Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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@ElizaBTweetin: December 3, 1872: Christmas in the 19th Century

Posted on December 9, 2013

EBWdia1872p68Stephanie Langlois '17

Eliza Baylies Wheaton mentioned attending a church service reading of “A Christmas Story” on the 3rd of December. Her holiday festivities continued as she prepared for the holiday we all know and love by bottling cider and attending church regularly. Yet, the traditional Christmas festivities that we all cherish were just being founded in 1872. In fact, in 1659, the Puritans and Calvinists banned Christmas celebrations in much of America because they felt these celebrations encouraged the attitudes and idolatry of the Catholic Church. The Calvinists and Puritans banned Christmas celebrations to further separate themselves from Catholic practices. As an influx of (predominantly Catholic) European immigrants came to the United States, between the mid 1700’s and throughout the 1800’s, the ban was quickly lifted.

Royal Christmas Throughout the first half of the 19th century, these immigrants brought their various Christmas traditions with them to America and more and more people began celebrating the holiday. For example Episcopalians and Moravians celebrated with religious services and prayer, the English brought the traditions of Christmas carols and giving gifts, and Germans brought the idea of decorating the home and Christmas tree with ornaments and lights.  Slowly, families began to incorporate these traditions into their own celebrations and the modern Christmas holiday, as we know it today, was born.

However, it was Minolta DSConly in 1870 that Christmas was declared a national holiday. Southern states were the first to declare Christmas as state holidays beginning in the late 1830’s; however, in the North, it was generally considered sinful to celebrate the holiday with festivities such as gift giving and Christmas tree decorating. In was partially in reaction to the Civil war, when the government was trying to promote national unity, that Northern and Southern traditions began to mix and all of America began to celebrate Christmas like we do today.

St_ NicholasThe one major aspect of Christmas not yet mentioned is, of course; Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a representation of Saint Nicholas, the protector of children, who is said to have lived in the third century. The feast of Saint Nicholas was especially important to The Dutch and due to the heavy influence of Dutch colonies in New York, New York was where the modern characterization of Santa Claus originated.

santa-claus-pics-02011In 1809, Washington Irving wrote a “History of New York” in which he declares Saint Nicholas as the patron Saint of New Yorkers. Furthermore, he describes him with many of the same characteristics as our modern day Santa Claus. This image was reiterated by New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “T'was the Night Before Christmas” in 1823 and this solidified the popular image of Santa Claus that we all know today.

christmas-presents-under-tree-1It is clear that Eliza celebrated Christmas mostly as a religious holiday because she wrote time and time again about her trips to church services in the weeks and days leading up to the holiday. Specifically she mentions listening to “A Christmas Story”; which originated in the New Testament of the Bible (books of Matthew and Luke). However, in her later entries she also mentions buying cloth to make another woman’s dress, which she may have been making as a Christmas gift. While, it is evident that we celebrate a much more commercialized and culture homogenous Christmas today: the holiday that Eliza wrote about was only the second nationally recognized Christmas; since then these traditions have evolved a great deal.

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