Happy Holidays Peeps!
Join me this week as I dive into the history of the Christmas in America. From the Candy Cane to the Ugly Sweater, America has plenty of odd and interesting traditions during the holiday season, but where in the heck did they all come from?
Tune in and find out!
I also took some time in the episode to send love to some of my favorite shows - I hope you check them out.
Cerini, Marianna. “A cozy history of the ugly Christmas sweater.” CNN. November 15, 2021. (LINK)
History.com Editors. “History of Christmas.” History. November 9, 2021. (LINK)
Pruitt, Sarah. “How Christmas Was Celebrated in the 13 Colonies.” History. December 21, 2020. (LINK)
Kennedy, Lesley. “How 25 Christmas Traditions Got Their Start.” History. December 18, 2020. (LINK)
History.com Editor. “History of Christmas Trees.” History. November 9, 2021. (LINK)
Evans, Farrel. “What Was Christmas Like for America’s Enslaved People?” History. December 21, 2020. (LINK)
Waxman, Olivia. “The Surprising Story of Christmas in the United States.” Time. December 23, 2016. (LINK)
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Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey peeps, welcome back.
Merry Christmas! And if you do not celebrate Christmas, merry holiday! I hope you have an opportunity to sit back and relax a little today and enjoy some family time, if that is your thing.
Today I thought I would do something a little fun. If you’ve been a follower of the podcast for a while, then you know last year I did episodes on the history of Halloween and Thanksgiving in America. You all seemed to really enjoy learning where all our traditions come from and so, since it’s Christmas day, I figured I would do the same with Christmas.
When did Christmas become a thing in the United States? How has it evolved? And where did we get some of our traditions?
Grab your peppermint mocha, or in my husband's case eggnog. Let’s do this.
Every year, millions of Americans come together with friends and family to swap gifts, eat good food and trim the tree. But where in the heck did it all start?
A lot of the Christmas traditions Americans partake in today started in some form or another overseas - and largely in Germany. Most of what we enjoy during the holiday season is a combination of the various customs and traditions of other communities and ethnicities. However, though we may not have created these traditions, Americans definitely put their own spin on things. But let’s start at the quote beginning shall we?
Christmas as a holiday has a long and complicated evolution. Winter celebrations go back to the nordic celebration of Yule, a pre-christian germanic ritual celebrated between December and January focused on rebirth and renewal. To the south in Rome, another pagan festival, known as Saturnalia, celebrated Saturn, the god of agriculture. Romans also celebrated the birth of the god of the sun, Mithra, on December 25th. With the rise of the catholic church, officials decided to overtake the date as a celebration of the birth of Jesus. The prevailing theory is that officials picked the December date to increase the chance of its embrace by the local citizens already used to celebrating the various winter festivals. Their gamble seems to have worked as the celebration spread throughout Europe and was practiced in England by the 6th century.
Of course as it became a more religious holiday, Christmas lost much of its pagan elements. The earliest celebrations of the holiday were very different from what we’re used to. While many would attend church service, it was usually followed up by loud carnival-like celebrations, leading some to find it excessive. In the 17th century as a wave of puritan religious reforms were sweeping through England, Oliver Cromwell announced the cancellation of Christmas in 1645. It didn’t last long though; Charles the second rescinded the cancellation once he took the throne in 1649.
However, the colonists who came to the new country were devout believers in ridding the church of its excesses and felt that Christmas was one of those customs that had to go. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, celebrating Christmas was against the law, punishable by a fine. Anyone who was quote “found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way” end quote would have to pony up five shillings. So much for holiday spirit.
It was the southern states who first embraced the holiday, with Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama being among the first to declare the date a state holiday. Much of the south established the traditions we have now such as giving gifts, singing carols and decorating the house. Southern states, with a robust population of enslaved individuals, took the time around Christmas to give their human property a “break” usually giving them between Christmas and New Years as a free period to visit family - including leaving the plantation. Owners also gave “gifts” of new clothes and shoes and food that was not served throughout the year. Of course, the gift giving in this situation was one-sided and only served to reinforce the paternalism many owners felt over their human property.
However, lest we give too much credit to the human property owners of yore, the holiday also marked a time of demonstrated excessive punishment.
Constantly concerned about potential rebellion, some owners took the holiday as an opportunity to demonstrate their control of their human property, exerting cruel punishments on the enslaved individuals as a warning to everyone on the plantation who may be considering an uprising. Despite the potential for mistreatment, some slaves looked at Christmas with fond eyes. Former slave and avid abolitionist Frederick Douglass commented on his memories of Christmas, saying quote: “This time we regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters; and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased.” End quote.
Some enslaved individuals took the risk of running away, despite the potential for excessive violence if caught. One of the most well known examples is Hariett Tubman, who decided to flee over the holiday break on Christmas Eve in 1854. Many enslaved individuals decided to make Christmas their own, naming it John Kunering - also known as Jonkonnu JANK A NEW, John Kannause or John Canoe. The celebration included dancing, playing music and even dressing in costume.
Though it took a while, things eventually took a turn and Americans began to embrace Christmas. Aided by the works of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens who wrote literary pieces celebrating the idea of Christmas, Americans began to soften their stance towards the holiday. Over time, several states enacted laws marking Christmas an official holiday, but it wasn’t until 1870 that Congress pulled the trigger and made December 25th a day off for federal employees working within the District. The holiday was originally unpaid until the law was changed in 1938.
Since its passage on the federal level, the holiday has continued to evolve and evoke various traditions and imagery, including things like cookie swaps, ugly sweater contests and of course, Santa Claus. Now that we’ve laid some groundwork, let’s look at some of the most iconic parts of the holiday and see how they came to be, shall we?
We have to start with the one, the only Santa! Who doesn’t love the jolly old dude who promises gifts if you’re good? Most know Santa evolved from a man named Saint Nicholas, a monk who was born in 280 AD known for giving away his wealth and traveling across the land aiding the poor and sick and eventually becoming known as the protector of children and… sailors. Oddly enough. The idea of St Nicolas entered the American lexicon in the late 18th century in New York when Dutch families honored the anniversary of his death. In 1822, an Episcopal minister by the name of Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem called ‘An Account of a visit from St. Nicholas.’ However most people know it by its opening lines: Twas the night before Christmas.
Santa got his red hat and holly demeanor in 1881 when a political cartoonist drew an image of him based on Moore’s poem. And Santa became a shopping mall staple in 1890 when James Edgar of Brockton Massachusetts decided to wear a Santa Suit to his dry goods store. People loved the gimmick and the idea took off, although Macy’s claims it has had its own Santa since 1862.
The idea of leaving milk and cookies for Santa came from Norse mythology who originally opted to leave treats but Americans had to make it their own and moved it towards milk and cookies during the Great Depression.
The other iconic piece of Christmas is the tree. Ask my husband, I am a control freak when it comes to decorating. There is a precise order to things and the poor man can never get it just right. You gotta do lights - hidden within the branches of course - and then place your ornaments strategically to enhance those lights. He hasn’t mastered this yet, but I love him anyway. My tree is themed; because of course it is. I have a plethora of Disney ornaments. I love a few things in life: my husband, Christmas, Disney, horror movies, the Yankees and history. So my tree - and most of my holiday decorations - are Disney themed. Although I do have a Derek Jeter figure ornament and a historical view of the Presidents ornament. All I need is Michael Meyers and I will have all my interests reflected on my tree.
So where did the idea of a Christmas tree come from? Or course, we can thank our Germanic ancestors, who started the tradition of bringing trees into their home as early as the 16th century. According to history dot com, Mark Carr gets credit for opening the first Christmas tree farm in 1851. Every year, 30 to 35 millions trees are sold each year in the United States. There are over twenty one thousand tree farmers in the United States and the trees themselves take upwards of fifteen years to be fully developed and ready to sell.
Another iconic piece of Christmas is the candy cane - who first made its appearance in America in 1847 when a german-swiss immigrant placed them on a tree in Ohio. For the record, candy canes date back to 1670 in Germany.
As I mentioned in my opener, my husband loves Eggnog. I personally cannot get down with the cinnamony-milky substance, but people love it. I have a friend - shout out to my girl Shay - who makes a - as she says - spirit forward cocktail involving Egg Nog. I had some one Christmas and I have hazy memories of the rest of the night. So where does the idea of boozy eggnog come from? Well it’s been around for a while - even George Washington had his own special recipe. History of spiked eggnog can be traced all the way to Jamestown, so it’s been part of our holiday celebrations for quite a while.
Another favorite of mine is the Christmas card. But where did the idea of a Christmas greeting card come from? Well it looks like England popularized the trend in 1843. But it was Kansas City based Hall Brothers, now known as Hallmark, who created the folded card with an envelope to send in 1915.
One of the traditions in the Civics & Coffee household is driving around to look at Christmas lights. I don't know what it is about the twinkly bulbs that gets me into the holiday spirit, but I force my poor hubs out every year to look at other people’s hard work.
Thomas Edison may have discovered electricity, but it was his friend - Edward Hibbard Johnson - who took Edison’s discovery to the next level and decided that putting light bulbs around a tree was festive. Popularized in 1882, the decorative lighting has made quite the leap. While a dangerous endeavor in the early years of Christmas decorations, most lights sold for trees are now flame retardant and therefore risk is minimal.
The New York City Rockettes are a dynamic dancing troupe known for their precision and their holiday performances. I love their brief number during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and it is a bucket list item for me to see them live one of these days. A good friend of mine - and long time supporter of this pod, Amanda - loves the Rockettes. So where do these fabulous ladies come from? Can you believe they actually originated in Missouri?
Upon their inception in 1925, the dancers were known as the Missouri Rocketts. It wasn’t until 1934 that they were rebranded as the New York City Rockettes. Every year since, the fabulously limber ladies have dazzled during the holiday season.
The poinsettia - quite possibly the most quintessential holiday plant second only to the christmas tree - was introduced to the United States in 1828. Joel R. Poinsett, who the plant is named in honor of, was the U.S minister to Mexico and thought the plant interesting enough that he brought it with him back to America.
The advent calendar was something I absolutely loved as a kid. It got its start in 1903 in Germany, when children would get a bible verse, poem or small gift when counting down the days until christmas. The calendars - and the treats included - became more secularized in 1920 and therefore changed in overall tone. Nowadays, people who buy advent calendars can look forward to treats - usually in the form of chocolate. Although I have seen a few adult themed calendars that include things like samples of wine and I am here for that.
Americans tend to gain a lot of weight during the holidays and a contributing factor is all the sugar and baked goods enjoyed throughout the season, including baked cookies. Many Americans enjoy cookie contests and swaps and its origins date back to the late 1800’s when they were referred to as cookie parties. Since then, the name has evolved to cookie exchanges and cookie parties. Whatever you want to call it, we love to give each other little tins of baked flour and sugar.
Lastly, lets talk about the ugly sweater. This is a tradition that while I appreciate, I have never exactly understood. Why would someone purposefully leave the house with a piece of clothing that just doesn’t sit right?! Of course at this point - at least in America - it is practically a requirement to don the ugliest and most politically incorrect sweater possible and enjoy a few cocktails. Who can be thanked - or blamed - for this tradition?
The idea of a holiday sweater originated in the 50’s, when they were referred to as Jingle Bell Sweaters. They weren’t all that popular and of course were not purposefully ugly. Holiday themed sweaters made another appearance in the 80’s, but again failed to take off. It wasn’t until 2001 when our neighbors to the north decided it was time to celebrate the ugliest outfit possible. Thanks, Canada.
Before I leave you to enjoy your holiday, I wanted to take some time to reflect on 2021 and send some love to this amazing community. This year, you all helped the podcast hit eleven thousand downloads and reach over forty two countries. We celebrated Women’s History month together with extra bonus episodes and I got the opportunity to be an uber nerd on some of the best podcasts around. Thank you to Two Songs One Couple, the Presidencies of the United States and Why Whiskey for having me on.
And while I am on the subject of podcasts, I want to throw some love out there to a few of my favorites. I appreciate these creators for their dedication and approach to their craft and I am always humbled by the work they put into their shows. One of the first individuals to welcome me to the history podcast world is Jerry from the Presidencies of the United States. Not only is Jerry a kind and generous human being, but he is also a wonderful creator who dives deep into the administrations of our presidents. I always learn something from each of his episodes and I’ve looked to him as a model of how to accurately and fairly portray any given historical subject and I am thankful for not only his show, but his friendship and camaraderie.
Another pod I absolutely adore is Hashtag History. You know I love those ladies, who I had as a guest in November when we covered Watergate. I love women who are passionate about a subject and these ladies deliver consistently without fail. If you haven’t given them a chance, please consider it on your podcast journey.
Operation History is another who requires kudos. Plain and simple, these four individuals are immensely talented, incredibly smart and have fascinating conversations which are covered during their podcast episodes. If you ever wanted to know how history nerds chat when there isn’t a paper on the line, tune into them. They are hands down some of the most witty people I've ever come across and I am thankful for knowing them.
One of the most incredible finds of 2021 for me is Broadly Underestimated. Kristyn dives into specialized topics - all female focused. She does amazing in her research and her storytelling is bar none. Please take a moment to listen to her work; it’s incredible and I am constantly in awe of the extraordinary content she puts out.
Thinking about the collaborations I’ve done this year, I was fortunate enough to discuss my fangirl feelings of miss Clara Lemlich on Why Whiskey. Ian does an terrific job of digesting big history in relatable ways. History with a side of whiskey, what else could one want in a show?
A big e-hug is reserved for Two Songs One Couple for our amazing time together discussing historical songs. I appreciate their musical knowledge and even if I don’t understand everything they say, they make music so relatable that I cannot help but keep coming for more. They are so passionate in their musical tastes and they’ve both inspired me to expand my musical interests. So thank you, peter and sam, for forcing me to look beyond my comfort zone for music. You guys are rocking it - keep going.
If you’re looking for a show about everyday life and approaching things in a new way, I think you might enjoy the podcast Strive, Seek, Find. The host, Chance, tackles nuanced topics in a straightforward way. I also appreciate his ability to take the wide lens.
Lastly, I am giving a shout out to the Abridged Presidential Histories of the United States with Kenny Ryan. As I move through my timeline and need to cover presidential administrations, I look towards other creators to see what they’ve said and figure out if I have anything else to add. Kenny is wonderful in his analysis of presidential administrations. He strives to be impartial, but also informative. If you only have a half hour or so to cover a presidential administration, give him a listen.
There are so many more creators out there whom I adore and cherish, but I am running out of time so I am cutting the list here.
On this christmas holiday, I want to say one thing - thank you. I didn’t think anyone would listen to some random woman in California chat about history and I have to say, I am so humbled and honored that all of you spend your time with me. I hope you have a wonderful holiday. Please know, I appreciate all of you.
I’ll see you in the new year peeps. With a bad ass woman from history to boot.
See you in 2022 peeps!
Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.
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