The holidays bring a special sense of joy and wonder, and this year it’s needed more than most.
With the Founder’s Folio each month I share my perspective on modern topics in an historical context and reference to those before us. How did our forefathers celebrate the holidays? What traditions still ring true? What traditions have evolved over time?
With the holidays ending a tough year, they will hopefully provide a bright spot for us all. Whatever your background is, the holiday season allows us time to come together as family, friends and community.
Looking back at America’s beginnings, early Christians selected Dec. 25 for the Nativity feast to replace the pagan festival celebrated at winter solstice.
Those who first observed the holiday in Early America were among the Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Moravians who settled predominantly in the Middle Atlantic colonies and the South. Traditionally holidays such as Christmas were predominantly a family and church affair.
However, Benjamin Franklin lamented how so many celebrated the holiday yet so few celebrated its associated teachings:
“How many observe Christ’s birth-day! How few, his precepts! O! ’tis easier to keep Holidays than Commandments,” the Founding Father proclaimed.
In the 18th century, there was no Christmas tree or gift-giving. The holiday was all about bringing family together and enjoying each other’s company over food.
While those like Franklin were critical of indulging in holiday festivities without backing it up with faithful practice, other Founding Fathers such as George Washington instead relished Christmas as the best opportunity of the year for celebration with family, friends and close ones.
No one could say Washington’s celebratory holiday was not earned. After eight years leading the American Revolution, he returned home for a Christmas celebration for the ages including what he called an “attack of Christmas pies” and the Great Cake, whose recipe called for a holiday helping of 4 pounds of both butter and sugar and five pounds of fruit.
A Christmas celebration well-deserved.
In the 1800s the holiday season ensured its lasting impact in popular culture with stories such as 1819’s “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.,” by best-selling author Washington Irving and most famously Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
These popular stories established the holiday as peaceful and warm-hearted with emphasis on charity and bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Christmas was declared a federal holiday in 1870.
One tradition very special to me and my family I would be remiss not to include is Christmas decorating. From all the lights and small details to our big blow-up Santa—a yearly tradition, decorating is a big deal at our house.
So how did the holiday decoration tradition begin in America? It happened later than you might think.
Outdoor nativity scenes and other Christmas displays became common after World War I, encouraged by the advent of electricity. Now we’ve evolved to giant light shows, music-timed thematic holiday displays and all types of special seasonal decorations for all of the season’s special holidays.
Christmas is of course not the only holiday celebrated this time of year. For all those with different backgrounds, beliefs, faiths and celebrations, let this time of year be special and unique to you and yours.
I will leave you this quote on the holiday I find a fantastic way to get into the Season’s Spirit:
“Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.” – President Calvin Coolidge