Christmas is an incredible time of year – a time when kindness blossoms toward strangers as well as loved ones. We deck the halls with green boughs and glittering tinsel that brings a smile on dark winter days. And we like to believe that it is a celebration that began over two thousand years ago when our Savior was born.
I have researched American Christmas traditions in the past and was surprised to discover that instead of the quiet, reflective holiday I expected to learn about, the holiday more closely resembled the Fourth of July in nineteenth century America, particularly in northern cities. Where available, fireworks were set and in their absence firearms were used in the apparent goal of creating as much noise and chaos as possible. In fact, a hundred years before in Colonial Virginia, Christmas was similarly celebrated.
The Colonial Virginians sought to celebrate Christmas as they believed English lords were doing, feasting, hunting and gambling. However, in that era, New Englanders were prohibited from celebrating the holiday. This difference reflects the deep cultural differences of early Americans since New England was populated by Puritans seeking religious freedom while early Virginians were entrepreneurs looking for riches.
Our modern sentiment would expect the Puritans would be more likely to celebrate Christ’s birth. However, they believed that The Bible was silent about Christmas festivities and therefore they too chose silence on the issue. While the Puritan’s European persecutors did celebrate Christmas with some degree of the pageantry we enjoy today, their early Christian ancestors probably did not. Church history indicates that the celebrations didn’t really begin until the fourth century and they have been surrounded with controversy ever since.
Certainly, that day in Bethlehem was heralded by a heavenly chorus however, after Christ’s crucifixion, it was the resurrection which those first believers celebrated. They were looking forward to the second coming of Christ and spent little time remembering his humble birth.
Christmas was declared a national holiday in America in 1870. Those years following the Civil War saw many cultural changes in America and our holiday traditions began to really solidify. So, the Christmas pudding and mincemeat pies of the old world were quickly replaced with sweet potato pie in the South and clam soup in the North. It took a few years for marketers to build the industry of Christmas, but we were enjoying decorations from the beginning – no doubt some of those practices came with the earliest immigrants. The Kansas Home Cookbook detailed the Christmas dinnertable’s adornments as early as 1886 and I would be hard-pressed to lay the table they describe.
Many of us enjoy a simpler Christmas, decorating with homemade ornaments and using sentimental pieces to remind us of past holidays and family members no longer with us. But when you long for the simpler, old fashioned Christmases of the past, try to clarify just how far past you wish you could go.
Regardless of how you celebrate, today we must remember Jesus Christ’s birth; let us do it in a beauty of spirit that reflects the gift He gave us this day and in fact, the gift we receive with each new day.