Christmas is not exclusively an American holiday. I don’t need to tell you this, but there are a fair number of traditions that, based on the founding principals of this great nation, SHOULD NOT have carried over. The original colonies of the United States left their homeland to seek religious freedom and worship God in their own way, but the Puritans really didn’t put too much stock in celebration. Christmas was made illegal to celebrate, and all of its various accouterments were considered unholy. As the Founding Fathers almost exclusively came from these colonies, it is a wonder some of these traditions survived the turning of the years. And between you, me, and the Internet? We have the Dutch to blame.
A quick background, the New Amsterdam colony was founded by the Dutch (though not discovered by them) circa 1609. Located on the southern tip of Manhattan, the Dutch here did a brisk trade in beaver pelts, and as a pivotal east coast trading hub without the stringent religious undertones of Puritanical government, New Amsterdam became quite cosmopolitan. They traded freely with the Native Americans, as well as their colonial brethren to the south. Many individuals who could not stomach the strict laws put down by the Puritans came to live in New Amsterdam, including large populations of English and French settlers. (It bears noting that this colony was eventually traded to the English in return for the Spice Islands and control of the colony changed hands, though by most accounts, not much actually changed in the day to day lives of those that lived there, but the time frame this article is concerned with is the New Amsterdam Colony, 1609 to 1625.)
Gotta’ love the Dutch. So many of our modern Christmas traditions stem from them! See, the way I figure it happened (and for once ANTIQUITY bears this out for me) is that little Dutch boys and girls got a visit from St. Nicholas and the Black Peters (more on that shortly), and having left a single shoe outside their door received a gift based on their well-behaved-ness. The English and French children saw their friends getting free stuff and begged, cajoled, and nagged their parents to get St. Nicholas to visit THEM. After a few years of this nagging, the somewhat chagrined parentage agreed and the tradition is still alive today! St. Nicholas (or Sinterklaas in the original Dutch, bastardized to Santa Claus) still gives presents to the good Gentile children of the world, leaving stockings (much stretchier than shoes) full of goodies.
I glossed over some stuff – Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters) would come the eve of St. Nicholas’ birthday and not Christmas Day (December 5th instead of 25th) and another magical elfish man called Kerstman (or the Christmas Man) delivers presents on Christmas. And I’m not going to even get into Krampas! Moving on…
After the Revolutionary War, the celebration of Christmas in the way it had been for almost 100 years in this country was strongly discouraged, being viewed as a strictly ENGLISH way of celebrating the birth of Christ (which given what we just discussed is erroneous as most of those traditions were Dutch in origin). The ban on Christmas HAD been lifted in England in 1660. The Puritans of New England held onto the ban for much longer, and Christmas did not become a legal holiday until 1856. Even then, some schools still held class on December 25th until 1870.
But despite all this, the tradition of Christmas has remained alive. We have Coca-Cola to blame for the present accepted tradition of Santa Claus appearing as a “jolly old elf”, originally in the mid-1920’s but solidified in 1931 by Haddon Sunblom (http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stor…/coke-lore-santa-claus/).
Christmas has become as much a secular holiday as a religious one. My family is mostly made up of agnostics and atheists (with one or two diehard Christian holdouts) but we still celebrate Christmas every year. Our traditions include: Cutting down a real tree from a local tree farm on Black Friday. Setting up and decorating the tree on that Saturday and decorating the house on Sunday. The children are given advent calenders every year to track the days til Christmas. On Christmas Eve, each child may open one small present. Christmas morning, no one is allowed out of bed before 7 AM unless a bathroom run needs to be made and inevitably all the children start getting up to go to the bathroom every 10 minutes around 5 AM.
Finally around 6:45 AM, the adults acquiesce and we open our stockings, Santa presents and then presents from immediate family. Then we eat a delicious breakfast of homemade cinnamon rolls and a ham and egg bake my Mother refuses to give out the recipe to. Then we relax and/or doze til around 4 when we all troupe to my Aunt’s house for Christmas dinner and gift exchange. And then my curmudgeonly old grandfather ends the evening by saying: “Welp: It’s all over for another year.”
Merry Christmas everyone!