider, or wine, while in certain cases the whole has been given an extra kick with a shot of brandy or bourbon, rum or gin. Eggnog, the old American favorite, starts life as a blend of eggs and cream, but this blameless nursery food is transformed into nourishment for grownups by a potent blend of sugar, spice, and spirit.

Whatever its components, the Christmas drink has ceremonial and symbolic functions. It is a pledge of goodwill to present company and absent friends. Indeed, the name of the oldest toast in Britain, "Wassail," is derived from the Middle English words for "be well." Sometimes the ritual takes the form of toast and response; sometimes the drink is shared as a loving cup passed from one person to the next so that each can share its contents in a companionable way. In local traditions throughout the Christian world, wine has been blessed at Christmas by the church, and cider has been poured on apple trees to encourage next year's harvest. The permitted breakdown of normal social barriers in this special season is played out in small, symbolic dramas. The master of a household will prepare eggnog with his own hands and offer it to his servants. Strangers may carry a wassail bowl to any door and assume the right of entry and reward.

There is nothing immutable about any Christmas tradition. At the core is always joyful celebration, but the ways in which that sentiment is expressed are infinitely variable, depending from age to age and place to place on ingredients locally at hand, and on the tastes and fashions of the time. Anything may be acceptable, as long as the message stays the same: "Merry Christmas!"


Bickerdyke, John. The Curiosities of Ale and Beer: An Entertaining History (1889). London: Spring Books, 1965.

Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Activities. London and Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, 1864. See entries on "Punch" and "Wassail."

Edwards, Gillian. Hogmanay and Tiffany: The Names of Feasts and Fasts. London: Geoffrey Bles,1970.

Gayre, G. R. Wassail! In Mazers of Mead: The Intriguing History of the Beverage of Kings. London: Phillimore and Company, 1948.

Irving, Washington. Old Christmas: From the Sketchbook of Washington Irving. London: Macmillan, 1876.

Levy, Paul. The Feast of Christmas. London: Kyle Cathie,1992.

Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Tradition. New York: Dover Publications, 1976. Originally published in 1912.

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Vintage, 1997.

Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas: A Social History. Hassocks, Sussex, UK: Harvester Press, 1978.

Bridget Ann Henisch


views updated Jun 11 2018


CHRISTMAS. The observance of Christmas in early British North America derived from practices familiar in England, where 25 December was celebrated with a good deal of bawdy revelry. Due to this association, as well as the lack of any biblical sanction for that date, observance of Christmas was opposed by Puritans in England and was banned in the Massachusetts Bay Colony between 1659 and 1681.

In the nineteenth century, Christmas became domesticated, with a shift toward a nuclear family experience of gift giving around a Christmas tree. The tree was popularized by immigrants from Germany, where it had become prominent earlier in the century. Christmas became the principal sales holiday of the year, presided over by Santa Claus, a figure compounded from myth, religious history, and the need for a congenial symbol for the new attitude toward the holiday. He was introduced and promoted by popular literature and illustration, from Clement Moore's "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" (1823) to Thomas Nast's cartoons of the portly character. Charles Dickens toured America in 1867 reading from his enormously popular "A Christmas Carol," which further reinforced the notions that were crystallizing about how Christmas should be celebrated.

The twentieth century saw further merchandising around Christmas, to the point that many religious figures called for "putting Christ back in Christmas." One contentious issue was government sponsorship of symbols of the holiday. In Lynch v. Donnelly (1983), the Supreme Court held that the inclusion by the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, of the crèche in its Christmas display legitimately celebrated the holiday and its origins because its primary effect was not to advance religion. In County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter (1989), the Court considered two displays, a crèche in the Allegheny County Courthouse and, in a government building some blocks away, a tall Chanukah menorah together with a Christmas tree and a sign stating "Salute to Liberty." The Court ruled that the crèche was unconstitutional because it was not accompanied by seasonal decorations and because "by permitting the display of the crèche in this particular physical setting, the county sends an unmistakable message that it supports and promotes the Christian praise to God that is the crèche's religious message." In contrast, the Christmas tree and the menorah were held not to be religious endorsements, but were to be "under-stood as conveying the city's secular recognition of different traditions for celebrating the winter-holiday season."


Horsley, Richard, and James Tracy, eds. Christmas Unwrapped: Consumerism, Christ, and Culture. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity, 2001.

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America's Most Cherished Holiday. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Restad, Penne L. Christmas in America: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.


See alsoChristianity ; Holidays and Festivals .


views updated May 18 2018

Christmas the annual Christian festival celebrating Christ's birth, held on 25 December (one of the quarter days in England, Wales, and Ireland); the name is recorded from Old English, in form Crīstes ‘Christ's’ mæsse ‘Mass’.
Christmas box originally a box, usually of earthenware, in which contributions of money were collected at Christmas by apprentices; the box being broken when full and the money shared. Later, a present or gratuity given at Christmas to tradespeople or those held to have performed a regular service (such as delivering post) for a person without direct payment from them. The practice gave rise to the name Boxing Day for the day on which such presents were generally given.
Christmas card a decorative greetings card sent at Christmas; the custom began in England in the 1860s. The term may be used to refer to a conventionally pretty scene reminiscent of such a card.
Christmas Day the day on which the festival of Christmas is celebrated, 25 December.
Christmas stocking a real or ornamental stocking hung up by children on Christmas Eve for Father Christmas to fill with presents.
Christmas tree an evergreen (especially spruce) or artificial tree set up and decorated with lights, tinsel, and other ornaments as part of Christmas celebrations. The custom was originally German, but spread to England after its introduction into the royal household in the early years of the reign of Queen Victoria.


views updated May 14 2018

Christmas. Literally Christ-Mass, the liturgical commemoration of the birth of Christ. There is evidence of its observance on 25 December at Rome by the early 4th cent., and this date has remained the focus of the commemoration in the western, catholic, tradition ever since. There is no evidence to support the theory, which was seemingly first advanced by St Hippolytus (c. ad 170–c.236), that this was the actual birth-date of Christ. The choice was rather dictated by already well-established pagan celebrations on that day. In antiquity it was the winter solstice, celebrated as the birthday of both Sol Invictus and Mithras. In the Julian calendar, the solstice had fallen on 6 January, but because of its inaccuracy the date ‘moved’ back to 25 December. The other principal feast of the Incarnation, the Epiphany, which has the pre-eminence among orthodox Christians, is still celebrated on the old solstice, 6 January. Many of the features of modern Christmas, such as Christmas trees, cards, and boxes, are Victorian rather than earlier.

Revd Dr John R. Guy

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