Puritans, Washington Irving, and Christmas
Christmas. Greeting cards, decorations, ornaments, tinsel, lights, Christmas trees, nativity scenes, carols, poems, food, candy, candy canes, Santa Claus & Saint Nicholas, ribbons, presents, wrapping paper … almost everything you can conjure up about how we celebrate Christmas came about because of immigrants. Perhaps no other holiday that has been so influenced, so shaped, so transformed by immigrants.
Not sure? Consider the first immigrants to these shores, Puritans. The Puritans were not renown for, well, joyous things. They were, in fact, a rather grim people. They established their colonies around a few basic, unshakable tenets: they were subjects of the British Crown and their version of Christianity was the only version.
For good, bad, and indifferent, when they came to Plymouth, Massachusetts and Jamestown, Virginia, and subsequently evicted most of the Dutch out of the Hudson River Valley, they set the stage for American culture that lasted through the Revolution. One thing they influenced for a solid one hundred and seventy years or so was Christmas.
Simply, they did not believe in celebrating it. Indeed, they didn’t believe in recognizing it as a special day. They believed this so strongly (come to think of it, the Puritans believed everything strongly) they banned the observance of Christmas as a sacrilege. They forbid the exchange of gifts, dressing in fine clothing, even the exchange of Christmas greetings.
This was further reinforced, and entrenched, when the English Parliament passed a law prohibiting the observance of Christmas in 1645. England dropped that law with the end of Cromwell’s short, bloody reign. But the sentiment in America did not waver.
Except in the hills of Virginia, Christmas in Colonial America and the early Republic was quiet, somber. Nothing special happened, it most certainly wasn’t publicly celebrated. In some areas of Virginia, Christmas was marked by games – horse races and the such – and little else. Not somber, not quiet, but also not a Christmas we would recognize.
This all began to change about the time the Constitution was ratified. Immigrants with new ideas and Old World notions of Christmas were pouring into the new United States. The writer Washington Irving was born in New York City in 1783 during the week the Revolution ended. He grew up surrounded by immigrants in one of the true cosmopolitan cities of the world.
He knew from a very young age that he wanted to be a writer. He grew up watching, listening, experiencing everything Manhattan had to offer. In 1819 he published a series of short stories about a different kind of Christmas, a Christmas where a cross section of society celebrates a true holiday.
He wrote about a holiday that was open, joyous, gay, celebratory. Irving was enormously popular and influential. One of the bestselling authors of his time, his Christmas stories were hugely influential.
Americans – so much more diverse in 1820 than at any previous time in our history – listened, Christmas began to change.
This might have taken generations, but everything was accelerated by the great influx of immigrants in the mid-1800s, culminating in the 1850s. With them came all manner of Christmas observations, not one as somber as the Puritans’.
With decent roads, canals, river steamers, and the new railroads, spread out, quickly. They brought their ideas to all corners of the country. An America looking, perhaps yearning for, a different type of Christmas, quickly adapted all the trappings of what we now know as the Christmas Season.
Everything from Christmas trees to tinsel and ornaments, and, of course, Jolly Old St. Nick, came to us through immigrants.
It happened so quickly, and was embraced so completely, that Christmas was finally – finally – made a National holiday by President Grant in 1870.
From all of us at Quiroga Law Office, we wish you a Merry Christmas, the Happiest of Holidays, and the very best wishes for the New Year.