How Christmas Came to Be
Every year, people around the United States and the world celebrate Christmas in a spirit of giving and kindness. But Christmas has only existed in its modern form for a few hundred years. From the 1600s to the mid-1800s, Christmas was a point of controversy far more often than celebration. European monarchs sometimes banned Christmas in recognition of the pagan roots of raucous winter festivals. Later, during the religious clashes of Reformation times, Protestants often rejected Christmas celebrations while Catholics sought to “vindicate” them. The Puritan settlers of America were among Christmas’ most serious foes. Christmas’ status, and the way it was recognized, changed from year to year, from place to place, and from ruler to ruler.
Arguments over what Christmas symbolized and whether it was a true religious occasion continued well into the 1800s. In 1843, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol helped lay the foundation for the holiday known today. Dickens’ story helped infuse the popular understanding of Christmas with notions of merriment and goodwill. The book was tremendously popular and its ideas entered the vernacular quickly: even now-common phrases like “Merry Christmas!” originated with this work. Though the public singing of Christmas songs was known through the 1700s, references to caroling in the works of Dickens may also have helped rejuvenate the practice of door-to-door Christmas carol singing and inspire writers and publishers to issue books of Christmas carols.
Dickens was not the only author who contributed to a new and revitalized “Christmas spirit.” From the 1820s to the 1840s, many compilations of traditional and new carols and accounts of winter gift-giving traditions were released into the public sphere in England and America. The American writer Washington Irving’s Old Christmas and other works helped popularize Christmas gift-giving in the U.S., and the poet Clement Clarke Moore penned the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, one of the first works of modern literature to feature Santa Claus as such. Irving drew on the ideas of antique English Christmas traditions for his works, and Moore had a variety of influences. In 1843, the English inventor Sir Henry Cole introduced Christmas cards to the English public, even as carols grew in popularity in America. Louisiana was the first state to declare Christmas a holiday, in 1837, but by 1860, it had spread to fourteen more states. In the 1870s, Christmas was introduced as a federal holiday – by then, the giving of Christmas cards had become common both in Britain and the United States.
Christmas traditions like the tree, gifts, and the yearly visit from Santa Claus also began to acquire their present forms in the 19th century. The Christmas tree is believed to have its origins in Christian missionary work in Germany as far back as the 7th century. But these trees were neither popular nor strongly associated with the Christian faith until the 1600s. Christmas trees were prevalent in Germany and German communities in the U.S., but did not spread to the greater Anglo-American world until the 1820s. Around the same time, Santa Claus emerged as a hero of popular myth. An amalgam of St. Nicholas with the mythological Dutch figure Sinterklaas and the English character Father Christmas, Claus acquired many of his traits in Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas; the German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast, who worked in the 1860s, is largely responsible for his appearance. With the “help” of Santa Claus, Christmas shopping quickly grew by leaps and bounds in economic importance
Much of the foundation of the Christmas holiday comes from ancient traditions, both pre-Christian and Christian. But a great deal of what is now recognized as central to the Christmas season was developed in the 1800s, from reflections and reinventions of olden celebrations that Victorian-era authors like Dickens and Irving introduced in popular forms. The holiday has strong religious elements, but also employs much secular and modern pageantry and symbolism. All in all, Christmas is a fascinating example of cultural change and evolution and a most interesting culmination of diverse elements.