‘Tis the Season: A Flurry of Winter Festivals and Traditions – Stave 2 (A Colonial Christmas, Scrooge, Carols and the Tree!)

‘Tis the Season: A Flurry of Winter Festivals and Traditions – Stave 2 (A Colonial Christmas, Scrooge, Carols and the Tree!)

Hi all you lovely students of Areteem Institute and fellow readers! We are still in the realms of Christmas Past and slowly working our way up to Christmas Present so don’t leave the jolly sleigh ride yet!

(As a side note: Today is the eve of St. Lucia’s Day observed on December 13th and is a holiday celebrated outside Lucia’s native Italy in areas as far away as Scandinavia. The saint’s feast day, an integral part of Christmastime in countries such as Sweden, Norway and Finland has ties with older pagan Winter Solstice traditions with its predominance of light. For instance, crowns of candles are worn by girls dressed in white chosen to play St. Lucia in homes and neighborhood pageants. To read more about St. Lucia day celebrations, click here).

And now back to Christmas in America…

Historical Jamestown Settlement Colonial Christmas event with a “Lord of Misrule”

As mentioned before Christmas eventually made its way into America but it was not recognized everywhere in the 13 colonies. In the Puritan-dominated New England colonies of the 17th century, Christmas was literally non-existent. Boston specifically outlawed the Christmas festival from 1659 to 1681 and even afterward it was still not widely celebrated until a couple of centuries later.

There were, however, other colonies that fully enjoyed the Christmas season with their own unique sets of folk practices and beliefs. Captain John Smith himself reported grand Christmas festivities in the Jamestown settlement in Virginia and there is even mention of drinking the first egg nog concoction! New York had its traditional Dutch ways, especially with St. Nicholas giving presents to children (more on him later!) while Pennsylvania Dutch/German settlers had quite enthusiastic Christmas celebrations. The Moravians, a religious group from the Germanic countries who settled in, for instance, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania are known to have grown the first American Christmas trees as well as creating the first American Nativity scenes which they call “putzes”. Bethlehem, PA as a result is now “Christmas City, USA”!  But despite all of the efforts at keeping Christmas, it eventually fell out of favor with Americans after the Revolutionary War as the holiday was seen as a British custom they should leave behind. So how did it arguably become the biggest holiday of the year? Why, through good literature of course!

Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, PA at Christmas

Yes it’s true! We have two great authors from America and merry old England to thank for actually “reinventing” Christmas. Up to this point Christmas had amalgamated older pagan Winter Solstice customs, been both a religious feast day as well as a wild Mardi Gras-like party before it was suppressed, shipped over to America and then eventually let go of again. To start off in America, early 19th century writer Washington Irving was interested in the Dutch lifestyles and folkways of his native New York. In 1819 he penned “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon” where among his many stories, such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, he wrote a series of Christmas tales relating a fictionalized visit by the author of the “Sketch Book” to an old English manor house in the countryside and partaking in the “alleged” British customs of Christmas. He had actually never experienced any of the traditions he wrote about and so scholars give him credit for “recreating” some Christmas traditions.

An Original 1843 Edition Title Page to “A Christmas Carol”

Across the pond it was the equally as celebrated author Charles Dickens who on December 19, 1843 published “A Christmas Carol”. The customs that he wrote about along with the feelings of charity, kindness, forgiveness, redemption and a sense of sharing the holidays with one’s family had a profound impact in England and the United States. The book has been a bestseller since and led Dickens to greatly profit from it, especially when he started presenting live readings of his story that his great-great grandson, Gerald Charles Dickens, continues today. So please thank Washington Irving and Charles Dickens for ushering in a revival of Christmas, Ichabod Crane and Scrooge will be much obliged!  

A Picture of the First Published Christmas Card!

Now that Christmas was becoming a prominent holiday again in the 19th century, some new traditions surfaced among the American and British populace. For instance, in 1843, the same year that Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was published, a British man by the name of Sir Henry Cole published the first set of commercial Christmas cards that Louis Prang later introduced in America in 1875. This happened after President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas to be an official US federal holiday on June 26, 1870, finally! 

By the Victorian period (later 19th and early 20th centuries), Christmas had become a staple holiday tradition. In the middle and upper classes, people enjoyed hosting lavish Christmas parties in their home parlours where people enjoyed eating large dinners, playing frivolous games and singing Christmas carols much like today! The working classes enjoyed their own Christmas traditions and, just as in the medieval period, went around their towns and villages singing Christmas carols hoping for a bite to eat or some ale to drink. The tradition of waits, singing groups belonging to different towns, had been partially renewed with the Christmas revival, and with that a whole slew of Christmas songs were “discovered” or composed.

Back in 1833, the antiquarian William Sandys published his “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern” which collected several old Christmas songs, whether genuine or contrived, as well as some new ones. Such famous songs like “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, “The First Noel” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing!” were first seen in print thanks to Sandys’ music book. Another famous song such as the tranquil “Silent Night” was first sung in its original German and played at a small Austrian church on Christmas Eve in 1818 by its composer Franz Gruber and its lyricist Joseph Mohr. Since the 19th century more songs have been added to the ever-growing list! (I distinguish Christmas carols as those that were created during and before the 19th century and Christmas songs as those composed during the 20th century up to the present-day). Soon magazines were publishing recipes and party ideas to hopeful hosts wanting to celebrate the holiday season in a very merry way. With all of the songs, food recipes and the prominence of winter, Christmas was coming along quite nicely! So what about the Christmas tree?

It should be no surprise among the many traditions of Christmas, and of other holidays in the year like Halloween and Easter, that the Christmas tree was originally a pagan symbol relating to ancient tree worship associated with the gods. Some scholars have posited that the Norse conception of Yggdrasil, the World Tree that connects the different realms of the living, the dead and the gods, in their cosmology, could be the mythic origin of the Christmas tree. Some other historical and legendary events have contributed to the creation of the Christmas tree during the conversion of Europe to Christianity.

St. Boniface, a Christian German missionary during the 600s and 700s CE, is believed to have come across a group of Norsemen praying to a tree dedicated to their god Thor. He then took an ax and cut down the tree, telling them that the fir tree should now be revered as a metaphor for the Christian God for its triangular shape was symbolic of the Holy Trinity. A tree was allegedly part of medieval Christmas traditions in England, decorated with apples to represent the “tree of paradise” found in the Garden of Eden and is a possible explanation for why red bauble ornaments appear on trees today. The Christian reformer Martin Luther during the 16th century is then credited for starting the modern Christmas tree custom when, upon walking in a forest one evening, he saw how beautiful the trees looked with the stars shining through them and decided to take one home to decorate, putting candles in the branches to represent the stars. Manufacturing ornaments have been a big part of German Christmas traditions since. Another theory posits that the tradition actually beganmuch later in Germany during the 18th century.

As can be seen, the Christmas tree has predominately German origins. The major influence behind this beloved Christmas tradition occurred in the 19th century when German-born Prince Albert brought this custom to England and set up a tree at Windsor Castle for his wife Queen Victoria and their family to enjoy. From then on, the Christmas tree became a staple holiday decoration. After all, if the Queen herself had a tree so should every other British family as she was quite the trend-setter when it came to British lifestyles! Soon after, everyone had a Christmas tree in their homes with candles giving way to light bulbs with the discovery of electricity and at last Christmas found its major symbol! You can see one of the largest American Christmas trees in Rockefeller Center in New York City. But where does Santa fit in all of this?

To be continued in Part 3: Santa Claus, his various names and how he came to be THE gift giver of the holiday season! Do you have any traditions or history you would like to add? Feel free to leave comments or subscribe to our blog site as want to hear what you have to say! Season’s Greetings!

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City

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