The Christmas that Americans celebrate today seems like a timeless weaving of custom and feeling beyond the reach of history. Yet the familiar mix of carols, cards, presents, trees, multiplicities of Santas and holiday neuroses that have come to define December 25th in the United States is little more than a hundred years old.
The Christmas Tree...
1836 The Christmas tree as the frontispiece to The Stranger's Gift by Herman Bokum.
In colonial times, Americans of different sects and different national origins kept the holiday (or did not) in ways they carried over from the Old World, Puritans, for instance, attempted to ignore Christmas because the Bible was silent on the topic. Virginia planters took the occasion to feast, dance, gamble, hunt and visit, perpetuating what they believed to be the old Christmas customs in English manors. Even as late as the early nineteenth century, many Americans, churched or unchurched, northerners or southerners, hardly took notice of the holiday at all.
Godey's Lady's Book, in 1850. Americanized version of Queen Victoria and her family from the Illustrated London News.
The Civil War intensified Christmas' appeal. Its sentimental celebration of family matched the yearnings of soldiers and those they left behind. Its message of peace and goodwill spoke to the most immediate prayers of all Americans. Yet northern victory in 1865 as much as the war situation itself determined the popularity and shape of the America's Christmas. Now unchallenged in the sphere of national myth-making and in control of the publishing trade, customs and symbols of Yankee origin and preference came to stand for the American Christmas.
F.A. Chapman, The Christmas Tree, 1866 edition of Christmas Poems and Pictures.
As the tree gained prominence in front parlours, it also assumed a place in the market. During the 1850s, town squares began to bristle with trees cut for seasonable profits. Seamlessly, the 'German-ness' of the tree receded as it became an icon of an American festival and, to some, an index of acculturation. Even in the homes of 'the Hebrew brethren', 'Christmas trees bloomed', noted a Philadelphia newspaper in 18'77. '[T]he little ones of Israel were as happy over them as Christian children'. By 1900, one American in five was estimated to have a Christmas tree.
At first, the decoration of these fragrant evergreens reflected the whim of folk tradition. Celebrants added nuts, strings of popcorn or beads, oranges, lemons, candies and home-made trinkets. However, widely-read newspapers and ladies' magazines raised the standards for ornamentation. (One suggestion: cotton batting dipped in thin gum arabic then diamond dust made a 'beautiful frosting' for tree branches.) Homely affectations gave way to more uniform and sophisticated ones, the old style overtaken by the urge to make the tree a showpiece for the artistic arrangement of 'glittering baubles, the stars, angels, etc'.
Winslow Homer, The Christmas-Tree. Harper's Weekly, December 25, 1858.
Tree decoration soon became big business. As early as 1870, American businessmen began to import large quantities of ornaments from Germany to be sold on street corners and, later, in toy shops and variety stores. Vendors hawked glass ornaments and balls in bright colours, tin cut in all imaginable shapes and wax angels with spun glass wings. 'So many charming little ornaments can now be bought ready to decorate Christmas trees that it seems almost a waste of time to make them at home', one advertisement declared.
The Christmas Card...
The rise of Christmas cards revealed other aspects of the new holiday's profile. R.H. Pease, a printer and variety store owner who lived in Albany, New York, distributed the first American-made Christmas card in the early 1850s. A family scene dominated the small card's centre, but unlike its English forerunner (itself only a decade older), the images on each of its four corners made no allusion to poverty, cold, or hunger. Instead, pictures of Santa, reindeer, dancers and an array of Christmas presents and Christmas foods suggested the bounty and joys of the season.
It took Louis Prang, a recent German immigrant and astute reader of public taste, to expand the sending of cards to a grand scale. Prang arrived in America in 1850 and soon made a name as a printer. By 1870, he owned perhaps two-thirds of the steam presses in America and had perfected the color printing process of chromolithography. After distributing his trade cards by the thousands at an international exposition in 1873, the wife of his London agent suggested he add a Christmas greeting to them. When Prang introduced these new cards into the United States in 1.8?5, they proved such a hit that he could not meet demand.
Behind Prang's delight in profits lay a certain idealism. He saw his cards as small, affordable works of art. Through them he hoped to stimulate popular interest in original decorative art and to educate public taste. In 1880, Prang began to sponsor annual competitions for Christmas card designs to promote these ends. These contests made Christmas cards so popular that other card manufacturers entered the market. By 1890, cheap imitations from his native Germany drove Prang from the Christmas card market entirely.
Whatever Prang's plans for democratising art in his accepted land, the advent of Christmas cards in the marketplace soon served functions in keeping with the increasing pace and essential nature of American society. In a hurried and mobile nation, more and more Americans resorted to cards instead of honouring the older custom of writing Christmas letters or making personal holiday visits. The cards' ready-made sentiments drew together friends and families spread across a rapidly expanding national geography, making them a staple of December’s mail. 'I thought last year would be the end of the Christmas card mania, but I don't think so now', one postal official complained in 1882. 'Why four years ago a Christmas card was a rare thing. The public then got the mania and the business seems to be getting larger every year'.
Christmas cards also made modest but suitable presents. '[W]orn out from choosing gifts' for old friends and school mates, one writer noted, 'we usually fall back on Christmas cards, which constitute one of the most precious and at the same time inexpensive contributions of these latter days to the neglected cause of sentiment'.
Written portions of this blog posting in italics are from "Christmas in 19th Century America" - By Penne Restad in History Today Volume: 45 Issue: 12 1995