It is a common observation that the Christmas season is filled with frantic activity to the tune of beeping cash registers. Some folks become anxious that their family’s holiday celebration will not be meaningful enough or provide enough warm memories.
The history of Christmas shows that the holiday as we know it is a mixture of bits of ethnic festivals, religious rites, advertising, and popular entertainment. So there is no “right” way to enjoy Christmas — a person may as well choose the customs that please his or her family.
In America before the Revolutionary War, observance of Christmas varied greatly from north to south. In Virginia, the holiday was a more sedate version of English custom. Christmas morning was greeted by gunfire and any other noise that could be generated. Games and horse races were held in some southern locales. The highlight of the day was a grand feast hosted by the master of the nearest plantation.
In New England, the Puritans wanted nothing to do with Christmas. Thanksgiving was their favorite fall holiday. They passed laws requiring stores and schools to stay open on Christmas, unless it occurred on a Sunday. Christmas was supposed to be just a work day.
The Puritans’ dislike of Christmas dated to their experience in England. Christmas Day in England prior to the reign of Queen Victoria was a rowdy carnival for adults. It might remind us of a combination of Halloween and Mardi Gras.
Boisterous crowds of men and women, some in costume, would go door to door in the wealthier parts of town. After exchanging greetings with the master of the house, the visitors expected him to treat them with tidbits of holiday food.
For many people, Christmas was an enjoyable break in the dreary winter, but heavy drinking, brawling, and rioting made it a time of danger, as well. The Puritans would have agreed with Scrooge that Christmas was humbug.
Pennsylvania was midway between southern exuberance and New England’s severity. The Germans who moved to Pennsylvania introduced their neighbors to central and eastern European Christmas customs. Those Catholic and Lutheran traditions combined religious ceremonies with wonderful music and good food, making Christmas a happy time for children and families. Their example finally won over even the New Englanders, and Christmas became the best-loved holiday in America.

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