Here’s the last part of the Focus On The Family History of Christmas. I hope you have found it as interesting as I did the first time I heard these things.
Prior to the 1850’s Christmas had a tremendous struggle trying to establish a foothold in America, but it was well on it’s way to becoming New York’s favorite day showing the way for the rest of the country.
In 1855 The New York Times stated that on Christmas day, a Tuesday, the churches of the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist were not open. They did not accept the day as a holy one. But the Episcopal, Catholic, and German churches were all open and decked with evergreen.
In 1858 John Udell, a Baptist born and raised in Connecticut, was in New Mexico with other pioneers and a pack train. On Christmas eve in Albuquerque he observed Mexicans performing a Nativity play in a large Catholic Church. He found the idea of people playing the parts of the Virgin Mary and the Apostles ridiculous and went on to record in his journal, “In the eyes of us American Christians this was considered most blasphemous mockery.”
In 1861 Confederate General Robert E. Lee plucked a small bouquet of flowers and mailed them to his daughter for Christmas with the note, “I send you some sweet violets that I gathered for you this morning whose crystals glittered in the bright sunlight like diamonds. Occupy yourself in aiding those less fortunate than yourself. Think always of your Father.”
In 1867 Rev. Henry Harbaugh, a Reformed Christian Churchman who had spent 18 years writing and speaking to promote Christmas among other Protestant faiths, found himself exiled in a Scott/Irish community near Harrisburg. In frustration he wrote, “Here where I am living in the Pennsylvania hills, they want to hear nothing of Christmas. They spend the day working as on any other day. Their children grow up knowing nothing of brightly lit Christmas trees or Christmas presents. God have mercy on these Presbyterians… these pagans.”
In 1868 on the prairies of Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa Christmas was a community affair. Families would gather from miles around in whatever public building that was available. The Christmas observance… held by three denominations in the local courthouse… hoped to have a large evergreen tree but they were hard to come by on the prairie. There was a stand of tall cedars by a river about 20 miles away. The Rev. L.N. Call and a deacon volunteered to make the trip in freezing weather to bring one back. The decorated tree, plus presents for everyone, made the day a decided success.
In 1870 Boston public schools began closing for Christmas.
In 1874, Henry Ward Beecher… a prominent clergyman of his day… told a Pittsburgh congregation, “To me, Christmas is a foreign day, and I shall die so.” Beecher was one of many, who having grown up without Christmas never adopted the custom.
In Victorian America, the very period we now look back on as celebrating the classic American Christmas, there were still nay Sayers that considered the day an abomination. As late as 1886 the American Methodist Newspaper, The Christian Advocate, described Christmas as a day on which more sin, sacrilege, and foolishness is committed than any other day of the year. In old England Christmas was an excuse for gluttony, drunkenness, dancing, gambling, sexual license, and mass begging. The Puritans would have no part of any of it.
In the 1800’s, New York was the principal port for the European immigration. Cultural customs and Christmas traditions were yet unblended into the American melting pot. As the immigrants settled across the continent, they brought with them their many traditions regarding Christmas. By the last decade of the 19th Century, all the major denominations had adopted Christmas observances.
In 1915 lighted candles were placed in windows of those wishing carolers to sing at their door.
The Christmas we celebrate today is largely a late 19th Century creation. A blend of old world history and traditions melded by an emerging American culture. In addition to traditions rooted in the Nativity, the day incorporates folklore associated in Europe with St. Nicholas’ day, December 26th, and festivities transferred from New Year’ day… a more important day than Christmas for Americans a little over a century ago.
While many detest the commercialism of Christmas, boxes are appropriate for the giving of gifts. The wise men brought their gifts to Jesus in boxes. And Jesus was laid in a wooden box filled with hay in the manger. It is appropriate therefore that the greatest and first gift of Christmas was the one who gave his life to save all who will believe from their sin.
Luke 2:10-14 Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”