Christmas did not become a recognized federal holiday until 1870 — and then it applied only to the 5,300 government workers in the District of Columbia. It took another 15 years to extend the holiday to the 50,600 employees outside the District. To be sure, much earlier states had set aside Dec. 25 as a holiday, beginning with Alabama in 1836 and Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838. By 1861, 15 states, mostly in the South, recognized Christmas as a legal holiday.
The tardiness in making Christmas a special day had nothing to do with contemporary concerns about the separation of church and state. Indeed, the societal issues surrounding Dec. 25 were varied. Individuals residing in the South embodied their British or Anglican religions and acceptance of Christmas, as did Lutherans, Moravians and Roman Catholics settling in New York and Midwestern areas. Their observance was private and unaffected by declarations of a day off from work. On the other hand, the early Puritans settling New England were opposed to the holiday because it smacked of Catholicism and especially Anglicanism’s excessive revelry in terms of drinking and eating. In fact, Christmas was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681 and rarely celebrated for decades afterward.
Then there was the matter of the American Revolution equating the day with British customs, and anti-mother country sentiment simmered after the War of 1812. Dec. 25 was also associated with social season merriment among the rich and their lack of generosity to the lesser advantaged. Christmas Day riots in New York City in 1828, for instance, led to the eventual creation of the city’s professional police force.
Still, the movement toward a kinder and gentler Christmas observance was underway. For one reason, Christmas had, for centuries, been equated with a time of providing presents to children, thanks to the feast day on Dec. 6 of St. Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop noted for his gift-giving. As Dec. 25 took precedence over Dec. 6, St. Nicholas became, in the Dutch pronunciation, sinterklaas, which evolved into Santa Claus. These developments provided the background for American ingenuity to humanize Christmas.
First, in 1819 came the immensely popular stories of author Washington Irving that depicted Dec. 25 as a meeting time for rich individuals to share their good fortune with others. So powerful were Irving’s images that Charles Dickens relied upon them in his 1843 work, “A Christmas Carol,” featuring Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from a miser to philanthropist. Next, in 1822 came Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” best known for its opening line, ” ‘Twas the night before Christmas… .” The work would become a mainstay of the season to this day.
But the biggest contributor to making Christmas so warmhearted that Americans could not resist its contagion was Thomas Nast, whose illustrations in Harper’s Weekly magazine standardized the holiday, much as artist Norman Rockwell in the Saturday Evening Post did the same for Thanksgiving a century later. Relying upon the works of Irving and Moore and in place of the numerous renditions of Santa Claus that prevailed at the time, Nast in more than 30 drawings from 1863 to 1886 created the modern Christmas.
First, came a Santa Claus who was portly, red-nosed, white-bearded and spirited. Then this Santa was busy making toys, executing his shipments, even filling stockings. His home would offend no American or, for that matter, anyone because it was at the North Pole, the scarcely inhabited Arctic area. Nast’s Santa would be seen reading letters from parents to determine whether children were naughty or nice and, finally, would be the recipient of letters from youngsters with their requests. And, of course, Santa would be depicted making his deliveries around a Christmas tree. Not surprisingly, the rising Christmas-card industry made all these scenes popular.
So, by the early 20th century, Christmas became what it is today: a recognized holiday, both federal and among the states, with a jolly Santa warming hearts and hearth, and Christmas trees abounding in homes.
• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.