Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG
Echoes of Christmas Past
We tend to think our families have always celebrated Christmas as a national holiday. After all, Clement Moore wrote the poem, "Twas the Night before Christmas" way back in 1822.
Moore lived in New York City where wealthy inhabitants, many of Dutch ancestry, tended to take the week between Christmas and New Year’s off as a holiday, giving presents to family and friends. This was not the case nationwide as customs differed in various parts of the country.
Historically, the Christian world first celebrated the Feast of the Nativity. In England, it became known as Christmas after the Norman Invasion in 1170. Banned by the Puritan Parliament in 1644, Christmas was restored in 1660 when King Charles II took back the throne. In our southern states where the Church of England was strong, Christmas was a time of feasting and fun with distant cousins often invited to join their kin. Slaves were included in the feast and sometimes given as much as a week off from their labor depending on the master’s generosity.
In New England the Puritans had abolished most holidays as unbiblical, as did the Quakers who settled most heavily in Pennsylvania. Nevertheless Pennsylvania’s many German settlers brought their traditional celebrations with them, including Christmas trees and Nativity scenes.
The historic Battle of Trenton actually began on Christmas night in 1777 so that Washington’s troops might catch the British and their hired German soldiers off guard. For some years after the Revolution, Christmas was seen as an English custom and generally not observed. Gradually the festivities resumed, and by 1830, due in part to the popularity of Clement Moore’s poem and to a general prosperity, Christmas celebrations extended even into conservative New England.
In 1850 as celebrations became more lavish and gift giving more prevalent, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book The First Christmas in New England expressed the opinion that shopping sprees were causing Christmas to lose its meaning. What would she think of today’s television commercials for the "one perfect gift," a new Lexus automobile sporting a big red bow?
President Grant signed the law making Christmas a national holiday in 1870. General acceptance of Santa Claus sprung from a Thomas Nast cartoon first drawn in 1863, with the jolly old elf appearing much as we know him by 1880. After World War II, economic growth and increased competition among retailers escalated the commercialization of Christmas. How well I remember the excitement in the 1940s when the new Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward Christmas catalogs arrived at our house. My sister, brother and I paged through them for days looking at all the toys as we decided what to add to our Christmas lists.
Today celebrating December 25 as Jesus’ birthday is not politically correct, and despite recent campaigns to put Christ back in Christmas, to many it’s all about the holiday’s economic impact.
Correction: In my last column, I wrote that while Personal Ancestral File (PAF) is still available as a free download it’s no longer supported. I should have said the program is no longer being enhanced, but it continues to be supported. In fact, I’m told over 1000 missionaries are on duty to support it, and the force is still growing. The toll-free number for free support is 1-866-406-1830, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. There is also a PAF users’ support group on Yahoo!
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