Christmas history and traditions

Dr. Ken Bridges

Millions of people around the world are looking to Christmas in 2020 as a time of hope and look to the holiday as a turning of the page from one disastrous year into a brighter 2021. Though the day comes to a markedly different environment than the previous year, many of the old traditions will stay intact for many families. In the United States, Christmas traditions have changed steadily over the years; and millions still hold faithful to the original purpose of veneration of the birth of Christ and celebrating the message of peace and harmony.

Early Christians celebrated Easter more with the death and resurrection of Jesus as the embodiment of Christian ideals. However, by the fourth century AD, the birth of Jesus also began to be noted with special church observances also. However, it was a matter of some debate when it should be observed. Some marked the birth of Christ on March 28, while others noted November 18. Neither the Roman Empire nor Hebrew officials in Judea kept birth records, so there was no certainty as to the particular day. In the early centuries after the crucifixion of Christ, Christians faced brutal persecutions, torture, and executions for their faith, so the message became more important than the particular calendar day.

After the legalization of Christianity within the Roman Empire, Pope Julius I declared around AD 350 that December 25 would be the official observance, but it was only a special church service and not seen as a gift-giving occasion. The Christmas Eve mass or communion service is still an important Christmas tradition for many American families.

By the sixteenth century, Christmas slowly became more than a church service. The tradition of the Christmas tree originated in Germany in the 1500s when candles were attached to evergreen trees. In Germany especially, the day became a celebration noted for singing, parties, feasts, and drinking. The Puritans who arrived in New England in the early 1600s were appalled by such displays, which they considered sinful. As a result, Puritan leaders banned observances of Christmas well into the eighteenth century. In Massachusetts, Christmas was against the law for more than 20 years in the late 1600s.

It was knowledge of the differences by which New Englanders and Germans typically observed the day that inspired George Washington to cross the Delaware River on Christmas Night 1776 to stage a surprise attack on the Hessian outpost at Trenton, New Jersey. After a brutal series of losses that summer and fall, Washington knew he had to turn the war around. He knew the German mercenaries the British had hired to pursue them would be too distracted by their own Christmas parties to suspect an attack during winter. At dawn on December 26, he surprised and overwhelmed the exhausted and hungover Hessian revelers to change the course of history.

German settlers brought many Christmas traditions to the United States, particularly Christmas trees by the late 1700s and many notable Christmas carols, such as “Silent Night” were originally German.

But Christmas as a holiday emerged slowly. Louisiana was the first to declare Christmas a state holiday in 1837, and only a handful of states followed suit within the next few years. It did not become a federal holiday until 1870.

Even the tradition of exchanging gifts did not emerge quickly. However, the gift-giving tradition expanded rapidly in the 1820s and 1830s, with merchants quickly looking to capitalize on the holiday. Christmas trees began to be sold widely across the North in the 1850s, with the first electric Christmas lights sold in 1882, but many families did not have Christmas trees until the early 1900s and most ornaments were handmade.

Christmas is celebrated today even in non-Christian households as the spirit of giving and peace has transcended its original religious meaning for some. Far from the shopping crowds, Christmas still has a magical place in the hearts of young and old alike. In a quiet moment, many remember that Christmas is still a time of generosity for others. And Christmas is still a time of peace in our hearts and in the world, as we are reminded of the gift of one precious life, of brotherhood, and of the harmony for which the holiday was born.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a Professor of History at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado. He is the proud father of six children. He has written seven books and his columns appear in more than 85 papers in two states. Dr. Bridges can be contacted by e-mail at kbridges@southark.edu.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a Professor of History at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado. He is the proud father of six children. He has written seven books and his columns appear in more than 85 papers in two states. Dr. Bridges can be contacted by e-mail at kbridges@southark.edu.

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