Now that we find ourselves wrapped up in the Christmas season, preparing for the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar, it's easy to get side-tracked and lose sight of the true meaning of season, focusing instead on the rush to buy gifts, attending one frenzied party after another, eating and drinking too much and just getting caught up in the extravagant commercialization of the holiday.
You might ask yourself, then, if Christmas is supposed to be such a solemn holiday, when exactly did the commercialization of the holiday take over?
According to Stephen Nissenbaum, Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and author of ``The Battle for Christmas’’ (1996), ``the commercialization began (on a big scale) during the late 1820s. ``That's when Santa Claus was introduced into mass culture, when shops began advertising Christmas presents in the newspapers, when Santa Claus began to be used as an advertising device, and even when the first complaints appeared about how difficult it was to find good presents. ``Christmas trees started appearing in the U.S. in the mid-1830s, and by the 1840s they too were being used in advertising. ``Before 1850, Nissenbaum notes, Christmas trees themselves were being sold commercially. ``By then, too, it's possible to speak of a "mad rush" for presents, although of course everything is relative here.’’
Since Christmas, as Professor Nissenbaum notes, didn’t really take hold in the United States until the 19th Century, at least the Christmas season as we know it, with Santa Claus and decorating Christmas Trees and the mad sprints to the stores and malls, I thought I would put together some historic facts about the origins of some our most popular Christmas traditions in the United States.
Origins of Christmas Traditions in the United States
• The earliest known reference to observing the birth of Christ on December 25th is in the Roman Philocalian calendar of ad 354. Soon after this date, provincial schisms led to different Christian calendars. The Orthodox Church in the Eastern (Byzantine), for example, half of the Roman Empire fixed the date of Christmas at January 6th, commemorating simultaneously Christ's birth, baptism and first miracle.
• In 1510, the first historical record of a decorated Christmas Tree comes from Riga, Latvia, where men of the local merchants’ guild decorated a tree with artificial roses, danced around it in the marketplace and then set fire to it. The rose was used for many years and is considered to be a symbol for the Virgin Mary.
• The first use of the word ``carol'' in English denoted a round dance, from the old French carole and, before that, the ancient Greek choros. The first printed collection of carols came from the press of Wynkyn de Worde in 1521. It included the "Boar's Head Carol," a feasting song with roots in the Viking custom of sacrificing a swine to the god Frey.
• On December 24, 1822, while traveling home from Greenwich Village in New York City, Professor Clement Clark Moore wrote a new poem for his six children about a jolly white-bearded man climbing down chimneys with a sack full of toys titled: "A Visit from St. Nicholas'', later changed to ``The Night Before Christmas." which included the famous line: 'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse." The poem was first published in the Troy (New York) Sentinel on December 23, 1823.
• It is from the Dutch for Saint Nicholas (Sante Klaus) that we get Santa Claus, which grew in popularity in the United States during the 19th Century, particularly in New York State, where Dutch immigrants would put out their shoes to be filled by Santa Claus on the eve of St Nicholas' feast day: December 6th. Over time, this custom was moved to Christmas Eve.
• Poinsettia plants are named after Joel R. Poinsett, an American minister to Mexico, who brought the red-and-green plant from Mexico to the United States in 1828.
• According to Daniel J. Foley, author of "The Christmas Tree," the first mention of a Christmas tree in a U.S. newspaper was from a York Pa. newspaper in 1830, when the Darcas Society of York published a notice inviting readers to an exhibition of decorated Christmas trees.
• In 1836, Alabama became the first state to declare Christmas a legal holiday.
• The first department store to feature a Santa Claus was in Philadelphia on December 24, 1841 at the J.W. Parkinson's store. The next Santa Claus wouldn't be spotted again until 1890, this time accompanied with his own white beard at the Boston Store in Brockton, Mass
• When Charles Dickens published ``A Christmas Carol'' in 1843, it became an instant best-seller with six thousand copies selling out instantly. Since the book became so popular and heralded for sparking a Victorian interest in holiday celebrations and later hailed as a ``national institution'' and national benefit, the Dickens classic has spawned a number of motion picture adaptations, beginning with a silent film in 1901; in 1938, MGM released another version starring Reginald Owen. In 1951, Alistair Sim played Ebenezer Scrooge in a black and white version. Then in 1971, Sim played a voice-over for an animated film. Albert Finney starred as Scrooge in 1970; while George C. Scott played Scrooge in a made for television movie, ``A Christmas Carol’’ in 1984. The Muppets also came out with a Christmas Carol in 1992. Most recently, Jim Carrey starred in an animated version of ``A Christmas Carol’’ in 2009.
• In 1848, when the Royal Family were pictured in the Illustrated London News , along with five children with their parents and grandmother surrounding a fully decorated Christmas tree, the tradition began to take hold throughout Britain as a family custom.
• In 1850, Louis Prang arrived in the United States and quickly established a printing business. By 1870, the German immigrant owned an estimated two-thirds of the steam presses in America, having perfected the color printing process. After seeing how popular his greeting cards were becoming after distributing them at an international exposition in 1873, Prang introduced Christmas greeting cards to United States consumers, beginning in 1875. The cards were such an instant hit; he had difficulty keeping up with the demand.
• 1851, Mark Carr opened a retail Christmas Tree lot in New York City, the first in the United States.
• In 1856: Franklin Pierce became the first U.S. President to decorate the White House Christmas Tree.
• Christmas trees had become popular in the decade before the war, and in the early 1860s, many families were beginning to decorate them. Illustrations from national weeklies helped popularize the practice by putting decorated table-top Christmas trees in their drawings.
• According to Robert C. Detweiler, a historian from California Polytechnic State University. ''During the Civil War, President Lincoln held Christmas parties, soldiers celebrated Christmas in their camps by decorating trees and singing hymns and songs, and people on the "home front" celebrated with prayers, carols, decorations, and feasts (not unlike today's popular celebrations). ‘’
• It was during the Civil War, when many of the Christmas songs we still cherish today, were first written and became popular, including "Christmas Bells," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Jingle Bells," "We Three Kings of Orient Art," "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," "Up on the Housetop," and "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.
• In 1862, The editor of Harper's Weekly, Fletcher Harper, assigned Thomas Nast to draw a ``special Christmas picture’ that would blend the holiday celebrations to the ongoing war efforts for the newspaper's front page. Nast, however, found himself struggling to come up with an appropriate picture until he settled on Santa Claus, dressed in a patriotic Stars and Stripes outfit, mixing with soldiers in camp and distributing Christmas gifts from his sleigh. The historic Christmas edition of Harper’s Weekly hit the stands on January 3, 1863. Every year until he left Harper’s Weekly in 1886, Nast would create an elaborate Christmas drawing.
• On June 26, 1870, Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the United States.
• In 1883, Sears, Roebuck & Company began offering the first artificial Christmas trees – 33 limbs for $.50 and 55 limbs for $1.00.
• In 1891, Captain Joseph McFee in San Francisco set up the world's first Salvation Army kettle to collect money for charity during the Christmas season.
• In 1897, an 8 year-old girl, Virginia O'Hanlon, who lived at 115 West Ninety-Fifth Street in New York City, wrote a letter to her local newspaper, The New York Sun, asking if there really was a Santa Claus after some of her friends told her there is no such thing as Santa Claus. The editor, Francis B. Church, responded to her letter, which was published on September 21, 1897, with the heading: ``Yes Virginia There is a Santa Claus.’’’ Church wrote: `` Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age....No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.''
NOTE: The original response to O’Hanlon’s letter went unsigned. It wasn’t until his obituary was published in 1906, did readers learn that Mr. Church was the author of the reply. The ``Yes Virginia’’ editorial was so popular, The Sun reprinted it every year until 1949.
• On December 24, 1898, former editorial writer for the Philadelphia Record, Edgar Nash, writes an account of the origins of Christmas customs in The Saturday Evening Post where he worked as an associate editor.
• By 1900, one out of five Americans was estimated to own a Christmas tree.
• In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge starts the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony now held every year on the Ellipse between the White House and the Washington Monument.
• In 1926, a giant sequoia in King's Canyon National Park was officially designated the nation's Christmas tree by President Coolidge. By the 1930s, the Christmas tree had become an integral part of the American celebration.
• The First Rockefeller Christmas Tree in New York City first appeared in 1931; and the first tree lighting to be televised came in 1951 on the Kate Smith Show.
• The First Radio City Music Hall Christmas Show was launched in 1933.
• In 1939, Chicago retailer Montgomery Ward introduced Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.
• In 1942, Bing Crosby sings Irving Berlin’s``White Christmas'' in the motion picture ``Holiday Inn. The song turned into a smash hit that year, where it spent 10 weeks in first place on the Lucky Strike Hit Parade. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the version sung by Bing Crosby is the best-selling single of all time, with estimated sales in excess of 50 million copies worldwide.
• Bob Hope's annual Christmas tours first began in 1948 when he traveled to Berlin to entertain GI's during the airlift. His last tour was in 1990 during Operation Desert Shield.
• In 1962, the first U.S. Christmas postage stamp was issued.
• In 1949, ``Rudolph-the Red Nosed-Reindeer’’ is recorded by Gene Autry.
• In 1966, The National Christmas Tree Association began its time-honored tradition of having the Grand Champion grower present a Christmas Tree to the First Lady for display in the Blue Room of the White House. That year, Howard Pierce of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, presented a tree to President Lyndon Johnson and First Lady Bird Johnson
• In 2010, approximately 25-30 million Real Christmas Trees are sold each year in the United States. Almost all of these come from Christmas Tree plantations.
• In 2010, there will be 29 shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, one more than last year.
• According to the National Retail Federation, holiday gift sales in 2010 are estimated to total $447.1 billion, an increase of 2.3 percent from last year.
December 2, 2010
Source: Civil War Times Illustrated, Dec98, Vol. 37 Issue 6,, Antiques & Collecting Magazine December 1, 2008; British Heritage, Jan2009, Vol. 29 Issue 6, American History, December 1, 2006; AMERICAN PLACES by Jim Benes Christmas at Marshall Field's, Scrooge and Albert: Christmas in the 1840’s by Christine Lalumia, History Today, December 1, 2001; ``The story of Christmas’’. By: Murray, Colm, In Britain, Dec95, Vol. 5, Issue 12; ``Christmas in 19th-century America’’ By: Restad, Penne. History Today, Dec95, Vol. 45 Issue 12,; WHY DO WE DO WHAT WE DO AT CHRISTMAS By: Edgar S Nash in the Saturday Evening Post, Nov/Dec93, Vol. 265 Issue 6, ``A Christmas Carol’’ By: Thornton, Zita. Antiques & Collecting Magazine, Dec2005, Vol. 110 Issue 10, National Christmas Tree Association.