By Alice Alford, Reference LibrarianChristmas, that wonderful time of the year when joy, hope, generosity, goodwill, and fellowship abound, is America's most exciting and festive holiday. It is also a unique holiday, for it is both sacred and secular in nature: a Christian holy day commemorating the birth of the Christ Child, and a social and family holiday with family gatherings, gift giving, entertainment, and feasting.
Christmas has not always enjoyed popularity in New England. At one point in time it was not celebrated at all. The stern Pilgrim Fathers passed a law banning the observance of Christmas and all other holidays. They believed that only the Sabbath should be observed. The law was repealed in1681; nevertheless, December 25th continued to be a work day well into the second half of the nineteenth century; and as late as 1870, public schools in Boston held classes on that date.
It is interesting to note that, while not a holiday in the New England colonies, Christmas was always celebrated in the other colonies; and later, in 1831, Louisiana and Arkansas would become the first states to decree Christmas a legal holiday, and by 1890 all the states and territories would do so.
The celebration of Christmas in the United States is a blend of customs and traditions from many parts of the world. No other nation has such a variety. This is a legacy from not only the various nationalities who settled the country, but also from the different immigrant groups who came later to these shores. Each section of the United States has its own distinct regional Christmas customs, however, there are many customs that are national.
Placing a wreath on the front door is a custom brought to America by the Scandinavians who settled in Delaware. To them it was a sign of welcome as well as a good luck symbol.
Displaying a lighted candle in the window as a sign of welcome was brought by the Irish. From this custom is derived the tradition of decorating our homes, both inside and out, with lights
The Germans who settled in Pennsylvania contributed the tradition of trimming the Christmas tree, lighting the advent wreath, making cooking, and displaying the creche or Nativity scene.
Caroling, hanging mistletoe and holly, and stockings, as well as a more recent custom, sending Christmas cards, are only a few of a long list of customs from England. Many of our Christmas foods, including that delicious concoction the fruit cake, are from there.
The Dutch, who settled in New York, brought their legend of Saint Nikolaas or Sinte Klaas, from which our Santa Claus is derived. However, that jolly, rotund fellow with a long white beard, who climbs chimneys and stuffs stockings, and drives a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer is an American invention. Clement Moore created him in 1823 in his poem, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas", later known as "The Night Before Christmas". Borrowing elements from the Dutch St. Nikolaas, and from various other sources, Moore made his St. Nicholas very different from the European version. In 1863, Thomas Nast, an artist, gave the definitive appearance to Santa Claus, and referred to him by that name. His pictures showed Santa dressed in a red fur trimmed suit. Nast also added the North Pole workshop where toys are made, a huge book in which Santa Claus records the good and bad deeds of all children, and the idea that children could write letters to Santa.
These are but a few of the components which make up our celebration of Christmas They and a host of other customs and traditions all contribute to that sense of wonder and excitement which characterizes the Christmas holiday season in America.