Have you ever wondered why we decorate evergreen trees every December? Or why we exchange gifts on Christmas? Christmas in America, like the country itself, is a beautiful mixing of cultures and ideas from different people and time periods. Christmas as we know it today only came to be in the last century or so. Before the American Civil War, Christmas was celebrated by very few Americans and how it was celebrated differed depending on where they lived and their cultural background. Southern farmers may have celebrated the holiday with a feast, but for the most part Christmas was ignored entirely until the Victorian Era.
Christmas became a part of the national consciousness as a result of the American Civil War and the Industrial Revolution. We had become a nation divided: politically, spiritually, and physically. Families were torn apart and were looking for ways to unify their families in such hard times. Home and family became increasingly important as the Civil War progressed across the nation. Christmas became a beautiful unifier for our country and the popular traditions we celebrate today began to emerge in the decades that followed. Read about some of our favorite Christmas traditions below!
Christmas Trees and Decking the Halls
The evergreen Christmas tree comes to us from Germany. German immigrants in New England brought their Christmas traditions with them to their new home, and it was not long before the idea took off. By 1900, almost 1 in 5 Americans had an evergreen Christmas tree in their home. Traditionally, Christmas trees would have been decorated with lit candles, fruits, strings of popcorn or beads, and even homemade trinkets.
As the tradition became more popular, ladies’ magazines upped the standards for Christmas decorating and gave suggestions for modernizing the family tree (Pinterest anyone??). By the late 1800’s industrialization allowed for the mass production of Christmas ornaments and many American businessmen had ornaments shipped in mass over from Germany. Traditional decorations slowly began to be replaced with ornaments familiar to us today like brightly colored balls and small angels. Greenery was deemed outdated and was replaced by shining lights and brightly colored decorations.
Christmas Tree, 1905-1945 Library of Congress
But what about Christmas lights? Nowadays, Christmas lights are one of the biggest features of the season. Families and businesses compete every holiday season in order to create the biggest and most stunning light shows. As mentioned before, Christmas trees were traditionally lit with candles. Though beautiful, this practice was often dangerous and would have caused many house fires. The first strands of Christmas lights were created in 1880 by Thomas Edison himself who used the lights to decorate his laboratory in New Jersey.
Due to a general distrust of electricity, it would be decades until American Christmas trees were decked out in lights. Also, it would have been very expensive initially for an everyday American to decorate a Christmas tree this way. It wasn’t until General Electric began selling pre-assembled Christmas light kits that string lights became a holiday tradition. In 1923, President Coolidge rang in the holiday by lighting the national Christmas tree which had over 3,000 electric lights in its branches.
The Tobacco Barn at the Museum decorated for our first ever Drive Through Christmas Village, 2020.
Gift Giving and Jolly Saint Nick
Initially, gift giving was something done traditionally during New Years. Over time, it became more and more common that gifts were exchanged during Christmas. These gifts would have been simple and accessible things like special fruits, candy, or handmade toys that would decorate the Christmas tree. It was common for farming families in North Carolina to exchange things like oranges, which weren’t always available. Beginning as early as 1850, craftspeople and merchants began marketing efforts to encourage families to purchase gifts to give on Christmas. In the 1880’s and beyond, gifts got bigger and began being placed under the tree, carefully wrapped in colorful paper. As the industrial revolution reached its height it was increasingly easier to purchase premade gifts.
The increasing popularity of “Saint Nicholas” may have spurred along the tradition. The first depiction of our jolly Saint Nick was in Clement Moore’s An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas. Though not instantly recognizable by name, Moore’s poem is where we get the famous phrase “Twas the Night before Christmas.” Saint Nicholas is depicted in the poem bringing a sack of toys to distribute to a family as the children slept. As Saint Nicholas’s legend grew, so did the tradition of gift giving, for he symbolized what the Victorian’s idolized, Christian charity.
“Santa with Toys in Sleigh” 1880-1890 Trade Card from the Library of Congress
Though the most popular depiction of a Christmas feast was found in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, the origins of the tradition goes back much further. Pagan holidays held in December often boasted a feast of sorts. Feudal lords often held feasts for their tenants that served boar’s head. Though the dishes have changed, we still celebrate the winter holidays with a traditional feast. Before the Victorian era, Christmas dinner would have depended on what the household could afford. In wealthy families it was common to eat all manner of poultry like the more traditional turkey or goose but might have even included peacock or swan! Poorer families often made do with roasted beef or rabbit. In America, it was more common for poorer families to serve ham.
The famous Christmas foods we partake in today, like turkey, eggnog and fruit cake, all originate in Victorian England. Dickens popularized roasted turkey in A Christmas Carol when he had Scrooge send Tiny Tim’s family a turkey for Christmas. Turkey was becoming increasingly more available during the Victorian era, so it was easier for middle class families to partake in this new tradition. Plum pudding was the precursor to the contentious fruit cake. Fruit cake was popular in the Victorian era because the ingredients were expensive, therefore making the cake a luxury that warranted a place during special occasions. Eggnog was brought over from England as early as the 1700’s and was typically served during celebrations which is how it became associated with Christmas. George Washington famously served eggnog to guests at his home.
"Christmas comes but once a year!" 1886 card from the Library of Congress
We would love to hear about your Christmas traditions! Do you send out Christmas cards every year? What dishes are a must have at your Christmas dinner? Share your traditions and memories with us.
Read more about Christmas traditions in the sources below!
History of Christmas
The Ideal Christmas Dinner
Christmas in 19th Century America
Who invented electric Christmas lights?