Holiday Season

December 22nd, 2023

By Mel Oles, Visitor Services and Program Manager at Rose Hill Mansion and Johnston House

‘Tis the season for decorating, feasting, gift giving, and holiday music. It’s also the season of cherished customs and traditions. Over time, Christmas in the United States has been enriched by the diverse cultures of its people. Immigrants brought their own traditions and customs, which merged with existing ones to create a unique experience.

The earliest recorded observance of Christmas in America was in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. In Puritan New England, Christmas celebrations were viewed as excessive and discouraged due to an association with Catholicism. The holiday was even outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. Anyone celebrating it was fined. However, as more diverse groups arrived, Christmas began to gain popularity.

Colored engraving of a family in old-fashioned clothes standing around a decorated Christmas tree on a table.

Queen Victoria and her family celebrating Christmas.

By the mid-1800s, Christmas was being celebrated as a holiday throughout America largely because immigrants brought their favorite holiday customs with them. The Dutch celebrated Saint Nicholas the gift giver. The English loved Christmas carols and decorating with evergreens, mistletoe, and holly. Catholics brought the tradition of the nativity scene. Germans brought the Christmas tree, which was a symbol of life during the harsh cold winter.  During the 1840s, thanks to her German-born husband, Queen Victoria introduced the Christmas tree as the centerpiece of the royal family’s holiday celebration.

In the 19th century, Christmas started to take on a more recognizable form in America.  Influenced by the ideals of Victorian era, Americans embraced the idea of a family-oriented Christmas celebration. The introduction of the Christmas tree, caroling, and exchanging gifts became common practices during this time. Christmas became even more mainstream with the help of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Published in 1843, the story captured the Victorian Christmas of simple pleasures, celebration, and charity. It became a best seller and remains a holiday favorite today.

One favorite tradition is the Yule Log. The Yule Log is the largest piece of wood one could find. It’s decorated with holly, placed in the fireplace and lit. The goal was to keep it burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas. Another tradition is the Christmas stocking. Today many people hang theirs on fireplaces, however the Victorians hung their stockings from their bedposts. The stockings would be filled with things to eat, read, and play with.

On December 26, 1863, Margaret Swan of Rose Hill wrote a letter to her father-in-law, Benjamin Swan, thanking him for Christmas gifts.  He gave books to Lincoln and Robbie and a toy train to Otis. He gave the two girls, Maggie and Mary, bracelets.

By the late 1800s, most American celebrated the holiday. On June 26, 1870, President Grant and Congress declared it a federal holiday.

Today, Christmas in the United States is celebrated in various ways. Families and friends gather to exchange gifts, share meals, and enjoy festive decorations. Many communities organize parades, festivals, and light displays, creating a sense of holiday joy. Past Christmas practices and customs continue to inspire us today, reminding us of rich traditions. So, whether you find yourself adorning your home with greenery or writing cards, we would like to wish you happy holidays!

2 responses to “Holiday Season”

  1. Norma Press says:

    Excellent explanation of our amalgam of customs!

  2. Inga-Mai (Pim) Larsson-Kovach says:

    Interesting to read how traditions and customs from different countries have come
    together over the centuries.
    Thanks Mel.
    Happy New Year to you.

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