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hristmas was first observed in the colonies by a ragged band of Englishmen huddled together in Jamestown in 1607. Their leader, Captain John Smith, was away, bartering for food with the local native Americans.

 There was less than 40 of them and little food with which to rejoice, but they still observed Christmas Day with an Anglican worship service in their small chapel. The next year, with their odds of survival improved, the Virginians spent Christmas in the camp of one of Chief Powhatan's sons.

Smith wrote in his diary that they were "never more merrie, nor fedd on more plentie of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild foule and good bread; nor never had better fires in England than in the warm smokie houses."

The majority of the early settlers in Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas were Anglicans of English descent. Perhaps because their history in the New World was grounded in hardship, struggle and uncertainty, they maintained a reasonable balance between observing Christmas as a sacred time and as a time of relaxation and rejoicing.

Their Christmas celebrations emphasized feasting, drinking, dancing, card playing, horse racing, cock fighting and other games, rather than worship. The old English Christmas customs they brought along with them included Christmas carols, Yule logs, kissing under the mistletoe, and decking homes with greenery.

Many New England settlers brought with them a deep-seated abhorrence of the Church of England's "relics of Popery," including "Christ-mass." They believed that the day called Christmas was a human invention and felt strongly that any celebration of the Lord's birth was totally without Biblical sanction.

They viewed Christmas in England as a season marked by gluttony, drunkenness, dancing, gambling, and mass begging and they wanted no part of it. Oliver Cromwell's Puritan Council abolished Christmas on December 22, 1657. Connecticut followed suit in 1659 (including a ban on mincemeat pies!) and so did Massachusetts.

But Virginians defied Cromwell, maintaining their Episcopal worship and their Christmas celebrations throughout the colonial period. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, the New England colonies fought the establishment of the Anglican Church there.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony denied citizenship to Anglicans settlers. Anti-Christmas sentiment continued and most people went on treating Christmas like any other workday. Many of the Puritans resented the presence of the few Anglicans in their midst, especially if they were government officials.

In 1686, Sir Edmond Andros was only able to attend Christmas service with an armed escort. In 1706, a Puritan mob broke out windows in the King's Chapel in Boston because Anglicans were holding a Christmas service there. Puritan mistrust was a major cause in the rebellion against England. They pushed for anti-Christmas Reformation doctrine in the New England colonies. Only Rhode Island resisted. While various beliefs existed in the Atlantic colonies and Pro-Christmas Anglicans ran the Southern colonies as late as 1810, most of the citizens of Pennsylvania (many of them austere Quakers) paid little or no attention to Christmas.

The Puritans, no matter how they tried, were not able to rule their sprawling new land the way Oliver Cromwell ruled tiny England. And so their solemn ideas about Christmas and not celebrating it were not universally accepted. The immigrants to the new land were a diverse lot with many beliefs and customs that they imported along with themselves.

Christmas could best be seen in New York in the 19th century, where Dutch settlers made merry. But they focused more on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day with Sinter Claes visiting the children on New Year's Eve. New York was the principal port for European immigration in the 19th century and it was here that Christmas traditions were first interchanged and then taken across the continent as a mixture of strands from many cultures.

Many of these Christmas observances were purely secular with emphasis on children, hospitality, seasonal good cheer, as well as military parades and special performances in theaters and music halls. By the end of the century, Christmas had gained the support of the reluctant New England states and in 1887, the first Christmas carnival was held in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Similar to New Orleans' Mardi Gras, it lasted a week.

As the Roman Catholic associations died out and were no longer associated with the day, Christmas gradually united its religious and secular elements into a truly national celebration, encompassing religion as well as folklore.

Celebration length
18th-century Anglicans prepared to celebrate the Nativity during Advent, a penitential season in the church's calendar. December 25, not a movable feast, began a festive season of considerable duration. The twelve days of Christmas lasted until January 6, also called Twelfth Day or Epiphany.

Colonial Virginians thought Twelfth Night a good occasion for balls, parties, and weddings. There seems to have been no special notice of New Year's Eve in colonial days. Celebrants in the 18th century saw Christmas Day itself as only the first day of festivities.

Probably because customs then were fewer and preparations simpler, colonials looked to the twelve days beyond December 25 as a way to extend and more fully savor the most joyful season of the year.

Decorations for the midwinter holidays consisted of whatever natural materials looked attractive at the

bleakest time of year--evergreens, berries, forced blossoms--and the necessary candles and fires. People held on to the promise of spring, especially with those things that were "ever green."

In ancient times, Romans celebrated their Saturnalia with displays of lights and hardy greenery formed into wreaths and sprays. Christian churches have long been decorated for Christmas. The tradition goes back so far that no one knows for certain when or where it began.

Many early churches forbade the symbolic use of greenery, believing it to be a vestige of the old vegetation worship. Finally in the late medieval period, a popular Christmas play called the Paradise Play (which featured the tree of life in the Garden of Eden connected to the coming of the Savior), again brought the evergreen into acceptance. 

18th-century English prints show interior Christmas decorations; a large cluster of mistletoe is always the major feature for obvious reasons. Otherwise, plain sprigs of holly or bay fill vases and other containers of all sorts or stand flat against windowpanes. Wreaths were a major part of the holidays. Boxwood and bayberry were key ingredients in the holiday wreaths that adorned colonial homes. An old English rhyme says:

To add color to wreaths, colonists used pomegranates and other colorful fruits.

Pomegranates, in particular, indicated wealth. Many embellished their wreaths with seashells from nearby beaches, pinecones and even imported items such as pineapples and apples (which were not grown in some of the colonies at the time).

After the 12th day of Christmas on January 5th, the homeowners took down their decorations, removed the fruit and added them to the holiday feast, enjoying the bounty of summer in the heart of winter.

Christmas trees

If we had to choose the one outstanding symbol of Christmas, of course it must be the gaily decorated evergreen tree with a star at the very top. Sometimes called "Christian trees," for 200 years after the first written record of the Christmas tree, its use was confined mainly to the Rhine River District of Germany.

Although the custom spread throughout Germany and then on to the Scandinavian countries, France, and England, it bridged the Atlantic much sooner. Historians generally agree that colonists were first exposed to the Christmas tree by Hessian soldiers stationed in the American colonies during the Revolutionary War.

German in origin, "Tannenbaum" gained acceptance in England and the U.S. only very slowly. The first written reference to a Christmas tree dates from the 17th century when a candle-lighted tree astonished residents of Strasbourg.

The tradition of the Christmas tree came from Germany via England to the New World. In 1841 at Windsor Castle, German-born Prince Albert surprised his English wife, Queen Victoria, with a tradition from his homeland.

He had small evergreen trees placed on tables and decorated with dozens of candles, elegant receptacles for expensive candies and glace fruits, and gilt gingerbread and eggs filled with sweetmeats hung with ribbons.

When a print of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's very domestic circle around a decorated tree at Windsor Castle appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1848, the custom already practiced by other members of the English royal family for at least half a century truly caught on with the English people.

At about the same time, Charles Minnegerode, a German political refugee who was a professor of Greek and Latin at the College of William and Mary, trimmed a small evergreen in 1842 to delight the children at the St. George Tucker House, a custom he continued until his death.

But the transformation from little German tabletop models to luxurious floor-to-ceiling Christmas trees was an innovation made possible in timber-rich America.

Christmas dining
Everyone wants more and better things to eat and drink for a celebration. Finances nearly always control the possibilities. In 18th-century Virginia, of course, the rich had more on the table at Christmas and on any other day, too, but even the gentry faced limits in winter.

December was the right time for slaughtering, so fresh meat of all sorts they
had, as well as some seafood. Preserving fruits and vegetables was problematic for a December holiday. Then as now, beef, goose, ham, and turkey counted as holiday favorites; some households also insisted on fish, oysters, mincemeat pies, and brandied peaches.

Mincemeat pie was made from a mixture of fruits and meats. Not only did the blend make for a delicious treat; the citrus in the fruit acted as a preservative
for the meat filling. In the days before refrigeration this was an added plus.

Creating mincemeat pie was an elaborate undertaking, considering that the fruit had to be imported, as well as the cinnamon and nutmeg used. Since
mincemeat pie was associated with English excess, the strict Puritans of Massachusetts banned the making of this traditional dish in many communities.

Wines, brandy, rum punches, and other alcoholic beverages went plentifully around the table on December 25 in well-to-do households. Others had less because they could afford less.

Slave owners gave out portions of rum and other liquors to their workers at Christmastime, partly as a holiday treat (one the slaves may have come to expect and even demand) and partly to keep slaves at the home quarters during their few days off work. People with a quantity of alcohol in them were more likely to stay close to home than to run away or travel long distances to visit family.

Christmas and kids
Christmas was not a holiday for children until the 19th century. The Dutch and the Germans were the ones who centered Christmas in the home and within the family circle.

Christmas cards
Printers have been cashing in on Christmas since the 18th century--at least in London and other large

cities. Schoolboys filled in with their best penmanship pages pre-printed with special holiday borders, which were called "Christmas pieces." But the Christmas card per se was a 19th-century English invention.

Originally, the custom of sending New Year's greetings gradually caught on to include sending a greeting to friends and relations and by the early 19th century, a handwritten Christmas greeting had mostly replaced those linked to New Year's.

Some were personally delivered, but most were mailed; indeed, so popular had the tradition become that by 1822 delivering holiday mail became a burden for the U.S. Postal System. That year the Superintendent of Mails in Washington, D.C., complained of the need to hire 16 extra mailmen and petitioned Congress to limit the exchange of cards by post. But the cards kept coming and the postal burden worsened. It wasn't until 21 years later that the first Christmas card as we know it was designed.

In London, Henry Cole, a busy businessman and publisher of illustrated children's books, felt he no longer had time to hand write personal holiday messages to his many business associates, relatives, and friends. With that thought in mind, he consulted his friend, John Calcott Horsley, an artist and member of England's Royal Academy, who agreed to design a card Cole could merely sign, place in an envelope, and send off.

Horsley's three-panel, hand-colored card was a work of art that said, "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You," which is still the most popular holiday sentiment for Christmas cards. One thousand copies made of Horsley's cards were printed.

Within 10 years, almost everyone in England was buying, sending, and receiving these cards, which were actually postcards. And because many Americans had relatives and friends living in Europe, Christmas cards were frequently sent back and forth across the ocean.

In this country, however, they were expensive and not easy to come by since no one in the U.S. was publishing cards at that time. All were imported from Europe, most from Germany and England. Later, during the 1860s, Americans were also using Christmas visiting cards, left when a person paid a formal call at the home of a friend.

It wasn't until 1875 when Louis Prang, an immigrant lithographer from Germany, began publishing cards in Boston that the Christmas card business really began to flourish in this country. By 1881, Prang, who has often been called "the father of the American Christmas card," was printing almost 5 million cards annually.

Other publishing firms offered competition, but Prang's cards (he advertised) were still the most popular in the U.S. Americans were also buying cards manufactured and printed in this country; one of the first companies to manufacture a higher-quality card was started by an 18-year-old man in Kansas City, MO. Joyce C. Hall, founder of Hall Bros. (Hallmark Cards, Inc.) began, in 1910, by selling picture postcards to stores. In 1915 he published his company's first non-postcard Christmas greeting to be placed in an envelope and mailed.

Postcards remained popular until World War I blockaded shipping and took its toll of European publishing companies. Companies on this side of the ocean flourished and by the time the war ended, the modern greeting card industry was firmly established in the U.S.

Christmas music
Ben Franklin invented an instrument with a mellifluous sound that was popular for playing Christmas carols. Called the glass armonica (the Italian word for harmonics), the contraption was unique in structure and soothing in sound. The hurdy-gurdy was a medieval stringed invention played by a rosined wheel with a crank.

It produced a sound much like a violin. When the crank is turned, the wheel rubs against the strings to produce beautiful music. The showboats of the 19th century steamed along the Delta. When any boat docked, its steam-powered organ, called a calliope, would play the popular Christmas carols of the day.

The middle of the 19th century witnessed the publication of new Christmas hymns. A number of these hymns, such as "Little Town of Bethlehem," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," and "We Three Kings," were composed by clergymen and became Christmas standards.

At the beginning of the 18th century a new Christmas custom arose in the British West Indies called Jonkonnu. It blended African and English masquerade and mumming traditions. It spread to the southern U.S. North Carolina slaves called the custom "John Kooner" and spoke of going "John Canoeing" or "John Kunering" on Christmas morning.

Like the Caribbean celebrants, most of the participants were men. They wore homemade costumes and masks. Accompanied by simple musical instruments they stopped at houses of the well-to-do, sang and danced and asked for money in return. Plantation owners often rewarded the participants with small gifts, such as coins or scarves and convinced themselves that this yearly festival justified the institution of slavery.

Gift giving
Williamsburg shopkeepers of the 18th century placed ads noting items appropriate as holiday gifts, but New Year's was as likely a time as December 25 for bestowing gifts. Cash tips, little books, and sweets in small quantities were given by masters or parents to their dependents, whether slaves, servants, apprentices, or children.

It seems to have worked in only one direction: children and others did not give gifts to their superiors. Except for the gift giving of St. Nicholas, we must attribute the exchange of gifts among equals and from dependents to superiors to good old American influences. Both 20th-century affluence and diligent marketing has made it the norm in the last 50 years or so.

Santa Claus
Before the 19th century, people from virtually every country told tales of a gift-giving Christmas spirit.

 German children awaited the arrival of Kris Kringle. British tots dreamed of Father Christmas. In Russia, it was a female babushka that visited homes leaving treats for children.

All of these gift-giving spirits combined with a legendary 4th-century saint named Nicholas to give us our Santa Claus. The Dutch had long celebrated the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th with gifts, food and parties. When they immigrated to America in the 1600s, they brought their version of "Sinter Claas" with them. Over time, Sinter Claas was anglicized to Santa Claus.

The "right jolly old elf" dressed in red and fur and driving his sleigh and reindeer sprang from "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," published anonymously, like most newspaper poetry back then, in the Troy, New York, Sentinel of December 23, 1823.

About 13 years later, a magazine editor attributed it to New York City Bible professor Clement Clarke Moore. This poem created a new look for the Christmas gift-giver. [Recently, however, historians and English professors are beginning to think that poet Henry Livingston (1748-1828) wrote the poem most of us know as "The Night Before Christmas."]

Cartoonist Thomas Nast completed the vision with his 1860s drawings that still define how we see Santa.


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