The stockings are hung by the chimney with care, and in many homes across the United States – St. Nicholas soon will be here. Christmas day has been inching closer, but we’re almost there. If you’re like most people, this year has felt like a combination of excruciatingly slow minutes that feel like years themselves, and days that feel like a blink. But we made it to the end, and it’s time to gather with friends and family to celebrate the Yule season. Whether you celebrate Christmas or just take advantage of the holiday season for some good sales and family gatherings – let’s take a look back at Christmas in the United States and how it came to be the extravaganza we all know.
First we have to look back at how Christmas came to the United States. It was established as a federal holiday in June of 1870 – but clearly, people were celebrating it on the continent before then.
The first people thought to have celebrated Christmas in the United States date all the way back to the first European explorers, namely Spanish conquistadors. Despite the fervor of anti-immigrant bigotry that the country still battles, it was Hispanics who brought the country’s favorite holiday to its shores. Hernando de Soto, a dozen Catholic priests and around 600 Spanish explorers are thought to be the first people to celebrate in what would one day become the US, in 1539. It was also Spanish settlers who celebrated the first recorded Christmas, in New Mexico in 1598 at a newly built church next to San Juan Pueblo, now known as Ohkay Owingeh.
In 1638, Spanish explorer Juan Domínguez de Mendoza and Catholic priest Nicolás López invited Indigenous people to the first blended Christmas, in Texas. “Invited” is a term that should be used loosely, as we know from historic records that many Indigenous peoples weren’t given a choice about joining in the celebrations. Some however did welcome the traditions and blended it into their own Native traditions. And enslaved peoples later in American history faced similar “invitations” to celebrate. Traditions from their home countries that they brought with them were outlawed and punished, and enslaved people were expected to celebrate the religions of the plantation owners. Civil War revisionists often wrote propaganda describing the festive joy that enslaved people were invited to partake in – the reality being far, far different. Enslaved people were often bought and sold around Christmas as their contracts expired, and would be given as gifts. The uncertainty of the season was not a time of joy, but if you read Confederate tales of the times they’d like you to think it was.
There’s a strong history of Hispanic celebration of Christmas in the United States, mostly because they are historically aligned with the Catholic Church. In the 1700’s, Puritan settlers in the Northeast United States turned their nose up at celebrating Christmas, and it was eventually banned in New England. The connection with Christmas and the Catholic Church plus the Church of England was too strong for Puritan settlers, so it took another 200 years for German and Irish settlers to turn the tide in New England and bring the celebration to all parts of the fledgling country.
Coast to Coast Traditions
Christmas of course didn’t spring up immediately in the wake of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, the very first Christmas wasn’t celebrated until December 25, 336 AD in the Roman empire – 300 years later. As Jesus’s birthday is thought to be earlier in the year, the date of the celebration is somewhat arbitrary, but coincides with other important Roman celebrations. Classical Historian explains, “The date of Christmas and some American traditions have pagan roots. In the Roman Empire, December 25th was the day of ‘natalis solis invict’ (the Roman birth of the unconquered sun), and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian ‘Sun of Righteousness.’ Saturnalia, a Roman festival that honored the sun, lasted from December 17th to December 23rd. The winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, also falls a few days before December 25th and had been celebrated by pagans. Early Christian Church leaders believed that days that had been set aside to honor pagan gods could be changed to honor Christianity. It was thought that people would more easily accept Christianity and move away from paganism by replacing pagan celebrations with Christian ones.”
So how did a holiday that was born in Bethlehem, brought to life in the Roman Empire, banned in England and New England and a point of contention between Spanish missionaries and Indigenous people become the most beloved holiday in the United States?
Because Americans love to celebrate. In the 1800’s, an author named Washington Irving began writing fictional stories about Christmases celebrated in England before it was banned in 1685. Americans saw these stories and decided, “let’s do it.” German, Catholic, and Irish immigrants (often being one in the same) brought their private celebrations with them and helped turn the tide as well. Traditions from coast to coast vary, but for the most part Christmas has a familiar cadence in the United States: either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, families gather to open presents and have a feast, set aside politics and family strife, and “remember the reason for the season.” While Christmas has become more secular over the past century, some traditions remain. Christmas Eve mass is still popular among American Catholics, and living nativities are a popular tradition in churches across the country.
Schools often have holiday concerts and events in the weeks leading up to Christmas break, and most radio stations blast Christmas music for the entire month of December.
Cities across the country adorn themselves in lights and trees, with plays, events, and parades planned to celebrate. In Chicago, for example, the infamous giant Bean reflects the lights of a breathtaking Christmas tree that looks over the plaza like a thousand sparkling gems.
Celebrating in the United States
And in New York, the lighting of the famous Rockefeller tree marks the start of holiday season. In Las Vegas, the strip which is already adorned with what seems like more lights than the skies above them – brilliant trees and garlands spring up along the faces of hotels and casinos.
In Miami, palm trees get decorated with a whimsical nod to the warm Winters there. Skating rinks are set up across the country and shops set up their best Christmas deals.
2020 and 2021 have been exceptionally difficult years to celebrate in the United States, due to the COVID-19 virus keeping people apart. But families have begun establishing new traditions, and the “zoom Christmas” may be one that sticks around in years to come. Whether you celebrate Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas or any of the other myriad religious celebrations that span November and December, Christmastime in the United States is a beautiful time full of lights, merry music, and a festive air. Although the roots of the holiday aren’t what many expect, they do remind us that everything about the United States is a collection of things that came before. There’s no one right or wrong way to celebrate – and we can always look to our neighbors to learn new traditions.