A Brief History of American Christmas Celebration

If you are hosting a good old fashioned New England Christmas gathering in your home, it may not be exactly what you imagined. You will not find much history about Christmas festivities that took place in America much before the mid 1800’s. 

Earlier American Christmas celebrations varied some, especially between states. Old New England Restoration, Inc. (www.oldnewenglandrestoration.com) is pleased to suggest what Christmas may have looked, felt, sounded, smelled and tasted like in the mid to late 1800's.

New England puritans avoided festive Christmas celebrations. Christmas was not considered biblical or obligatory to them. They were dedicated to a simple and pure existence and avoided things that may promote crowds or drunkenness.  From 1659 through 1681, Christmas festivities were illegal in some states including Massachusetts. In 1817, there was a push in Boston to establish Christmas as an important holiday, but it was not until  June 26, 1870, that Christmas was declared a national holiday. It is believed that this was a result of needing hope, peace and celebration following the heavy time of the civil war. The Christmas that we are familiar with is largely fashioned after the German Christmas. New Englanders were amongst other Americans who fell in love with the German custom! 

In 1832, Harriet Martineau had little doubt that the Christmas Tree she identified would later become one of the most cherished symbols in America. In the 1800's, fragrant fir trees were adorned with homemade decorations, natural aromatics, fruits, nuts and sometimes candles. Those who could afford to do so, hung imported German ornaments. Some placed wreaths on their exterior doors and adorned them similarly to the Christmas tree. By the mid to late 1800's, Christmas trees and other decadence could  be found in stores and town squares. 

Some popular Christmas Carols were O Tannenbaum and Silent Night, both originating in Germany. Joy to the World was based on Psalm 98. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen dates back to the 15th century. We Wish You a Merry Christmas is believed to be dated to England in the 16th Century. Hark the Herald Angels Sing was written by Charles Wesley.  The Twelve Days of Christmas is an English Christmas Carol.  While Shepherds Watched, dates back to 1703.  Dependent upon the region, and personal taste, there were many others.

Some popular savory Christmas foods, in or around 1870, included mock turtle soup, salmon or trout with savory sauce, roast turkey with necklace of sausage, cranberry sauce, boiled foul stuffed with mushrooms and bread, boiled ham, apple sauce, mashed potatoes, potato balls, boiled onions, eggplant, fried in batter, lima beans, stewed tomatoes, oyster fritters, oysters vol a' vent, celery and pickles. Desserts included Christmas plum pudding, lemon cheese cakes, tipsy cake, champagne jelly, apples, nuts, raisins and grapes. 

Gifts were exchanged in the mid to late 1800's but with far more modesty. Christmas cards were exchanged and often made suitable gifts. Santa Clause has most surely evolved but can be traced all the way back to the humble 3rd century AD, Monk Christian, who was known for his generosity and as the "protector of children and sailors". His fame spread to much of Europe by the middle ages. Versions of St. Nicholas have been depicted differently throughout time and in the world. The American Santa Clause most closely resembles the Dutch Santa Clause. Santa Clause was certainly known in the 19th century, but again, to a far more modest degree. The significant influence for America was the 1823 poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas, also known as The Night Before Christmas and Twas the night before Christmas.  

Christmas has, as we know, become more elaborate and commercialized for many; however the sentiments remain the same. If you decide on hosting an old fashioned New England Christmas or if you are just interested, we hope you were able to find what you sough. For more in depth history, please see the below sources cited. From all of us here, at Old New England Restoration, Inc., to you and yours, we wish you a very merry Christmas! 

Authored by Cheri Hardiman

Sources Cited: www.history.org; www.history1700s.com; www.discovernewengland.org; www.americanantiquarian.org; www.christainchurchofgod.com; www.foodtimeline.org; www.historytoday.com; www.victoriana.com