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" in 1822, nearly 200 years ago.
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 gathering to celebrate together. 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 settlers 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 still 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 widespread 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 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 published in 1863; by 1880 the jolly old elf appeared much as we know him. 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 schools, churches and theaters all over the U.S. feature special Christmas performances in December. Yet recognizing December 25 as Jesus' birthday is not politically correct, and despite recent campaigns to put Christ back in Christmas, to retailers it's all about the holiday's economic impact. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is known today as the biggest shopping day of the year.
Those of us who still celebrate the real reason for the season can refuse to say "Happy Holidays" in favor of a sincere "Merry Christmas" as we remember our Savior whose birth in a manger over 2000 years ago led to mankind's redemption from sin forevermore. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year!