The Origins of Modern Christmas cover

The Origins of Modern Christmas

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The holiday season seems a good moment to explore the contradictory nature of Christmas as a holiday that has become nearly globally observed while at the same time still being considered deeply nationally entrenched in many countries.
Take Germany, for example: Considered as the homeland of Weihnachtsstimmung (Christmas mood), Christmas trees and Christmas markets, few would doubt that there is something a like a really true deutsche Weihnacht. Across the Atlantic, Americans equally claim to have their American Christmas, which, by the way, is the only federal holiday in the United States with a religious connection.


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The Origins of Modern Christmas

Decorating Trees—Building Nations

The holiday season seems a good moment to explore the contradictory nature of Christmas as a holiday that has become nearly globally observed while at the same time still being considered deeply nationally entrenched in many countries.

Take Germany, for example: Considered as the homeland of Weihnachtsstimmung (Christmas mood), Christmas trees and Christmas markets, few would doubt that there is something about a really true deutsche Weihnacht.

Across the Atlantic, Americans equally claim to have their American Christmas, which, by the way, is the only federal holiday in the United States with a religious connection.

Yet, celebrating Christmas has also an inherent transcendental dimension that goes beyond national borders – no matter whether people observe it as a religious or secular holiday.

Nativity Scene

Nativity Scene

Image Jeff Weese, (CC BY 2.0)

Christmas Contradictions

To better understand the contradictory global and national character of Christmas, it is useful to go back to the long 19th century in which the modern Christmas was re-invented in a series of developments.

During this period, Christmas celebrations became increasingly linked to national sentiments but they were also shaped by a multitude of imagined cultural encounters and transfers between countries. Building on the abundant scholarly literature on the history of Christmas, this blog post aims to sketch some developments which had a lasting impact on modern Christmas as it is familiar to us today. In particular, it draws on the wonderfully detailed books of Joe Perry and Stephen Nissenbaum, as well as an article by Neil Amstrong.

Winter Carnival

Winter season in 17th and 18th century rural Europe was time of feasting and drinking; it was a period of carnival, mumming and sometimes excessive behaviour; a lot of the feasting took place in taverns, on the streets and in public places.

The harvest had been brought in, the wine was ready, animals needed to be slaughtered and there was less work to be done on the fields. Winter solstice festivals of pagan origin were tolerated by the Roman Catholic Church aiming to make their members observe a number of saints’ days, including the celebration of St. Nicholas on December 6th, and fasting and midnight mass on December 24th.

According to historian Stephen Nissenbaum, Christmas season was an occasion ”when the social hierarchy itself was symbolically turned upside down, in a gesture that inverted designated roles of gender, age, and class.”

Saint Nicholas

Image Bjoertvedt. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Saint Nicholas

Russian icon depicting St Nicholas with scenes from his life.

Christmas' Raucous Roots

The poor, often groups of young men, claimed the right to enter the houses of the rich and to receive drink and food.

And the well-to-do had to let them in, to hold open house. Christmas in the 17th and 18th century was a period of rowdiness, loudness and public drinking and feasting – far from the private domestic Christmas that emerged later on.

If there was anything domestic that would come close to the modern Christmas it was St. Nicholas’ Day, as portrayed by Jan van Steen in his famous painting from 1665. Here we see a Dutch family in-door with the girl receiving a doll for having been obedient over the year while the boy apparently did not receive anything because of having been naughty.

The Feast of Saint Nicholas

The Feast of Saint Nicholas

The Feast of Saint Nicholas, a painting by Dutch master Jan Steen.

Reinvention of Modern Christmas

Christmas is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In his book Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History, historian Joe Perry shows how the holiday as we know it took shape in the first decades of the 19th century in the homes of enlightened aristocrats, upper-class families and bourgeois intellectuals in Protestant Prussia.

"Recoiling from the upheaval of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, they refocused the holiday’s rituals on family and private life in order to regain a sense of stability and connect to romanticized trajectories of cultural continuity."

Perry writes that during the first half of the 1800s a veritable system of rituals and customs, of stories, songs and images were pioneered, promoted, many of which were later exported abroad. Yet, they were not invented in isolation but in close cultural interchange with members of the cosmopolitan enlightened literary elite in other countries.

Carols and Gift Bringers

As part of this awakening of a bourgeois sphere, Christmas carols like Silent Night (1818), and O Tannenbaum (1826) were composed and published;

Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Die Weihnachtsfeier – Ein Gespräch (1806, widely read in its 1826 edition) and E.T.A. Hoffman’s Nussknacker und Mäusekönig (1816) became widely influential books.

New gift bringers were invented and replaced old mythical figures of wild men and even to some extent Sankt Nikolaus and his evil partner Knecht Ruprecht.

Santa Claus

According to Joe Perry, it was the Romantic artist Moritz von Schwind who provided the model for the now popular figure of the Weihnachtsmann [Santa Claus].

His illustrated poem Herrn Winter featured a kind and generous gift and Christmas tree bringer. Published in 1847 by the popular Münchner Bilderbogen across Germany and the European continent, this figure became quickly built into family rituals which by that time had already encompassed the habit of bringing in and decorating fir trees with candles, apples, nuts and handicraft decorations for the holiday.

Herr Winter

Herr Winter

Moritz von Schwind. "Herr Winter" in Münchner Bilderbogen (1848).

The Christkind

The Christkind

The German Weihnachtsmann, though, had a competitor – the Christkind.

Originally introduced by Martin Luther as gift bringer during the Reformation to commemorate the official church date of Christ’s birth, the figure of the Holy Christ underwent a metamorphosis to an androgynous, sentimental angel-like being that brought children presents.

The [above] engraving by German painter Johann Georg Meyer von Bremen portrays the Christkind bringing presents to poor children in 1840.

The Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree, originally a localized custom in Strasbourg in Alsace, seems to have spread through one of Goethe’s novels to other German states.

In the novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sufferings of Young Werther, published in 1774) the Christmas tree appears at a dramatic moment shortly before the hero’s suicide. Charged with a sense of new cultural and national awareness, the Christmas tree became a fashionable new ritual in Protestant Prussian households that was nevertheless perceived as a folk tradition.

Changes in Gift-Giving

All these new rituals were closely intertwined with profound transformations in social and family life.

The shift from the public to the private sphere, as Stephen Nissenbaum states, went hand in hand with a shift from gift exchange between social strata (in the old form of holding an open house or wassails during the holiday season) to gift giving within the family, and more specifically between generations.

Children become increasingly the focus of a romanticized Christmas – at least as far as the well-to-do were concerned.

Christmas in Literature

By mid-century, international literary circulation reached a first peak.

Washington Irving’s account of British Christmas in Bracebridge Hall (published in the United States around 1820) and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (published in England in 1843) were immediately translated into German and widely circulated.

Travel accounts published by English and American visitors, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christmas within Doors, in the North of Germany (published in a British periodical in 1809) or Loring Brace’s Home-Life in Germany (published in the US in 1853 after an invitation to spend Christmas Eve with a family in Berlin), were meant to popularize a romanticised Christmas in America and England. Yet, they also contributed to an idealized self-perception of national traditions among their readers in German literary circles.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present. From Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, 1843.

Commercialization of Christmas Tradition

While modern German Christmas was originally an invention of Protestant upper and middle-classes in Prussia, it rapidly diffused to other regions and social groups:

from the Protestant North-East to Catholic regions in the South-West, from the urban centres to the countryside, from upper-middle to lower classes, from Protestant to Catholic families, and from Christian to non-Christian households.

By 1900, a national-wide market for Christmas tree decorations, books and other gifts had developed, supported by a railway system which allowed the transport from rural to urban areas.

The commercialization of Christmas did not undermine but rather was part of creating a nostalgic sense of a German Christmas tradition that provided an impression of eternity – despite of having come into fashion no longer than a century before.

Religious Competition

However, none of this went uncontested.

In fact, Perry identifies three major counter-cultures that developed at the end of the century in response to cultural pressures for a general observation of Christmas with customs that not everybody wanted or could appropriate and adopt: The Reform Jewish and Zionist movement re-establishing Hanukkah as an alternative holiday; the socialist party re-interpreting Jesus as early revolutionary and promoting a socialist Christmas; and a more diffuse working class culture trying to make the best out of very limited means, but also keeping old habits of tavern and street drinking.

Religious Competition (cont'd)

One might add the Catholic families which at least in the countryside also kept their alternative rituals to observe Christmas Eve as a fasting day ended by church mass, and would rarely set up a Christmas tree at home.

While Prussian law required the observance of church holidays and prohibited outdoor rowdiness from the mid-1850s onwards these laws seem to have barely enforced and a wide range of ways to celebrate to have persisted across the German lands.

A Norwegian Christmas

A Norwegian Christmas

A Norwegian Christmas, 1846 painting by Adolph Tidemand.

"German Christmas"

As customs and rituals diffused they became increasingly interwoven with national sentiment; they became part of an imaginary German Christmas that was recognized by domestic and foreign contemporaries alike.

Shared rituals and customs during the holiday season, together with official recognition of the day as a holiday, helped to construct what Benedict Anderson called imagined national community and to provide it with an emotional sense of belonging.

This became most apparent for those who could not be in their imagined home during the Christmas season: German emigrants celebrating what they perceived as their German traditions after emigration to America; and German soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 celebrating under Christmas trees provided by the Prussian King.

"Battle for Christmas"

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a veritable “Battle for Christmas” was taking place in New England, which historian Stephen Nissenbaum describes in his book of the same title.

According to this author, most people did not celebrate Christmas for the first two centuries of European settlement in North America. In fact, Puritan immigrants from England and Calvinist immigrants from the Netherlands systematically supressed the holiday.

In 1659, for example, the Massachusetts General Court declared the celebration of Christmas a criminal offense. People found celebrating in the style of earlier European drinking and feasting in the street had to pay a fine. It is not, however, clear to what extent such rules were really enforced.

Puritan Controversy

Puritan Controversy

The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas (1686).

The Christian Veneer

It was only in the mid-19th century that Christmas became recognized as a public holiday in New England.

It took until the end of the 19th century until Christmas became widely celebrated by Americans in relatively similar ways to those we know today.

The reasons for this opposition to Christmas were, first of all, that the bible does not mention any exact date for the birth of Jesus. It was only in the fourth century that the Catholic Church decided to celebrate Christmas on December 25. This date was chosen because it coincided with traditional winter solstice festivals.

Puritans, as Nissenbaum states, believed that Christmas was basically a pagan festival with a Christian veneer. Essentially, they were opposed to what they knew as traditional rowdy public excessive drinking and eating, aggressive begging and invasion of wealthy homes from their home countries.

Christmas Survives in Cities

However, despite all the opposition from clergymen and well-off Puritans, Christmas was never fully suppressed as a holiday in New England.

This became particularly visible in the new urban centres in the North East. By the 1820s, New York, Boston and Philadelphia had become fast growing cities, attracting many new immigrants and giving rise to the growth of a new underclass. There was growing poverty, vagrancy, and homelessness. Nissenbaum states that by 1820, “Christmas misrule had become such an acute social threat that respectable New Yorkers could no longer ignore it”.

It was in this period that poems, stories and other publications from a small group of patrician wealthy New Yorkers of British origin and conservative, even anti-democratic, political opinion started to make reference to a re-imagined imagery of old Dutch St. Nicholas rituals which in reality had never crossed the Atlantic.

Christmas in NYC

Image by Urban. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Christmas in NYC

The modern Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City.

The Knickerbockers

This group of patrician New Yorkers, often referred to as the Knickerbockers, included John Pintard

who undertook strong efforts to establish St. Nicholas as the icon of the New-York Historical Society (founded by him in 1804) and the patron saint of New York City; writer Washington Irving who popularized the figure of St. Nicholas in his Knickerbocker’s History of New York (published in 1809) and revived interest in a decent Christmas celebration with his Bracebridge Hall story (written in 1819, during a visit to Britain); and above all Clement Clarke Moore who in his poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, originally written in 1822 for his children, sketched the figure of Santa Claus and the ritual of what happens on The Night Before Christmas in the way of what is today perceived as an American Christmas.

Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, "Merry Old Santa Claus", from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly.

Thomas Nast

Santa Claus as imagined in this poem, and later popularized in drawings of Thomas Nast, the godfather of American political cartoon, represented a rather new and different imagery from that of the Dutch Sint Nikolaas tradition: Santa had lost its authority, gained a pedlar-like appearance, become a benevolent, friendly figure which brought happiness to all.

Modern Santa Claus Takes Shape

It was around this modern figure of Santa Clause that during the first half of the 19th century new rituals in the households of the wealthy in New England became established.

Christmas was moved from public spaces to the privacy of the family where well-off celebrated among themselves and their children became the focus of gift giving.

Historian Charles W. Jones, in an article published in 1954, argued that there is no evidence of St. Nicholas rituals in New England up to publication of Moore’s poem. It was rather an invented tradition in the sense of Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger – yet, there was a whole group of inventors at work.

Christmas Trees Gain Popularity

Although first exemplars of the Christmas tree, another major element of modern Christmas, were reportedly set up by early German settlers in Pennsylvania in the 1810s,

the major channel for diffusion of this ritual to the United States where they become increasingly popular in the 1830s seems to have been literary.

To quote Stephen Nissenbaum, “Before they [Americans] ever saw such a thing, they already knew what Christmas trees were all about – not only what they looked like but also how and why they were to be used.”

In this case, members of the reformist Unitarian Church, many of them in favour of reform pedagogy, and some of them at least silently sympathizing with the abolitionists, picked up emotionally charged accounts of unselfish children giving presents to their parents under the Christmas tree.

Early Christmas Tree

Early Christmas Tree

Glade jul (Happy Christmas) by Viggo Johansen (1891).

Christmas Trees Gain Popularity (cont'd)

The tree was disseminated through church publications and Sunday schools.

One of the earliest sources is the 1824 publication of Coleridge’s Christmas within Doors, in the North of Germany in the official journal of the Unitarian Church, followed by a reprint in 1829, and various editions in children’s and gift books.

The publication of a print of the British royal family, presenting Queen Victoria and Prince Albert celebrating with their children under a decorated tree, and reprinted in Godey’s Lady’s Book, a Philadelphia-based magazine in 1850, appears to have further popularized the use of Christmas trees in America.

The Accessibility of Christmas

Public drunkenness, rowdiness and what was perceived as threats to the public order by the Knickerbockers or a cause for political and social reforms by the Unitarians, did not disappear –

not least because most of the less-well off Americans, many of whom had only recently immigrated, could hardly afford even a very feeble copy of the modern Christmas, even if they had wished so.

It is doubtful, however, that the newly invented domestic Christmas celebrated on December 25th had much attraction for newly immigrated Catholic, Jewish or Greek Orthodox American citizens.

Domestic Christmas

Domestic Christmas

Christmas tree painting 1877 by H. J. Overbeek.

The Christmas Trade

It was the commercialization of Christmas that spread the holiday beyond the narrow confines of the wealthy Protestant quarters.

Publishers and booksellers were at the forefront of establishing a Christmas trade: Almanacs, bibles, children’s book and gift books – containing seasonal poems and stories – were printed in large number from the 1840s onwards, advertised and shipped across the country by one of the first country-wide institutions – the US Postal Service.

Soon publishers took care to bring a more affordable version to the market, and Santa Claus himself became an advertising figure from the 1860s onwards.

Christmas Under Slavery

January 3, 1863 cover of Harper's Weekly, one of the first depictions of Santa Claus.

Christmas Under Slavery

The link between the rise of Christmas as a public recognized holiday and national identity in America is complicated by the escalating political tensions over slavery in the 1850s, secession, and the Civil War (1861-65).

A full account of Christmas under slavery in the Confederate Southern States goes beyond the scope of this blog entry. For interested readers I recommend the chapter in Stephen Nissenbaum’s book. With some internet based research I found the above cartoon by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, published on January 3, 1863 showing Santa Claus bringing presents to Union soldiers.

A Federal Holiday

It can be said, though, that political and military struggles over slavery left additional ruptures to American society that needed reconciliation after the end of the war and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

An indication that at least some politicians thought that Christmas as a nation-wide legal holiday might turn out to be a useful symbol of national unity is the fact that it was President Ulysses S. Grant, victorious leader of the Union States in the Civil War, who declared Christmas a federal holiday in 1870.

A Federal Holiday (cont'd)

This proclamation built on and finalized a movement in the course of which individual states had made December 25 a legal holiday.

The first state to do so was Connecticut in 1845, followed by neighboring states in New England, while Southern slave states were among the last to pass such legislation (Texas and Florida waited until 1879 and 1881 to do so).

Today, there is little doubt, as Nissenbaum states, that “Christmas has become the most important single civic celebration in the American calendar year.”

White House Christmas Tree

White House Christmas Tree

The White House and the 2009 National Christmas Tree are illuminated at dusk in Washington, D.C.

Histoire Croisée

In light of the findings presented above, the history of Christmas turns out to be an excellent example of what Michael Werner and Bénédict Zimmermann have termed the complexities of histoire croisée.

While there are certainly parallel developments in Germany and America related to social change and an awakening of a bourgeois class, it is hard to understand and decipher Christmas rituals and symbols without taking into account transatlantic cultural encounters, transfers, borrowing and diffusion.

The Complexity of Histoire Croisée

Many of these diffusion processes do not have a clear starting and end point.

Neither are they about the simple transfer of an unaltered object. On the contrary, many of the transatlantic crossings involved changes in meaning and identity. Traditions were reinvented, yes. But the reinvention took the form of imaginations referring to the history of distant countries.

Traditions were also reinvented with a unified future across dividing borders in mind. Joe Perry summarizes this transnational entanglement as follows:

"The reinvention of Christmas in the early nineteenth century was a transatlantic event that revealed the cultural work of national awakening.... German-speaking central Europe, Britain, the Scandinavian countries, and the United States – predominantly Protestant lands – developed distinctive yet cosmopolitan celebratory forms that crossed borders in mutually sustaining encounters."

Modern Santa Claus

Image by Jonathan G Meath, (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Modern Santa Claus

Santa Claus portrayed by children's television producer Jonathan Meath.

The Meaning of Christmas

While the 19th century was certainly a period in which identifiable cultural entrepreneurs shaped Christmas rituals in way which has left its imprints on today’s practices, it was not the end of cultural invention.

Struggles over the meaning of Christmas have not ended but are rather ongoing, the most successful reinventions being those that provide sufficient ambiguity of meaning to be appropriated by different and sometimes contesting social, ethnic and religious groups while still providing the experience of a shared holiday celebration.

The contemporary reappearance of Christmas markets and seasonal public events may be, as historian Neil Amstrong suggests, part of a new episode of transnational reinvention of Christmas Festlichkeit aiming at reconciliation of globalized commercialization and localized authenticity of the holiday season.

Governance Across Borders. (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)