No other holiday in America boasts such a wealth of traditions and customs. Besides our uniquely American traditions–Christmas dinner with roast turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, tiny lights strung on houses and plump Santa Claus–we also celebrate in ways that reflect the diverse backgrounds of our immigrant ancestors. But all these traditions didn't come from the same place, as did the people who brought them to America. Their holiday traditions, transplanted here from many countries, have taken root and thrived.
To the first English colonists who arrived in Virginia in 1607, Christmas was both a holy day and a festival which they celebrated here with the same merriment and feasting that they did in England. They also began the practice of exuberant noise-making, with horns, drums, and firecrackers, that's still part of Christmas in the South.
Early American Christmas celebrations were simple by necessity. Life offered few luxuries, and most families struggled just to survive. But the Pilgrims took a dim view of the singing and dancing, feasting and drinking that characterized the Yuletide celebration back in England. For them, Christmas was strictly a religious event, and merrymaking on this holy day was an unwelcome reminder of pagan winter rites. So the Pilgrims who landed in Massachusetts in the winter of 1620 spent December 25th erecting their first building, refusing to make the day special in any way. By the Revolutionary War, they began to lift their bans, but it was not until 1856 that Massachusetts recognized Christmas as a legal holiday.
Fortunately, Christmas was cheerier elsewhere in the colonies. On Christmas day, 1624, an expedition of the Dutch East India Company went ashore to the now island of Manhattan to give thanks with a merry feast. As more colonists arrived from Holland, they brought their Christmas customs of a gift-bearing St. Nicholas, the stocking filled with treats, and the spirit of family closeness that's so much a part of Christmas today.
Other immigrants along the Atlantic seaboard joined the Dutch in keeping a merry Christmas. With the Swedes who settled in Delaware in 1638 came the legend of gift-giving elves, as well as the custom of hanging a wreath of fir or pine boughs on the front door as a sign of welcome and a symbol of good luck. A century or so later, German colonists introduced the practice of decorating evergreen trees with candles, cookies, and ornaments.
Christmas in the southern states was a convivial affair, the American counterpart of the English Yuletide revelry. It wasn't so much an occasion for gift giving as for friendship and hospitality. In Williamsburg, Virginia, people lit the Yule log as the foundation of the traditional Christmas Eve fire, and gathered to sing carols. The Yule log played a special role in holiday observances. As long as it burned, usually throughout Christmas week, no one was expected to work. Not surprisingly, people went to great lengths to keep the giant log ablaze. The next morning they attended church services, and then the festivities began--banquets, dances, games, hunts, and fireworks--sometimes continuing until the New Year.
In the huge expanse of country beyond the thirteen original colonies, other traditions took hold. From the Great Lakes to Louisiana, French settlers attended a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, then sat down to a special supper called a reveillon. Children left their shoes by the creche before going to bed, in hopes that the infant Jesus would fill them with gifts. For most French-American families Christmas was a time of peace and contemplation. The secular celebration waited until New Year's Eve, which they celebrated with a town festival complete with parades, masquerade balls and the like.
Spanish communities in what's now Texas and in the mission settlements of the Southwest re-enacted the journey of Mary and Joseph on the first Christmas. Called Las Posadas, this combination procession, play, and pageant was followed by a lively celebration. At the height of the festivities, children swung at a pinata with a large stick, and when it broke scrambled after the toys and sweets that spilled out.
As the tide of immigrants swelled in the 19th century, new Christmas customs appeared. It was at this time, too, that Christmas assumed national importance. By the 1840s, Clement C. Moore's classic poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" became a family favorite. Christmas parties and gift giving, Santa Claus and ornamented trees were common to the whole country by 1860.
By the 1890s, the height of the Victorian era, Christmas had acquired many modern traditions. Then as now, Americans remembered the true meaning of Christmas through generosity and charitable deeds. While they made merry with family and friends, they also recalled the origin of this once-a-year event, exemplified in star-topped trees, Nativity scenes, performances of Handel's Messiah, and above all the sharing of joy and love with their loved ones.
The holidays are a great time to think back to childhood days and perhaps revive long-forgotten traditions. What better way for a family to pay homage to its ancestors than by celebrating Christmas as they did.