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The brittle branches droop with the weight of candy canes, glass orbs and plastic snowflakes.
I’ve always loved decorating Christmas trees, but putting away the ornaments, colored lights and decorations isn’t as enjoyable. It’s a reminder that I’m packing away holiday traditions and memories, along with the decorations.
Every family has its own holiday traditions. Mine has never been about religion, but it always includes a Christmas tree, colored lights, a family gift exchange, cooking and baking, and spending time with family.
While packing away my decorations, I wondered where these holiday traditions came from. So I walked down the street to the county library and spent a couple of hours engrossed in history books all about Christmas.
I discovered that Christmas in colonial America wasn’t like today’s Christmas celebrations. Back then, Christmas was rowdy! It included feasting, dancing, drinking in public, card playing, horse racing, cock fighting, noise making (like shooting off guns), and sometimes fireworks, according to Tanya Gulevich’s “Encyclopedia of Christmas.”
In 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony made Christmas illegal. In fact, if you were caught feasting, refraining from work, or doing any holiday activities, you would be fined five shillings! It wasn’t until 22 years later that the English political authorities forced the colonists to repeal the law, according to Gulevich.
In the late 17th and 18th centuries, as the New England colonies attracted people from a variety of religious backgrounds, the colonists became more tolerant of Christmas, Gulevich wrote. The English, German and Dutch settlers had the strongest influence on early American Christmas celebrations.
Through time, the boisterous Christmas festivals diminished and Americans created a peaceful celebration centered on home and family ties.
In 1822, Clement C. Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” developed the myth and image of Santa Claus, which gained popularity through his works.
By the second half of the 19th century, many people celebrated Christmas in America. New American Christmas customs emerged, such as Santa Claus, Christmas cards and family gift exchanges.
By this time, candles were expected on the typical American Christmas tree.
In 16th century Germany – where the Christmas tree hails from – most people couldn’t afford candles, so they lit their trees using mini wicks floating in walnut shells filled with oil. Doesn’t this image scream fire hazard?
Gulevich wrote that it wasn’t until 1882, three years after Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, that one of his associates lit up a Christmas tree. As electricity spread and electric lights became more affordable, their popularity soared. Today we see Christmas trees in windows, stores, offices and city plazas.
In 1870, Congress declared Christmas a national holiday in recognition of the large number of people who observed the day.
A decade after the American Civil War, giving store-bought gifts to family members became fashionable. This was due to consumer demand and commercial promotion, according to Gulevich’s encyclopedia. People wanted new manufactured goods, so retailers set up elaborate store window displays, increased advertising and kept stores open later. Around the same time, people started sending Christmas cards to faraway relatives and friends.
During the 19th century, American Christmas festivities began to revolve around customs that promoted symbolic exchanges of love and goodwill, according to Gulevich. These customs – Santa’s nocturnal visit, the Christmas tree, the family gift exchange and sending holiday cards – are still part of many holiday celebrations.
Looking back at the evolution of Christmas makes it seem that Christmas isn’t necessarily a religious celebration. It’s a day for everyone to celebrate love and life and dead trees with sparkly bits. This year I celebrated my life, my love, and my family. I hope I wasn’t alone.
Journalist Lauren Brooks lives in Chico. She is the editor of the Chico Enterprise-Record’s weekly entertainment guide, The Buzz. She is a CSU, Chico alumna who graduated with a B.A. in journalism in spring 2006. She can be reached at email@example.com.