In the early 17th
century, a wave of religious reform changed the way
Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and
his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to
rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort,
cancelled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was
restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the
The pilgrims, English
separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more
orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a
result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From
1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually
outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit
was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown
settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was
enjoyed by all and passed without incident.
After the American
Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including
Christmas. In fact, Congress was in session on December 25,
1789, the first Christmas under America’s new constitution.
Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26,
It wasn’t until the 19th
century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Americans
re-invented Christmas, and changed it from a raucous
carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and
nostalgia. But what about the 1800s peaked American interest
in the holiday?
The early 19th century was a period of class
conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was
high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often
occurred during the Christmas season. In 1828, the New York
city council instituted the city’s first police force in
response to a Christmas riot. This catalyzed certain members
of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas
was celebrated in America.
In 1819, best-selling author Washington
Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a
series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an
English manor house. The sketches feature a squire who
invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In
contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two
groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas
should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups
together across lines of wealth or social status.
Irving’s fictitious celebrants enjoyed
“ancient customs,” including the crowning of a Lord of
Misrule. Irving’s book, however, was not based on any
holiday celebration he had attended—in fact, many historians
say that Irving’s account actually “invented” tradition by
implying that it described the true customs of the season.
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.
1600's: The Puritans made it illegal to mention St.
Nicolas' name. People were not allowed to exchange gifts,
light a candle, or sing Christmas carols.
17th century: Dutch immigrants brought with them the
legend of Sinter Klaas.
1773: Santa first appeared in the media as St. A
1804: The New York Historical Society was founded
with St. Nicolas as its patron saint. Its members engaged in
the Dutch practice of gift-giving at Christmas.
1809: Washington Irving, writing under the pseudonym
Diedrich Knickerbocker, included Saint Nicolas in his book
"A History of New York." Nicolas is described as riding into
town on a horse.
1812: Irving, revised his book to include Nicolas
riding over the trees in a wagon.
1821: William Gilley printed a poem about "Santeclaus"
who was dressed in fur and drove a sleigh drawn by a single
1822: Dentist Clement Clarke Moore is believed by
many to have written a poem "An Account of a Visit from
Saint Nicolas," which became better known as "The Night
before Christmas." Santa is portrayed as an elf with a
miniature sleigh equipped with eight reindeer which are
named in the poem as Blitzem, Comet, Cupid, Dancer, Dasher,
Donder, Prancer, and Vixen. Others attribute the poem to a
contemporary, Henry Livingston, Jr. Two have since been
renamed Donner and Blitzen.
1841: J.W. Parkinson, a Philadelphia merchant, hired
a man to dress up in a "Criscringle" outfit and climb the
chimney of his store.
1863: Illustrator Thomas Nast created images of Santa
for the Christmas editions of Harper's Magazine. These
continued through the 1890's.
1860s: President Abraham Lincoln asked Nast to create
a drawing of Santa with some Union soldiers. This image of
Santa supporting the enemy had a demoralizing influence on
the Confederate army -- an early example of psychological
1897: Francis P Church, Editor of the New York Sun,
wrote an editorial in response to a letter from an eight
year-old girl, Virginia O'Hanlon. She had written the paper
asking whether there really was a Santa Claus. It has become
known as the "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" letter.
1920's: The image of Santa had been standardized to
portray a bearded, over-weight, jolly man dressed in a red
suit with white trim. 5
1931: Haddon Sundblom, illustrator for The Coca-Cola
™ company drew a series of Santa images in their Christmas
advertisements until 1964. The company holds the trademark
for the Coca-Cola Santa design. Christmas ads including
Santa continue to the present day.
1939 Copywriter Robert L. May of the Montgomery Ward
Company created a poem about Rudolph, the ninth reindeer.
May had been "often taunted as a child for being shy, small
and slight." He created an ostracized reindeer with a shiny
red nose who became a hero one foggy Christmas eve. Santa
was part-way through deliveries when the visibility started
to degenerate. Santa added Rudolph to his team of reindeer
to help illuminate the path. A copy of the poem was given
free to Montgomery Ward customers. 6
1949: Johnny Marks wrote the song "Rudolph the
Red-Nosed Reindeer." Rudolph was relocated to the North Pole
where he was initially rejected by the other reindeer who
wouldn't let him play in their reindeer games because of his
strange looking nose. The song was recorded by Gene Autry
and became his all-time best seller. Next to "White
Christmas" it is the most popular song of all time.
1993: An urban folk tale began to circulate about a
Japanese department store displaying a life-sized Santa
Claus being crucified on a cross. It never happened.
1997: Artist Robert Cenedella drew a painting of a
crucified Santa Claus. It was displayed in the window of the
New York's Art Students League and received intense
criticism from some religious groups. His drawing was a
protest. He attempted to show how Santa Claus had replaced
Jesus Christ as the most important personality at Christmas
Barbara G. Walker, "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and
Secrets." Harper & Row, (1983) Pages 725 to 726.
"St. Nicholas of Myra," The Catholic Encyclopedia, at:
"Father Frost," at: www.bobandbabs.com/
"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," at:
"The Claus that Refreshes," at: www.snopes.com/cokelore/santa.htm
"Rudolph," at: www.snopes.com/holidays/xmas/
"R Cendella Gallery - Theme: Commentary," at
"St. Nicholas of Bari (Fourth Century)," Catholic
Information Network, at: www.cin.org/nichbari.html