How Christmas evolved in America

Regardless of your spirituality, Christmas in America has grown into a cultural holiday that embodies the best of America, giving you the choice of how much religion you partake with the occasion.  It’s hard to support the belief that some news channels and a handful of people have that there is a “war on Christmas” as it dominates the landscape for two months, if not more.

275px-puritanchristmasbanThe real war on Christmas was waged before America was its own nation, as Puritan America wanted nothing to do with it.  There is disagreement among scholars as to the exact birthdate of Jesus, as the Bible is silent on the special day. Puritans went so far as to outlaw Christmas and invoke fines for those who partook in the occasion.

That more mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery whoredom, murder and what not is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used, more than in all the year besides, to the great dishonour of God and impoverishing of the realm. Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuse (1580)

20111220184242godeystreedec1850While early Protestants ignored the cultural elements of Christmas, other colonies and religions did not.  Buy the mid 1800s, Protestants too would partake in the cultural celebrations and desire religious connections too.  Protestant churches faced the dilemma of their congregations visiting other denomination to worship the birth of Christ and many began offering services.

America would be the land of immigration, and in the mid 1800’s the influx of European immigrants brought Christmas traditions from abroad.  Germany’s Prince Albert would bring the Christmas Tree to England in 1840 with his marriage to Queen Victoria. It would not take much for it to spread across the pond to America, where German immigration was taking off.  Today 35 million live trees are cut each year to feed modern America’s holiday tradition, with 350 million trees growing annually to perpetuate the supply.  Early “lighting” of the tree was dangerous as candles were used and evergreen trees are quite combustible when dry.  Thomas Edison, of course, would improve the illumination of our trees in a marketing trick to help sell his incandescent bulbs. Well played.

But what we think of Santa Claus was entirely the creation of two New Yorkers in the first half of the 19th Century.  C. Clement Moore’s legendary A Visit from St. Nicholas spun the tale while decades later Thomas Nast illustrated and enhanced Moore’s poem.


Nast was widely read in Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War and each year he added to the growing legend of Santa, from the naughty and nice list to Santa’s workshop and more.  But Nast lived in the time of black and white, and according to many, Coca Cola in the 1930s to turn Santa into iconic red for good.  But that’s just a good folktale and without basis.

Three guys, three big holiday tidings.

But we often think of the season in musical terms.  There are, of course, the traditional historic Christmas Carols.  But for most the season is full of the fun and nostalgic Christmas cheer.  It would be during Depression Era America where two very upbeat tunes 3eb5e32f1a85bfb33ae6b903b57572a2may have provided some much needed cheer:

  • Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1934)
  • Jingle Bells (1935)

Then a war-torn America would turn nostalgic:

  • White Christmas (1942)
  • I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1943)
  • Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1944)

And finally back to upbeat as the war ended and America rolled on:

  • Let it Snow (1945)
  • Here Comes Santa Claus (1947)
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949)
  • Frosty, the Snowman (1950)
  • It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas (1951)

In the span of 20 years, many legendary songs took root in the culture of Christmas. This timeframe also reflects the popular culture form of entertainment: the radio.

RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEERBy the 1950s the typical American home had a television and in the 1960s when pre-recorded shows were the norm, the Christmas Special ushered in the holiday season.

  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
  • Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970)
  • Year without a Santa Claus (1974)

But what of Rudolph?  The proboscus-enhanced woodland creature was not part of C. Clement Moore’s original 8-deer team.  Rudolph’s origin story comes courtesy of Montgomery Ward, the now-defunct department store, created Rudolph.  Robert May, a copywriter, helped lure parents into the store with the fictional fable of a red-nosed reindeer.

While the 30-minute and hour-long animated Christmas shows would continue through the 1970s, these classics continued to resonate.  While Hollywood would land two iconic Christmas films in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and 54d3d029262c0_-_esq-xmas-story-ppMiracle on 34th Street (1947), the 1980s ushered in a new age of Christmas movies — one laced with comedy.

  • A Christmas Story (1983)
  • National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
  • Home Alone (1990)
  • The Santa Clause movies (1994, 2002, 2006)
  • Polar Express (2004)

The Polar Express has become a unique addition to the Christmas season folklore. The fantastic children’s book was written in 1985 by Chis Val Allsburg and, at least in Ohio, the first train rides on the Polar Express happened before the 2004 movie starring Tom Hanks.  Currently railway excursions to the “North Pole” take place across America (with five alone in Ohio), including Texas, which must use some true creativity to put the winter in their arctic stop.

Adorning the homestead in lights has been going on in America for the past half-century, but it was National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation movie that took lighting to an excess, and every year the competition grows. By the 2000s some neighborhood homes would have elaborate lighting displays timed up to music that would broadcast over short-band radio to the curbside.

061f8a66811a3f3090136f1e7af0c918And the most modern addition to the Christmas season in America is the ubiquitous Elf on the Shelf. Nary a decade old, this nocturnally mobile agent of Santa is both a boon and a bane to parents trying to keep their children from inhabiting the “naughty” list.  While conceptually pleasing, the nightly ritual of moving the elf to a new location brings about more anxiety than remembering to have the tooth fairy visit.  It has led to a cottage industry of both Elf on the Shelf suggestion websites and costume accessories to rogue Elf memes.

As time passes, what has become the American Christmas celebration is a combination of secular and non-secular festivities that has continued to grow over time.  Perhaps the only tradition that is fading and may disappear is that of the mailing of Christmas Card.  What started in the 1840s and enjoyed well over 150 years of growth, Social Media has lessened the annual income of cards and likely may see its disappearance.

What does the ghost of Christmas Future hold? Only time will tell, but surely as the snow flies, Rudolph’s nose glows and Ralphie gets his tongue stuck on frozen pole, surely it will grow.   Whether you are wished Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays or Season’s Greetings, You cannot help but be immersed in this American Tradition — which includes griping about how early the Christmas merchandise shows up on your store shelves.

  • J.



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