And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
For most of American history, Christmas was not a celebrated holiday, especially here in New England. In the early 17th century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Europeans celebrated Christmas. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and canceled Christmas as part of their effort. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him came the return of the popular holiday. The pilgrims were English separatists that came to America in 1620 and even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, Boston outlawed the celebration of Christmas. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident. After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Americans re-invented Christmas and changed it from a raucous carnival holiday of the Middle Ages into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high, and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season. In 1828, the New York city council instituted the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot, which inspired certain members of the upper classes to begin to change the way Americans celebrated Christmas.
In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., commonly referred to as The Sketch Book, is a collection of 34 essays and short stories. It was published serially throughout 1819 and 1820. The collection includes two of Irving's best-known stories, attributed to the fictional Dutch historian Diedrich Knickerbocker: "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle." It also marks Irving's first use of the pseudonym Geoffrey Crayon, which he would continue to employ throughout his literary career. In the fifth installment of The Sketchbooks, Irving features Squire Bracebridge, who invited peasants into his home for the holiday. In the first story, simply titled “Christmas,” Crayon reflecting on the meaning of Christmas and its celebration. The second story in the collection, "The Stage-Coach," tells of Crayon’s ride with the Bracebridge children to their country manor, Bracebridge Hall, where he is invited to stay for Christmas. In the next story, "Christmas Eve," Crayon celebrates the holiday at Squire Bracebridge's home. It is followed by "Christmas Day," which details Christmas festivities—allegedly in the old tradition—continue at Bracebridge Hall. The third story about the Bracebridge Christmas is "Christmas Dinner," in which Crayon enjoys old English hospitality at the Bracebridge Christmas dinner table.
These stories portrayed an idealized and old-fashioned Yule celebration at an English country manor. Irving's stories depicted harmonious warm-hearted English Christmas customs he observed while staying in Aston Hall, Birmingham, England. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the upper class and peasants mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving’s fictitious celebrants enjoyed “ancient customs,” including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule. Irving’s book, however, was not based on any holiday celebration he had attended. Many historians say that Irving’s account actually “invented” tradition by implying that it described the season's authentic customs. Except for Pennsylvania German Settlers, who were enthusiastic celebrators of Christmas, Irving contributed to a revival of traditions in the United States. Charles Dickens later credited Irving as an influence on his own Christmas writings, including the classic A Christmas Carol.
Popular American customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, sending holiday cards, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends, and, of course, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive. None of these traditions are uniquely American but are actually the adoption of traditions from the variety of cultures that make up the melting pot that is the United States. As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, old customs were unearthed. People looked toward recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated. In the next 100 years after The Sketchbooks were published, Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieces of many other customs. Although most families quickly bought into the idea that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, Americans had re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.
As Americans continue to embrace their cultural heritage, new traditions are continually being added. Christmas is a celebration of the Nativity—the birth of Jesus—but it is also a celebration of what makes America great: its vast diversity and amalgamation of cultures. This Christmas, let us not think of our differences but what we have in common. We have suffered a great deal this year, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.