Monday, December 15, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas Past: Exploring the Origins of the Holiday


Christmas is almost upon us and with it the traditional complaints by editorialists bemoaning the commercialization of the Christmas season. Unhappiness with the way the holiday is observed is nothing new. In 1621, a year after the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Governor William Bradford found some male members of the colony taking the day off from work and playing games in the street. He promptly ended such foolishness. Their more numerous and historically more significant Puritan neighbors in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were even stricter. In 1659, the Massachusetts General Court declared that anyone celebrating Christmas committed a criminal offense and would be fined five shillings. This law remained on the books until 1681, but the sentiment lingered for years after. The Puritans saw Christmas as nothing more than a pagan festival adapted to Christian purposes and would have none of it.

In America today, the Christmas season begins commercially on the day after Thanksgiving and continues well past New Year's Day. In England, the season can begin in mid-December and continues until the first Monday after January 1 (called "Plow Monday," which marks the return to the routines of farm work).

Fixing the Date
According to religious scholars, there is no biblical or historical basis for placing the birth of Jesus on December 25. Although the Gospel according to St. Luke describes how shepherds were living with their flocks, the cold weather in Judea in late December was hardly conducive to outdoor living. Not until the fourth century did the Church officially decree that Christmas should be observed on December 25. The date was not chosen for religious reasons, but because it was close to the winter solstice--an event celebrated in many cultures outside the tropics long before the coming of Christianity. When the Church set the date of Christmas Day, it took a calculated gamble, knowing that boisterous pagan holdover festivities in that time period were rooted in popular culture.

Many different cultures marked the period when daylight becomes the shortest with ceremonies involving light and greenery. An example is Chanukah, "the feast of lights." Other examples are the Yule log, candles, holly, mistletoe--even the Christmas tree. All have their roots in pagan traditions that have no connection to the birth of Jesus. In Europe during the three centuries between 1500 and 1800, Christmas was a time to let off steam and gorge oneself. In northern agricultural societies, December marked a critical point in the yearly cycle of farm work. The tasks of gathering in the harvest and preparing for the bitter cold of winter were over. Plenty of newly made beer and wine was available, with abundant supplies meat from freshly slaughtered animals that had to be eaten or be salted and preserved.

In ancient Rome, celebrations of the winter solstice became riotous festivals of gambling, the exchange of gifts, feasting and drinking. Called Saturnalia, these pagan solar and agricultural observances honored the planet Saturn. Social roles were reversed, and masters served slaves. The words Christes maesse, or "festival of Christ," entered the English language about A.D. 1050. Nevertheless, the celebrations retained the air of carnival. Churchgoers attended in masks and sang bawdy songs, even rolling dice at the altar. A "Lord of Misrule" was selected and authority was mocked in such "dangerous practices" as mumming and caroling. Mumming usually involved cross-dressing. Caroling was a "disgrace" because it as "generally done in the midst of Rioting, Chambering and Wantonness." It is interesting to note that the concept survives in Philadelphia, where participants in the annual mummer's parade select a Lord of Misrule.

According to Stephen Nissenbaum, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, 16th-century bishop Hugh Latimer summarized the season, saying: "Men dishonor Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas than in all the twelve months besides." Nineteenth-century British historian John Ashton reported an episode in 1637 in which the man selected by the revelers as the "Lord of Misrule" was publicly given a "wife" in a ceremony led by a man dressed as a cleric. After the ceremony, Ashton noted in circumspect Victorian language, "the affair was carried to its utmost extent." During the Christmas season, the social hierarchy was turned upside down. The young would imitate and mock their elders--a boy might be designated a "bishop" and briefly take on the authority of a genuine bishop. Men could dress like women and women like men.

At Christmastime, the rich were expected to offer charity to their poorer neighbors. For most of the year, the poor owed money, goods or labor, not to mention deference, to the rich. But when the tables were turned at Christmastime, the poor--mostly gangs of young men and boys--claimed the right to enter the houses of the well-to-do and receive gifts of food, drink and money. In Britain in a custom called "wassailing," roving bands of young men circulated through neighborhoods performing songs in exchange for gifts. In America, a nation of immigrants largely from the British Isles, these practices continued in the 18th and 19th centuries, causing much unhappiness among the middle and upper classes. What they desperately hoped for was a change in the celebration of Christmas to a home-centered holiday.

The Christmas Tree
Nineteenth-century America and Britain finally adopted new ways of celebrating Christmas from other traditions to create the modern domestically centered holiday. The tree that graces American homes today has a long history. At the Kalends of January, Romans trimmed their houses with evergreens to symbolize fertility and regeneration. Eventually, Christians appropriated evergreens for their Christmas celebrations, inventing stories explaining the origins of the custom and removing any taint of paganism.

By the first decade of the 19th century, German Protestants took the tree as an emblem of their faith, and the practice spread throughout Europe. It reached Denmark and Norway by 1830; by 1840, France. Swedes added trimmed evergreens to their Christmas celebration is the 1860s. It was German immigrants who brought the custom of Christmas trees to the United States early in the 19th century, according to Penne Restad, a historian of Christmas at the University of Texas. The trees quickly became objects of fascination for Americans. During the 1830s, evergreens began to appear in homes. Christmas trees next appeared in churches and the marketplace. To women fell the task of transforming this ancient pagan fertility symbol into an icon of domesticity. In the home, a place was found for it, usually in the front parlor. The first home Christmas trees had been squat evergreens, no more than two or three feet tall, set on a table top. Inevitably, the use of taller trees invited more ambitious trimming with strings of beads, gilt paper stars or shields and lace bags of candies.

Early Christians had shunned candles because of their use in pagan ceremonies, but by the mid-19th century, concerns about paganism and the ever-present danger of fire did not prevent Americans from dressing their Christmas trees with candles. In 1880, F.W. Woolworth bought from a Philadelphia importer his entire stock of German Christmas tree ornaments made of colored glass. Placed on a counter in his store in Lancaster, Pa., an area with a large Germanic population, in two days they were gone. "I woke up," he said later about his discovery of their sales potential.

Woolworth began making trips to Germany to buy directly from the ornament makers. In the small Thuringian town of Lauscha, the manufacture of Christmas tree ornaments was a genuine cottage industry. Woolworth initially placed an order for more than 200,000 ornaments. The craze for fragile glass ornaments had begun, and Woolworth was on his way to making his fortune. But the introduction of the Christmas tree into the holiday was only one aspect of the conversion of Christmas into a home festival.

Much of the charm of the Christmas tree was to be found in the small gifts that could be tied to its branches with colored string or spread beneath it. Early Christians refrained from gift-giving because the practice was associated with the Roman Saturnalia, which began in December 17. During the 16th century the English revived the custom. Women often received expensive pins or gloves--sometimes accompanied by gifts of money. This custom gave rise to the terms "pin money" and "glove money." By the middle of the 17th century, even members of the clergy were accepting gifts at New Year's. Unsurprisingly, Puritans strongly opposed such gift-giving, seeing the custom as another pagan rite.

By the 19th century, gift-giving in America had become prevalent. Workers began to remind employers or patrons that some token was expected. For example, newspaper carriers presented subscribers with a short poem (these were called "carriers' addresses") to signal that they expected a gift.

Gift Books
Books are among the earliest items given as gifts at Christmastime. Evidences of the practice abound in newspaper advertisements. In 1810, prolific author and bookseller Mason Locke ("Parson") Weems distributed his own books as Christmas gifts. Weems is best remembered as the inventor of the improbable legend about George Washington and the cherry tree. In that year, he advertised a discount to buyers of copies of his biography of George Washington and a companion work on Francis Marion, "the Swamp Fox" of the Revolution.

A new literary genre soon made its appearance, the gift book. Such books wee invariably published toward the end of each year specifically for use as Christmas presents. Gift books soon proliferated widely. There were gift books for boys, girls, young men, mothers, temperance advocates, abolitionists, and even for members of men's organizations, such as the Masonic order and the Odd Fellows. Although ordinary book publishing was carried on everywhere, including the smallest and most unlikely hamlets, three cities were centers of gift book publishing: Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Many gift books were lavish, with gilt page edges, ornate and embossed bindings, expensive engravings and colored presentation plates bound in. They were bought solely to be given to another. As such they were the first products manufactured exclusively to be given to another person at the Christmas season.

In 1840, when the nation had not yet recovered from the financial panic of 1837, gift books were offered at prices raging from three dollars to fifteen dollars--"within the range of most persons," noted The New York Herald, which added, "There are few that would wish to give a lady a present of less value than $3.00." Gift books were aggressively promoted using techniques new to the world of traditional book publishing. Often they contained advertisements for themselves in the text itself, especially in gift books intended for children. Some publishers were not above including blatant advertising for others of their books in the current lists.

Despite their opulent appearance, gift books were not bought and presented to others as a display of conspicuous consumption. Nevertheless, the prices of such books were so widely advertised that it would be unfair to conclude that recipients were not aware of the pecuniary value of the gift. These were luxury items, but one of their chief uses was as part of the courtship process,

Ironically, although intended to be seen as personalized gifts, gift books usually included a mass-produced formalized page (called a "presentation plate") designed to be filled in by the giver. One such presentation plate not only included places for the purchaser to enter his name, the name of the recipient and a line on which to show the sentiment the gift book was meant to convey. Gift books proliferated between 1825 and 1860, when the fad died out. One book that continued to sell steadily was the Bible. If they owned no other book, most American families owned a family Bible. These were large and sturdy volumes, meant to be passed down from one generation to the next.

Early in the 19th century Bibles evolved in more convenient formats, personal books that could be carried to church services, as well as hymn books, prayer books, and editions of the New Testament. Rivaling the finest gift book, was the Illuminated Bible, published by Harper and Brothers in 1846 with an elaborate presentation plate. So successful was the Illuminated Bible that it earned the publisher a half million dollars in a dozen years.

Greeting Cards
It had long been a custom in England for neighbors to send greetings to one another as the old year ended and a new year began. Engraved or lithographed notepaper specifically for this purpose appeared at the end of the 1600s. The earliest use of the phrase "Merry Christmas and happy New Year" was employed in a 1699 holiday letter.

The first true commercial Christmas card did not make its appearance until 1843. Designed by John Calcott Horsley for Henry Cole, it was printed in London and hand colored by an artist named Mason. The Horsley-Cole card was a postcard-sized piece of cardboard with a central panel depicting a happy family gathered around a large plum pudding. This panel also greets the recipient with the sentiment, "A merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you." In the left-hand panel, a man offers food to the hungry; in the right-hand panel a woman clothes a ragged child. Unlike earlier Christmas letters, there is no room for a personal greeting on this card. At the top a dotted line following the word "To" provides space for the recipient's name to be written, and at the bottom a shorter dotted line following the word "From" allows limited space for the sender's name.

The Horsley-Cole card may be considered a forerunner of modern Christmas cards in that it leaves little room for personalization by the sender. It presages a new commercial awareness of the commercialization of Christmas and the need to recognize a wider circle of friends and family members. According to Karal Ann Marling, a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota, R.H. Pease, engraver, lithographer and variety store proprietor in Albany, N.Y., distributed the first American-made Christmas card in the early 1850s, but the practice of exchanging cards did not immediately catch on in the United States. What cards were sent were usually imported from England, manufactured by firms like Marcus Ward and Raphael Tuck.

American indifference to cards was eventually overcome by Louis Prang, a German immigrant. Born in Breslau in 1824, Prang left Germany after the 1848 revolution and established himself in Boston, setting up a lithographic business with Julius Mayer in 1856. By 1868, Prang owned perhaps half of the steam presses in America and two-thirds of the total by 1870). By then, he had significantly improved the quality of his prints by using a multicolor process he had invented, eventually switching from stone to zinc plates. Prang seldom use fewer than eight colors and often as many as twenty to produce his "chromos." These colorful but inexpensive prints soon decorated the parlor walls of most of the homes in America.

An exhibition of Prang's prints at the Vienna International Exhibition caused a sensation in 1873. The following year he added a Christmas greeting to his cards. Introducing these to the United States in 1875, Prang cards were such a hit he could not keep up with the demand. He increased his work force to 300 and was soon selling more than five million cards annually. Prang commissioned well-know American painters and illustrators to produce original works of art for his cards. Women, whose role in the fine arts had been limited, were represented in Prang prints.
Prang's cards soon sparked intense competition from British and German manufacturers. By the 1890s, German greeting cards dominated the trade. "Lower wages and cheaper materials," Prang admitted, "made it impossible to battle successfully against foreign competition." In 1890, Louis Prang withdrew from the greeting card business and turned his attention to art education and the manufacture of artists' supplies. Between 1900 and 1910, most of the major American greeting card companies were established. From the studios of Rust Craft, Hallmark, Gibson and Norcross the modern American greeting card was born. Designed as a simple folder, the card now had an illustration and short text on the front and a longer verse or message inside.

Advances in technology may be responsible for changes in holiday card usage in recent years. The estimated number of cards received by American households dropped from 29 in 1987 to 20 in 2004. Despite the increased use of e-mail, fax and telephone for communication, a staggering 1.9 billion cards were still exchanged by mail in the U.S. in 2005, according to Hallmark research.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 12, 2006.

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