Although Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Grinch are modern additions to the Christmas tradition, a lot of the way we celebrate Christmas has its roots in the 19th century.
Prior to then, Christmas was no big deal, said Traci Manning, the Mahoning Valley Historical Society’s curator of education, who presented a program on the evolution of Christmas in America at the Nov. 14 Brookfield Historical Society meeting.
Easter was the primary holiday in Christian communities, and the Puritans went so far as to ban Christmas.
The figure of Santa Claus comes from several traditions, most notably in America from the Dutch, Sint Nikolaas or Sinter Klaas. In 1804, the New York Historical Society published engravings of Santa Claus. A little later, Washington Irving, the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” wrote satirical stories featuring Santa Claus, but also lovingly captured English Christmas traditions.
Clement Clarke Moore published “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” a poem now known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” in 1823. “It’s a very frivolous poem, but it’s very defining of what Santa Claus is and what he looks like,” Manning said.
In 1840, England’s Queen Victoria married the German Prince Albert, a pairing that changed the American concept of Christmas.
“If Queen Victoria did it, everybody did,” Manning said. “When Prince Albert brings his German traditions to Buckingham Palace, England gets on board, and then America gets on board, because they’re on the cover of every newspaper and every magazine and everyone wants to do what Queen Victoria is doing.”
The Christmas tree was a German reshaping of the pagan tradition of bringing evergreens into the home to ward off evil spirits. The Germans placed decorations – primarily made of paper – and lit candles on their trees.
The Civil War turned Christmas into an opportunity for patriotism and propaganda, Manning said. The notion of the war was romantic at its outset. Once the horrors of the fighting became known, people struggled with how to properly “celebrate” the season.
Santa’s costume came to feature the colors and design elements of the American flag, and Christmas illustrations often featured loved ones on the home front packing boxes of alcohol, clothes, rags and other goods to be shipped to soldiers, and little boys dreaming of the day when they can take their places at the front.
Thomas Nast, whose paintings and illustrations of Santa Claus remain popular today, turned the jolly old elf into an avenging angel in a Harper’s Weekly cover that shows Santa holding a wooden puppet of a hanged Jefferson Davis.
“This is how we’re seeing Thomas Nast use Santa Claus as a war tool,” Manning said. “No longer is Santa Claus a happy, jolly old elf. He is a tool for the United States Army to get people on board with war support.”
The Confederates had their own issues at Christmastime, as the war made the basic necessities of life difficult to get. Parents told their children that there were no presents under the tree because the Yankees had shot Santa, or that he couldn’t get through the Union’s naval blockade.
Following the war, tree ornaments and lights and Christmas cards come into prominence. The modern depiction of Santa as a red-suited, waistline-endowed ho-ho-hoer was cemented at the end of the century.
“The commercialization of Christmas in the late 19th century, that’s when it just goes crazy,” Manning said. “You’ve got Coca-Cola, you’ve got big department stores, all of the things being produced in the 1880s and ’90s.”
Mahoning County Historical Society’s exhibit “Memories of Christmas Past” runs through Jan. 5 at the Arms Museum, 648 Wick Ave., Youngstown.