Washington -- Christmas, celebrated
by most Christians on December 25, commemorates the birth
of Jesus of Nazareth. Americans, like many of the world’s
peoples, have developed their own Christmas traditions and
observances, and these have changed greatly over time.
A thin blanket of snow wraps the White House for the Holiday season.
Today, most Americans blend religious and
secular customs with their own family traditions. Thus,
even though Christmas is for many Americans a religious
occasion, the federal courts have upheld its status as a
legal holiday. As one court reasoned, “by giving federal
employees a paid vacation day on Christmas, the government
is doing no more than recognizing the cultural significance
of the holiday.”
DEVELOPMENT OF THE AMERICAN CHRISTMAS
The early New England Puritans frowned on
the often boisterous Christmas celebrations they witnessed
in Britain. In 1659, the Massachusetts colony briefly criminalized
observance of the day and Christmas remained a regular workday
in much of New England and Pennsylvania. Other parts of
British North America, however, celebrated with gusto, with
costumed revelers passing door to door and receiving small
gifts of food and drink.
The modern, more commercialized Christmas
began to emerge in the 19th century with the new custom
of purchasing gifts for young children. Seasonal “Christmas
shopping” began to assume economic importance.
Other Christmas traditions similarly began
during the 19th century. Santa Claus -- derived from the
Dutch Sinter Klaas and the German Saint Nicholas -- assumed
the persona of a jolly dispenser of gifts and pilot of a
reindeer-drawn sleigh through such works as the 1823 poem
“A Visit from Saint Nicholas” and an 1863 Harper’s
Weekly portrait by the illustrator Thomas Nast. Many organizations,
from the Salvation Army charitable organization to the Coca-Cola
Company, since have employed Santa’s image.
According to legend, Christmas trees date
back to Martin Luther, the 16th century German cleric whose
critique of established Catholic Church practices precipitated
the Protestant Reformation. According to legend, Luther
brought home to his children and lit with candles a fir
tree one Christmas Eve to remind them of the wonders of
The custom spread to Britain and the United
States in the 19th century. Today, many contemporary Americans
either purchase a cut, fresh evergreen tree or a reusable
aluminum and plastic model. Placed in the family living
room, the Christmas tree is decorated with lights and various
ornaments, typically small orbs depicting angels and other
figures associated with the holiday. In some families, Christmas
gifts appear under the tree on the morning of December 25,
deposited there by family members, or, as smaller children
might believe, delivered by Santa Klaus after landing reindeer
and sleigh on the roof and traversing the chimney -- all
after the children are fast asleep!
Mass-produced Christmas cards began to appear
in the last quarter of the 19th century. In 1996, Americans
purchased and mailed an estimated 2.6 billion Christmas
cards. These might depict religious scenes or else convey
more secular, often humorous, messages. With the rise of
the Internet, electronically transmitted “e-cards”
are an increasingly popular option.
Snow settles softly on every branch and berry in the Rose Garden during the first snowfall of the season at the White House.
With Christmas shopping vitally important
to some retailers, Christmas has expanded into a “season”
of its own. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, President
Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed moving the Thanksgiving holiday
to extend the shopping period between that holiday and Christmas.
Today, the day after Thanksgiving is known as “Black
Friday.” An important shopping day (some stores open
hours before their normal time), it pushes some businesses
into profitability, or “in the black,” and can
account for a substantial proportion of annual profits.
This extended Christmas season is about
far more than shopping. For many Americans, it is a period
of general good will and an occasion for charitable and
volunteer work. To some extent, non-Christian holidays celebrated
at roughly the same time of year -- most prominently the
African-American Kwanzaa and the Jewish Hanukkah -- blend
into a broader “holiday season.”
Seasonal popular entertainment includes
a number of perennial favorites. Popular telecasts of the
motion pictures A Miracle on 34th Street (1945) and It’s
A Wonderful Life (1946) have been joined in recent years
by A Christmas Story (1983), based on the tales of the radio
raconteur Jean Shepherd.
Christmas-themed animated programs often
appear on television. Some, like A Charlie Brown Christmas
and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, date to the mid-1960s,
and are enjoyed by today’s children and their nostalgic
An increasing number of radio stations now
adjust their formats to feature Christmas music, sometimes
exclusively, during the four weeks to six weeks before the
holiday. Live and recorded performances of such classical
favorites as the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s
Messiah, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and J.S. Bach’s
“Christmas Oratorio” peak during the weeks before
The holiday’s original religious meaning
remains for many its most important element. Some congregations
create manger scenes -- dioramas of the stable where Jesus
was born, complete with figurines representing the infant
Jesus and those present at his birth. Many churches hold
well-attended Christmas Eve candlelight or midnight services.
Some include a Mass of the Nativity or a dramatization of
the birth of Jesus.
As with so many aspects of U.S. cultural
life, Christmas in the United States reflects the values
of a free and diverse people.
Michael Jay Friedman
Washington File Staff Writer