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A History of the Holiday in America

Celebrating Christmas in Massachusetts three centuries ago was risky: Anyone who took the day off from work could be fined three shillings. When George Washington crossed the Delaware River the night of December 25, 1776, he could count on catching the Hessian soldiers drunk and sound asleep after a day of carousing. But for Washington's men, Christmas was just another day.

It wasn't until 1836 that the first state (Alabama) declared Christmas a holiday.

Americans like to think the modem Christmas celebration has deep roots, but in fact it dates back no earlier than the 19th century, according to University of Pennsylvania historian Karin Calvert.

Visions of apple-cheeked colonial children hanging wreaths and singing Christmas carols are "totally fictitious," she said because for two centuries Protestant Americans considered Christmas a "popeish" holiday.

Christmas was a "conscious and deliberate invention" in the mid-19th century of such figures as Washington Irving, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Clement Moore, Thomas Nast, Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens," she said. Mrs. Calvert, a specialist in history of children in America, spoke recently at Rochester, New York's Strong Museum.

"I'm not trying to debunk Christmas by any means," she said in an interview. "I'm trying to give credit where credit is due" Nevertheless, Mrs. Calvert is a Scrooge-like figure to people who prefer to imagine that the Pilgrims decked the halls with boughs of holly. "They're quite irate," she said. "It's hard on someone who's living in a 1790 house and trying to decorate it authentically and are told they can't.

The inventors of Christmas emphasized the pagan origins of the holiday because they wanted nothing to do with the Roman Catholic roots of the celebration of Christ's birth, Mrs. Calvert said. "If you had to choose between Catholic and pagan, pagan was the lesser of the two evils," she said.

Christmas trees of the 19th century were topped with an American flag or a sugar plum fairy, never a star, Mrs. Calvert said.

Finally, around the turn of the century, Christmas became nearly universal when writers said that parents owed it to their children. "They played on a very, very strong point - parental guilt. And it worked beautifully," Mrs. Calvert said.

The shopping spree is among the newest Christmas traditions. In the 1880's sales of Christmas goods began on Dec. 23rd. As recently as the 1920's, advertisement for the Christmas season did not appear until Dec. 15, she said. (AP) Rochester, NY


The preceding excerpts from an Associated Press news story from a few years ago should help Christians put Christmas in perspective. It is a day the Lord never intended to be celebrated as his birthday. Its religious origins are clearly traceable to Catholicism, not the Bible. Christmas is not a religious holiday to Christians. It has become, as pictured in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, a time of family, love and sharing. As such, my family participates in the secular aspect but not in the religious aspect. Let us keep these holidays in perspective. Enjoy them but for the right reasons.