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Our History: Observance of Christmas has changed greatly in U.S.

Christmas as an American holiday had a rather unhappy entree into our country’s history, for a wave of religious reform was also changing the way Christmas was celebrated across the seas in Europe. In the 17th century — about 1645 — the Puritans canceled Christmas to rid England of all things decadent. Fortunately for us today, Charles II came back to the throne and with him the popular old celebration of Christmas.

The Pilgrims were even more orthodox in their beliefs than Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers. Those celebrating Christmas in even the simplest way were fined. In Boston, for example, the celebration of Christmas from 1659-81 was outlawed. But the Jamestown in Virginia settlement under Capt. John Smith was celebrating without any interference.

It seems that after the Revolution Christmas, a longtime English custom, fell out of favor. Congress was actually in session on Dec. 25, 1789. In fact, the first Christmas under our new Constitution was not declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.

But credit must be given to Washington Irving and his series of stories of Christmas celebrations. It was he who started the reinvention of Christmas. He put forward the idea that Christmas should be family-centered and warm-hearted. Before the Civil War, the North and South were divided in their ideas about Christmas.

Northerners thought of Thanksgiving as more appealing, Southerners chose Christmas as more important in their social life. It is interesting to note that three states in the South believed that Christmas was important enough to be made a legal holiday: They were Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama.

By the end of the Civil War, traditions for Christmas were nationwide. Children’s books stressed holiday customs for Christmas including Santa Claus, the Christmas tree and gifts, while schools took interest as well, including making cookies and locating presents for parents or making them, as well as remembering their friends.

By the end of the 19th century, Christmas planning was well-established. No one can deny that America was eager in its participation, for not only were presents sought for family and friends, but significant thought was given to those less fortunate. Food and gifts found their way to the less fortunate not only here but overseas as well.

I noted with interest that in 1773 Santa was first known as “St. A. Claus.”

Did you know that in 1804 the New York Historical Society was founded with St. Nicholas as its patron saint? It was then that St. Nick was envisioned as riding into town on a horse.

By 1821, William Gilly printed a poem about “Santiclaus,” who dressed in fur and drove a sleigh drawn by a single reindeer. By 1864, images appeared of Santa created by various illustrators. In the 1860s, President Abraham Lincoln had asked illustrator Thomas Nast to create a drawing of Santa with some Union soldiers. It created a type of psychological warfare, for this image demoralized the enemy.

In 1897, we come upon what was known as “the letter.” Francis P. Church, editor of the New York Sun, wrote an editorial. It was a response to a letter from 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon in which she asked, “Is there really a Santa Claus?” He famously wrote, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

By the 1920s, Santa had been standardized, but time has a way of changing things. Most of us would like to remember Church’s quote: “A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer.

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