Technology, Tradition and the Invention of Christmas in 19th-Century New York

Pages from an 1864 edition of Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Printings of Moore’s poem included some of the first images of St. Nicholas. Images courtesy of Creative Commons

Charles Haynes Haswell, who grew up in the 1820s in New York City, remembered in his memoirs that in his youth, “Christmas was very slightly observed as a general holiday.” A few years later, when Haswell was at boarding school on Long Island, Christmas was altogether ignored.

It wouldn’t be until 1849, by which time Haswell was on his way to a long career in the city’s Tammany Hall political machine, that Christmas became a legally recognized holiday in the state of New York, following Alabama and other Southern states a decade earlier. But by then New York City had already given birth to the winter festival that is celebrated today across the United States and beyond.

Christmas has had a spotted history in Christendom. For a few hundred years after the birth of Jesus, no one thought much of celebrating the Christ child’s birthday. It was Easter time, commemorating Jesus’ death and resurrection, that occupied center stage; celebrations of a birth smacked too much of pagan ways.

Charles Haynes Haswell in the late 1850s.
Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Early Christian leaders differed, anyway, on when Jesus was born: many thought spring, with its obvious symbolism of new life. But by the 4th century, especially because it served to eclipse the older pagan celebrations of solstice, the church made Dec. 25 the date for the “Christ Mass.” What better idea than to have the “light of the world” enter the darkest time of year?

Traditions slowly accrued to the celebratory Mass, with the familiar gift-giving, singing and uses of light becoming prominent. Pre-Christian symbols of trees and yule logs were uprooted from their prior ritual uses and firmly attached to the new Christian holiday.

Over time, simple celebration turned to carousing to full-on frolicking, especially in European traditions such as wassailing that crossed the Atlantic. By 1785, New York state had to ban the shooting of fireworks or guns on Christmas.

Such rowdy behavior was scorned by the early Puritans who settled in the American colonies, and they outlawed Christmas celebrations for several decades between the 17th and 18th centuries. Even when bans on celebrations were eventually lifted, Christmas was only, as Haswell noted, “slightly observed.”

Another reason Christmas was not widely celebrated in the early United States, however, was the great diversity of the fledging nation. Immigrants, speaking multiple languages and coming from multiple cultures, endured the winter season with their own native festivals. New York in the 19th century comprised so many varieties of the Christian religion, and no religion, that a coherent celebration was difficult to achieve.

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Source: Religion News Service