The History of Our Holidays & Traditions

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Ever wonder why we celebrate the holidays the way we do? Our holidays evoke feelings of tradition that often seem age-old. We assume this is how things have always been, how our  families have always celebrated.

Take Thanksgiving, for example. Many of us believe that the feast began when the Native Americans shared their bountiful fall harvest with the colonists, who had suffered a bad crop yield and faced starvation. The pilgrims cooked a large meal that was shared among settlers and Natives alike, brokering a peace that would last (well, at least a little while) and would be celebrated by Americans ever since. Historically, Thanksgiving is based on several instances when the settlers declared days of thanksgiving. There was a three-day feast celebrated in 1621, when the Mayflower pilgrims enjoyed their first successful harvest thanks to the guidance of a Native American named Squanto. Squanto also helped them forge a short-term peace with their indigenous neighbors, and 90 men from the local tribe, the Wampanoag, supplied venison and shared in the food. There was another occasion in 1623, when the settlers gave thanks for rain that replenished their crops, ending a drought and staving off starvation.

Different colonies periodically celebrated, and even some days of general thanksgiving were common in the 18th century, especially in New England. But it was not an annual tradition until the 19th century, when after a long campaign instigated by the writer Sara Josepha Hale (famous for writing “Mary Had a Little Lamb”), Abraham Lincoln was persuaded to make Thanksgiving an annual holiday in November. We can thank Hale, too, for making the standard menu of turkey, cranberries, and pumpkin pie, as she published the recipes for the holiday. After Thanksgiving was made a federal holiday, many workers were allowed to enjoy a day of food with family members, thus making it a true American holiday.

It also came to be recognized as the start of the Christmas season, kicking off a month of shopping. For this reason, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade became part of the celebration to advertise the launch of the shopping season in the 1920s. And what seems like an ingrained tradition, the presidential pardoning of the turkey, only officially started in 1989, with President George H. W. Bush (though President John F. Kennedy had done it in 1963), showing us just how rapidly quirky new trends can become holiday customs.

The recognition of Christmas as a holiday has an interesting history, and its celebration can only be described in terms of vicissitudes. There is no mention of Jesus’ birthdate in the Bible, but we generally credit Pope Julius I with assigning it Dec. 25 in the calendar. It is widely believed that this date was chosen specifically to incorporate and supersede a number of pagan holidays celebrated around the winter solstice, perhaps most prominently the Roman Saturnalia, a month-long festival of drink and debauchery meant to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture. The specific day may further be indebted to the god Mithras, the invincible sun, whose birthday was celebrated on Dec. 25, around the time of year the sun starts making its return and the days lengthen once again. Yet Easter was the premier holiday for early Christians and continued to be throughout the Middle Ages, even as Christmas was absorbing some of the habits and customs of pagan Europe as a time of feasting, drinking, and merrymaking. Christmas came to include some of pagan customs, like burning Yule logs and decorating with evergreens to symbolize the persistence of life and the cyclical turning of the seasons.

The general tendency toward raucous behavior, combined with the fact that there is no biblical support for the festivity, is one reason the rise of Puritanism in the 17th century categorically rejected celebrating Christmas. Consequently, when the Puritan settlements of New England were founded, Christmas was outlawed. Although other colonies maintained Christmas, it was not really popular, and after the Revolutionary War, the United States maintained a distant relationship with the holiday. In fact, it was not until 1870 that Christmas was officially declared a holiday in the U.S., and only because Americans had started embracing Christmas customs while transforming the holiday into something new.

So what were these Christmas customs, soon part of American holiday tradition? One thing that Americans did was to reframe the holiday as a time spent with family. In the past, and in the Old World, Christmas had been very community-oriented, with feasting and drinking moving from house to house in a carnival-like atmosphere. With this behavior sometimes came the expected social conflicts and chaos, something made all too apparent when a Christmas riot broke out in New York City in 1828, an episode that resulted in the formation of the first professional police force. Stories by Washington Irving and Charles Dickens guided the new attitude toward Christmas as a time of peace and reflection. Queen Victoria’s German consort, Prince Albert, brought the tradition of decorating pine trees to England in the mid-19th century, a custom that proved very popular and quickly spread to America after an image of the royal family with its Christmas tree was published here, as did the custom of sending Christmas cards that arose in Victorian England.

Gift giving during the festivities around Christmas had a much longer tradition, but it was the rise of manufacturing and advertising that really kick-started the massive commercial enterprise of Christmas. Santa Claus, while derived ultimately from the Christian Saint Nicholas, who was said to have given gifts to children, passed through the Dutch interpretation as Sinterklaas and the English Father Christmas in the 19th century, both jolly gift-givers who wore a variety of clothing and costume. For the red and white Santa is now traditionally shown wearing, while certainly inspired by the famous poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” as well as other sources, we really have to thank an advert for Coca-Cola in the 1930s that solidified the now-accepted appearance.

How the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is celebrated in America has its own fascinating history. Though not as significant a holiday in other parts of the world, because of the commercial popularity of Christmas, Hanukkah evolved to become a bigger presence during the U.S. holiday season. For Jewish colonials, Hanukkah was not a significant holiday. But this began to change in the 19th century when a poet living in Charleston, South Carolina, named Penina Moise wrote a hymn (itself an odd word choice) for Hanukkah, no doubt in reaction to zealous Christians around her. She was promoting her minority faith, just as another author in the mid-19th century, Rabbi Wise, published a story of the Maccabees as a serial in his newspaper, the American Israelite, a biblical narrative of faith in adversity that resonated with American Jews. Alongside the rise of celebrating Christmas in America at this time, Hanukkah became a way of asserting the Jewish faith. But also, just as with Christmas celebrators, the Jewish holiday became a target for advertising. Moreover, as Christmas became more secularized and about gift-giving than about religion, so, too, did Jewish parents begin to join the holiday fun with decorations and presents.

So, when we sit down at Thanksgiving with friends and families at the start of the holiday season, and whether celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah, we should remember that we Americans have our own customs and traditions that contribute to the rich history of the holiday season.

Katherine Adams lives and works in Brooklyn, New York where she is a professional writer and speaker.

U.S. President George H. Bush and Shannon Duffy, 8, of Fairfax, Virginia, look over a Thansgiving turkey presented to the President at the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 18, 1989 by the National Turkey Foundation. The 50 pound bird is 28-2weeks, three-days old and comes from Detroit Lakes, Michigan. The President and Mrs. Bush donated the turkey to Frying Pan Park, a petting farm in Virginia. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander)