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The History of Christmas: Part II

Vintage Christmas
Raw Pixel
A Merry Christmas (1903) from The Miriam And Ira D. Wallach Division Of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection by an unknown artist. Original From The New York Public Library. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

In part two of the “History of Christmas,” we look at celebrations and observances in early America, and how those led to the holiday we have today.

“The Puritans and the Pilgrims are in charge, and they have actually outlawed Christmas, because they say it’s un-Christ-like; it’s outlawed in Boston and in other major New England cities in the late 1600s,” said Pensacola State College historian Andy Barbero.

He adds that Christmas and other English customs — and the Church of England in general — were in disfavor, especially during the American Revolution. Things remained that way until the young nation entered the 19th century but Barbero says the holiday resembled that of Christmas in the Middle Ages adding that things got a little raucous, to say the least.

“The early 19th century — both in England and America — is a time of great class conflict; a time when cities began to grow, and the socioeconomic divide begins to take shape,” said Barbero. “In 1806, there was a massive Christmas riot in New York City over the election of the first Catholic to the city council. In 1828, the New York City Police Department was actually founded in the wake of another Christmas riot.”

Across most the 1800s, Christmas in America wasn’t the big deal that it eventually became, similar to the attitudes two centuries before.

“Some folks celebrated it, but like I said, it was a day of rest more than anything,” Barbero said. “You’re not going to see these big, large pushes to celebrate Christmas, really until you get into the mid-to-late-1800s. It’s not until 1870 that Christmas is declared a federal holiday by President Grant.”

In term of defining Christmas as how we know it, Barbero says we must look to the literature during that time — including the American writer Washington Irving, who wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle," along with four Christmas books.

“Those Christmas stories talk about Christmas in an English manor surrounding a young boy, and it really sets the tone for this idea of Christmas, that begins to take hold in the minds and hearts of both Brits and Americans — Christmas always being about family and always being about good tidings and always being about stockings and Saint Nicholas.”

Another writer whose work influenced attitudes about the holiday was a Brit named Charles Dickens who wrote “A Christmas Carol.” which was set during the socioeconomic divide of the Industrial Revolution.

“You had Ebenezer Scrooge, who was the wealthy businessman; he’s very tight with his money and he doesn’t give charity [and] he doesn’t believe in good will,” Barbero said. “But then he’s visited by the three ghosts and rethinks his actions. That idea of connecting Christmas with goodwill, and being thankful, and family — that really is good literature.”

As America moved into the 20th century, a new tradition emerged — the holiday shopping season — which began just before the new century’s dawn. Barbero says it’s actually the product of abolitionism.

“We begin to see the rise of craft bazaars in celebration of the Christmas holiday, and one of the things abolitionist women would do in particular, is that they would bake pies, they would make tapestries,” Barbero said. “And it was, like, ‘spend for the sake of the slaves.’ Buy a pie, buy a tapestry for your friend, and the money’s going to go to the Underground Railroad.”

As the Industrial Revolution takes hold in the 20th century U.S., American culture enters what Barbero calls “the modern age” and Christmas begins to take on a newer and stronger meaning among the American people. He points to World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic, and the Great Depression.

“Christmas gave people something to look forward to, that they desperately needed,” Barbero said. “People don’t have very much, this is a time to be thankful for what you do have; it’s a time to spend with family, a time to look back on the year. You combine that tiding and goodwill with our Christian values, and that’s where we get these celebrations of Christmas.”

As Americans endured financial hardship, and a second world war, the economic boom after the war brought commercialization of Christmas to the same level — or close to — the spiritual side of the holiday. PSC’s Andy Barbero believes the lines are blurred in that department because of one major world event post World War II.

“I really do think that the modern commercialization of Christmas — the way we know it with the presents and the stores. Starting on Black Friday and even earlier now and the hustle and bustle — making sure there are all these presents under the tree — I think a lot of that does have to do with the Cold War.”