A Brief History of Christmas in America

Although Christmas feels like a traditional holiday with embedded roots throughout human civilization, the interpretation of our celebrations today is relatively new. Did you know that the U.S. government didn’t recognize it as a federal holiday until 1870?

The Christmas season didn’t always celebrate the birth of Jesus. It used to be a time when the solstice was more important, indicating the progression of the year.

It wouldn’t be until the Roman Empire decided to mark the day of Jesus’ birth as a celebration in the fourth century that the holiday traditions would start. Religious leaders transformed a festival called Saturnalia, a time that honored the sun, to one that focused on Christianity. 

When the colonists came to the United States in the 17th century, the idea of celebrating Christ through decadence was seen as sinful.

Christmas was outlawed for early Americans. 

What Changed Christmas in the United States?

During the 1800s, several fictional Christmas stories became popular in the United States. Washington Irving was particularly famous for his fictitious portrayals of how the day was celebrated in England before society transformed to become more Puritan.

Many of those stories inspired American practices for the Christmas holiday.

German settlers came to the United States with the tradition of having evergreen trees and branches in their homes. These actions were originally meant to signify that life is possible, even during challenging times.

At the same time, Catholic immigrants brought over the tradition of keeping a small nativity scene in their homes.

By the time the American government decided to make Christmas a federal holiday, most families were already celebrating it anyway. Since then, it has grown into a spectacle of gifts, lighted trees, and hope for a peaceful new year.

Each family celebrates in their own way today. How do you mark this joyous time of the season?

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