*** holiday attire: Christmas in America

Seasonal Holliday Attire: Christmas in America

American Christmas
Figure 1.--These American boys are reading 'The Night before Christmas' in 1940. They don't have much of a Christams tree which is suprising because based on the surondings and their outfits, they look to come from a prosperous family. My guess is that it is not the family Christmas tree. Curriously here it is the older boy wearing suspender shorts. A reader reites, "I think the younger boy is wearing button on shorts though it is hard to tell from the photo."

Contrary to widely held views, America is a deeply religious country. Probably more Americans attend Church than the the citizens of any European country. Thus the religious nature of Christmas is important in many American families. Undeniably, however, Santa Claus now plays a central role in an American child's Christmas. American children diligently take their Christmas lists to Santa Clause. Some now even have computerized lists. Some American children in fact see Santa and his raindeer as a much more important figure than Jesus. Given the media blitz of commrcialism, parents have to work hard to maintain traditions beyond the commercial extravanganza. The Christmas tree of course has European origns, both Celtic and German. It is not entirely clear how the Christmas tree became such an important American tradition, but the combination of the English Victorian influence and the large number of German-Americans must have been key factors.

Christmas Morning

The tidied up image here with the kids all spruced up is of course not what happened on Christmas morning (figure 1). What really happens is the kids wake up before or after mom and still in theior pajamas begin to tear into the presents under the tree. Now this varies from family to family. In some homes the parents cointrol what is happening. They may carefully pass the presents out one by one and everyone can enjoy the opening of each present. And the opposite end of theis neaured approach is the children attacking the pile of presents to get to the loot. Ther might be a frenzy of chaotic fury with paper and ribbons flying every which way. And somwwhere between these two extemes are the millions of American families With their own traditions and approaches. All linds of factors are invbolved such as the age and number of the children, family affluence, parental upntinging, trligion and much more. All of this was raely captured by the camera until the mid-20th century when flashbulbs amd point and shoot cameras made indoors photography nearly foolproof. And thus we begin to get imges of what was happening under the tree.


Christmas celebrations in America have varied over time. There were at substantial regional differences in colonial America. The northern colonies were influenced by the Puritans who actually discouraged Christmas celebrations along with other non-conforming Protestant sects. In fairness to the puritans, Christmas celebrations at the time could be racaous and hardly sedate religious mters. The southern colonies were more staunchly Anglican and more accepting of a little fun. The back country was a different mtter. They were less orgaized and established relogious observation less common. Here the Scotts-Irish were a major influence and not willing to adopt Anglicanism. Christmas celebrations were significantly affected in Britain by Queen Victoria's family, especially Prince Albert. The raucouscelebrations stillcimmon in the 18th century were toned down. There were several Victorian Christmas traditions, but the central element was Christmas a family event centered on the children. Many American Christmast traditions were acquired from Britain at this time. Increased immigration during the nid- and late-19th century from Catholic countries was also a factor, but they seemed to have adopted American-style Christmas rather than significantly changeing it. Of course there have been many American refinments added over time. Santa's image is a little different and the reindeer, especially the more recent addition of Rudolf, are an American innovation. And it is in America during the 20th century that Christmas became such a commercial event. One impact here was secular Christmas icons, bot only Rudolf, but Frosty, and eventually the Grinch. It was in America that the "Nutcracker" emerged as an important Christmas tradition. And economic prosperity over time transformed how Christmas was celebrated. While Christmas in the 20th century became more commercial and secular, the heart of the Victorian tradotion remained--Christmas as a central family-oriented event.


The historical Saint Nicholas was venerated in early Christian legend for good deeds, including generosity to the poor. His legend spread throughout Europe, emphasizing his role as a traditional bringer of gifts. The Christian figure of Saint Nicholas replaced or incorporated various pagan gift-giving figures. He was called Sankt Nikolaus in Germany and Sanct Herr Nicholaas or Sinter Klaas in Holland; in both countries he was depicted wearing a bishop's robes. The feast day of Nicholas was traditionally observed on December 6. After the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, German Protestants encouraged veneration of the Christkindl (Christ child) as a gift giver on his own feast day, December 25. When the Nicholas tradition prevailed, it became attached to Christmas itself. The term Christkindl evolved into Kriss Kringle, another nickname for Santa Claus. Various other European Christmas gift givers include P�re No�l in France, Julenisse in Scandinavia, and Father Christmas in England.

Santa Claus

The basis for Santa Claus was St. Nicholas. St. Nick took on different forms and no where did he change more than in America. It was the Dutch who brought Santa Claus to America. New York was first settled by the Dutch as New Amsterdam. Children there as Dutch children still do, prepare for St. Nicholas eve. The children once filled their shoes with straw for St. Nicholas' horse, hoping that the Bishop then known as Sinter Klaas, would fill them with gifts. (See "Holland" for more details about Sinter Klaas and the hanging of stockings by the fireplace.) American children begin grasping the concept of Santa Clause at about 2-3 years of age. Virtually all children are thrill with the mystery and surprise of Christmas. Thius does not begin to change for most until they begin school. There they begin to here rumors from older children. Their developing concept of mathematics enables some to do the numors. One rather rotund old fellow can only go down so many chimleys--not to mention that many do not even have chimleys. Others wonder about seeing multiple shoping mall Santas. Some observant little sharpy might notice that mom and dad's wraping paper is the same as Santa's. I remember asking how Santa got my new desk down the chimley. Often children during their first year of school cling teaciously to Santa. By age 7 and second grade many begin to become increasingly skeptical. This is probably a younger age than was common at the turn of the 20th century. It is no only adults thart participate in the information age. As one editorial writer expkains, "You know your kid is a doubter if he comes in holding a globe and calculator and wearing an expression that says, 'We have to talk." There are two American Christmas classics addressing the doubts of growing children. One was an editorial written in respnse to an 8-year old girl, Virginia O'Hanlon. It was written by Francis P. hurch for the New York Sun in 1897. It begins with the now classic, "Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Clause." The other classic is the wonderful 1937 movie, Miricle on 34th Stree sraring a young Natalie Wood.

Christmas Tree

The Christmass tree of course has European origns, both Celtic and German. It is not entirely clear how the Christmas tree became such an important American trrdition. It was not a tradition in early colonial America. The Puritans did not approve of Christmas at all, let alone frivolities like Christmas trees. Other Protestant groyps in the north did not have Christms trees or Anglicans in the south. Nor do we note Christmas trees popular among the Scotts-Irish in the backwoods. lthough not well documented, it must have been German immigrants beginning in the 18th century that brought the Christmas tree to America. I am not sure about the earliest recorded Christmas tree. Many sources mention the German Moravian Church's settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania as having the first Christmas tree (1747). The German Hessian Soldiers fighting for the Crown in the Revoutinary war are often cited (as having Christmas trees 1770s). Many Hessians stayed in America after the War. Almost surely there were Christmas trees in America before the Hessians. Grmans began arriving in America much earlier (throughout the 18th century). And the Germans were the largest immigrant group (19th century). We are not sure, however, to what extent the German traditin spread to other Americans by the beginning of the 19th century. One account describes a Christmas tree set up by American soldiers at Fort Dearborn, Illinois, the site of modern Chicago (1804). As farcas we can tell, however, it was largely a German tradition until the mid-19th century. This changed when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, a German prince. Prince Albert apparently introduced a Christmas tree to Windsor Castle for their young children (1834). There may have been Christmas trees in England earlier, but it was Victoria and Albert and their young family that ppularized the Christmas tree in England. The British were very infuential in America. Despite considrabe antiBritish feeling in the United States, British fashions and cultural tradituins were very important uin America. As the Christmas tree became popular in Britain, the Christmas tree evolved from a quaint German tradition to a a widely accepted American traditions. A first it was adopted in fashionable Easern cities. Mark Carr is cresited with binging trees from the Catskills to New York, opening the first retail Christmas tree lot (1851). It was not long before there were Christnas trees in the most remote corner of America. Franklin Pierce was the first president to have a White House Christmas tree (1856). He apparently put one up for a Washington Sunday School group. By the end of the 19th century, only American familes in abject poverty did not have a family Christmas tree. Even many Jewish families had them. The first national Christmas Tree was lighted on the White House lawn by President Calvin Coolidge (1923).


American author Washington Irving gave the country its first detailed information about the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas. Saint Nick achieved his fully Americanized form in 1823 in the poem commonly known as The Night Before Christmas, by Clement Clark Moore.

The Reindeer

Santa's reindeer are more recent in origin. They were widely publicized by a poem, A visit from St. Nicholas written in 1822 by Clement Moore. It is better known today as Twas the night before Christmas. Some scholars think the origin of the reindeer legend is even earlier, steming from Norse mythology. The fierce Norsemen believed that spirits from the tribal north would descend from the sky with their reindeer to deliver valuable gifts to believers. Rundolf of red nose fame was added very recently to Chtistmas lore. He was created by an American retailer's Christmas promotion.

The Image

Santa Claus, the legendary bringer of gifts at Christmas. He is generally depicted as a fat, jolly man with a white beard, dressed in a red suit trimmed with white, and driving a sleigh full of toys drawn through the air by eight reindeer. Santa, also called Saint Nicholas and Saint Nick, is said to visit on Christmas Eve, entering houses through the chimney to leave presents under the Christmas tree and in the stockings of all good children.

The Nutcracker

America is not known as a country which especially appreciates ballet. Virtually every American kid today knows about the Nutcracker and in many families, attending an annual mperformance of the Nutcracker is a family tradition. Even those who do not attend an actual performance are exposed to the famed Tchaikovsky ballet. The music is played every where, from shopping malls to supermarkets. And of cour there are TV commercials and TV performances of the Nutcracker. The ballet is perfect for children. Not only do children lovel all the great characters, but there are numerous roles for children at all levels of abilities from beginners to accomplished dancers. (As one writer explains, the Nutcracker features "toddlers beside ballerinas and ponte shoes next to mouse paws". [Fisher] It also can be adapted in enumerable productions with variations such as Scottish, Indian, or virtually any Ethnic or national variant. Millions of American children have performed the Nutcracker in front of their parents. This even included Chelsea who performed in the washington Ballet's production and Mr. and Mrs Clinton like millions of other parenrts were charmed by her performance. The Nutcracker is such an important part of Christmas in America that many believe it is a long established tradition. In fact it is a relaively new part of Christmas in America. Only since World War II has the Nutcracket been added to American Christmas traditions. The Nutcracker was not one of the great European ballets nor was it particularly popular in Europe. The Nutcracker is not just production in large cities with Balet companies, but is performed in even small towns--any where with even a small ballet school which means vitually everywhere in America. Tchaikovsky composed the Nutcracker (1892) and it was not well received. The building of the Nutcracker tradition began in america with Disney's "Fanastasia" (1940). It was first performed in Amrerica by the San Frncisco Ballet (1944). It was George Balanchine who first made a splash with the Nutcracker (1954). Gradually the Christmas tradition began to build. Not only do the children and parents love it, but the Christmas productions have bevcome important money makers helping to finance major American ballet companies. [Fisher]

Advent Calandars

Advent calandars seem to be primarily a European tradition. Many German children receive Advent calandar cards. A HBC reader tells us, however, that Advent calandars are not unknown in America. She nmotes that many stores off calandars with little gifts and sweets inside.

Public Christmas Displays and Celebrations

Christmas displays, both religious and secular, used to be ubiquitous and unquestiioned. This included displays on public property. It also included school decorations and celebrations. As America has become more secular and as immigrants have arrived fron non-Christian countries, these displays have become subject to increasing scrutiny. There is a long traditioin of separation of church and state in America. The First Amendment to the Constitutioin provides. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...." This provision is clear enough, but intrepting is more complicated than it seems. Some of the issues that have arrisen are simple enough. We note for example that Christians parents in Oklahoma were incensed when a school supperintendent would not allow a Nativity scene but did allow other religious symbols in a school program. The approprtiateness of any religious symbol in a public facility may be questioined, but allowing some and excluding others clearly violates the "establishment" clause of the First Amendment. Issues like this probably arise because officials are influenced by civil rights law. Civil rights laws and court rulings have established protected classes whichb do not include majority whites. Officials presumably are incorrectly extending this legal precept to religious issues. A reader writes. "I think the point was that it was a public building so no religios stuff should have been shown anyway. If you allow one you have to allow all the opportunity to express their belief. You're supposed to be a free country in that respect. I think interpretation of this idea is being taken far beyond what was intended. The school had had this format for a number of years so it was a tradition which is legally a good reason for upholding it." This cuts to the heart of the current debate in America. To what extent are Chriustmas traditions a cultural rather than a religious tradition. And of course because the fact that something is traditional does not make it right or legal. There is, for example, a long tradition of religious andcracial bigotry in America. Issues touching on Christmas tradition arise each year. Some are much more coimplicated than the Oklahoma example. For example a public school decided to exclude all religious music from a Christmas concert. This raises a huge number of questions. Religious music is an important part of the cultural heritage of America and Europe. Is religious music and literature acceptable because it is an important cultural component? One might say that you can include music from other religions, but the Christian music traditiion is much stronger than in other religions. In Islam, for example, it is absent. Using the same logic would oner hasve to exclude religious art from public art museums. Does the inclusion of religious music make Jewisj Muslim, Hindu, and other children feel like outsiders. These are all difficult questions which the Supreme Court will ultimately have to rule.

Christmas Parties

Christmas is primarily a family event, but the Christmas party was also of some importance. There were family parties as well as parties for adults and children. The office party is a long established tradition which used to involvd alcohol until companies began to get sued. For children the school Christmas party used to be a popular tradition. They were almost universal. I recall many fun Christmas parties in grade school. Now politicaly correctness has ended these event. In some case they have been rebranded as holiday parties to exclude the 'taint' of religion. Churches of course still organize Christmas parties. We also see institutions like orphnages holding Christmas parties. Orphanages were important institutions in the late-19th and early-20th century. Communities pulled together to make sure the children got something for Christmas. After World War II, fostering the children became a more common approch. And we see private groups like dance schools organizing them. While Christmas parties are not as common as they once were, there is an extensive photographic record of these parties from the 20th century.

Toy Trains

The model train in America gradually became associated with Christmas, Deoprtment stores were quick to pick up on the attention getting potential. And they had the wear-with-all to build wonderful model train displays with multiple lines, tunnels, towns, and entertaining feaures. Stores would set up train display windowns as Christmas approched, some as early as September. I remember these displays as a little boy in Washington in the 1940s. The best one was a Woodward & Lothrop. And this fueled the desire of boys to have a train set. As they were expensive, they were generally purchased as Christmas presents. That was when a kid got the most expensive toys. A train set would have been at the very top of a boy's Christmas list in the 1920s-50s. And train sets up began appearing under the family Christmas tree. A good example is an American boy, Dick Trippe in 1921. Some families set up the trains just for Christmas. But as dads got interested, some families with space set up permanent model train set ups.


We have archived individual Christmas experiences on HBC. One example is Jack with Santa in 1930.

Family Christmas Images

Americans wanted to photograph their Christmas experiebces from an early point. This was not feasible in the 19th century. Most photographs in the 19th century weee portraits taken in photograpic studios. And to capture family Christmases you need to take photigraohs at home whih means that dad needed to be able to take photographs at home on Christmas Day. We see a few of these images in the 1890s, but not very many. We see far more in the 1900s decade with the advent of the snapshot beginning with the Kodak Brownie (1900). Now indoor photogeaphers were much more complicated than outdoor photographs. And gradually more family friendly methods of taking indoor photographs were developed. So we have countless family Chrisstmas image photograohs. There was a problem with family Christmas snapshots. They could not be shared with families and friends until well after Christmas--at least before digital photography and the internet. Sending card greetungs was becoming popular by the turn of the 20th century. Often families with kids would slip in a family portrait in with the Christmas card. Then suddenly in the late-1940s we begin to see special Christmas greetings card with a family portrait. The problenm with this is it could not be a Christmas portrait. The photograph had to be taken and submitted to the card company well before Christmas. This became very popular during the 1950s-70s.


Fisher, Jennifer. Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World.


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Created: January 1, 1999
Last updated: 6:28 AM 6/22/2020