Long before the Christmas season became a two-month celebration of commercialism, there was great debate about the prominence and importance of these two holidays on the national calendar, their roles in the American culture, and their regional roots.
Virginia is proud of its many historical firsts, among which it can claim the first American Christmas. There was little fun, however, that bleak Christmas Day on 1607 in Jamestown. It was marked only by a sermon in their little wooden church and heartfelt prayers for provision by the 40 remaining settlers. The following year was better. Captain John Smith and the settlers at Jamestown celebrated the holiday enduring six or seven dayes off the extreame wince, rayne, frost and snow. Smith noted they were never more merry, nor fed on more plentie of good Oysters, Fish, Flesh, Wild-foule, and good bread; nor never had better fires in England.
Only a few years later, their counterparts to the north, the Mayflower Pilgrims, landed at Plymouth in December 1620, determined to banish Christmas from the public calendar. Within a year, they had instead set aside a day for giving thanks to the Lord for all their blessings and celebrated it sporadically throughout the following decades. But they pointedly ignored Christmas. Puritan leader Cotton Mather condemned the long eating, hard drinking, lewd gaming, rude revelling that accompanied the Christmas holiday, noting that such actions have more of hell than heaven in them. By 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law to punish citizens found observing, by forbearing from labor, feasting, or any other way, any days such as Christmas [Day], under penalty of fine, imprisonment or whipping.
For the following two centuries, Virginians celebrated the holiday with increasing heartiness, while those to the north, influenced by Puritans, either ignored or censured Christmas, calling it a celebration of pagan revelry. Other religious sects such as Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Mennonites, Amish and Brethren, tended to agree. On the other side, the Anglican (Episcopal), Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic churches all held to the tradition of Christmas. Thus, Virginia, settled mostly by Anglicans, made merry on Dec. 25.
Christmas for Colonial Virginians had more of an emphasis on partying than gift-giving. Few colonists, north or south, initially celebrated with presents. Instead, the holiday ushered in a time of extended leisure for the entire household, including slaves. As long as the Yule log burned and the slaves ensured its longevity by cutting it slightly green and soaking it in water most everyone enjoyed a relaxed holiday for the full 12 days of Christmas. During this time, slaves went from one plantation to the next, feasting and socializing. This kind of celebration, though, cheated the slave, wrote Frederick Douglass, with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labeled with the name of liberty. ...When the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery.
Such concerns never dampened a good party, though. A correspondent for London Magazine reported in 1746 that all over the Colony, a universal hospitality reigns, with full tables and open doors ... And gunfire. Eighteenth-century Virginia gentlemen liked to take their muskets with them when paying a social visit and joined the host in firing away a noisy tribute called crackers to the holiday. (Firecrackers were also popular so popular that by 1830, Richmonds Common Hall passed an ordinance forbidding any person to set off any rocket, cracker, torpedo, squib or other fireworks in the city under penalty of $6.66 for each offense, if free; 20 lashes for a slave. But the custom of fireworks remained entrenched. Nearly 100 years later, in 1926, the 5-year-old son of Virginia Governor Trinkle held a lighted sparkler too close to the withering Christmas tree in the ballroom of the governors mansion, and the tree exploded in flames. The fire spread quickly and destroyed parts of the house, primarily the new sections added in 1906 and 1914.)
Eventually in the Piedmont and Tidewater areas of Virginia, it became customary for servants to surprise their masters with a cry of Christmas gift or Christmas box, upon which the patron had to produce a small gift or token. A custom imported from England, it was meant to provide for the poor or dependent in society; for that reason, upper-class families rarely gave gifts among themselves. By the mid-1840s, middle-class American Protestants, seeing success as Gods reward for virtue, made Christmas gift giving an exercise in religious training, and the custom began to take off in the cities.
Although the earliest documented reference to an American Christmas tree was in Lancaster, Penn., the first Christmas tree in Virginia was introduced in 1842 by Charles Minnigerode, a German classics professor at the College of William and Mary. He took a tree to the home of his friend Judge Nathaniel Beverly Tucker.
According to The Valentine museum, Richmond did not see its first tree until four years later. In an 1883 edition of the Magazine of American History, the writer recalls those early Christmas trees of his childhood:
It resembled, it is true, the every-day cedars or pines growing in the neighboring woods, but its boughs were laden with finer ornaments than the blue berries of the real bushes. There were candy cornucopias, birds of the brightest plumage, golden fish, variegated eggs, filigree baskets full of bonbons, books, presents of description, and silver crosses, and at the summit, the star of Bethlehem. The whole shone in the light of myriads of tapers nestling in the evergreen boughs; and to put out the lamps and illuminate these, after the late Christmas dinner, was the supreme delight of all who witnessed the ceremony.
During the Civil War era and immediately thereafter, Americans seemed ripe for a national holiday or some symbol of national culture that unified the country under the banner of hope. It has often been a subject of remark by some ... that our country can boast of no festivious customs, or old merry making days, wrote the United States Review in 1854.
Given the strife-filled cultural climate of the time, the enthusiasm for the Independence Day holiday had withered: We all dread the coming of the Fourth of July now, wrote the editor of Harpers Monthly the same year. The general consensus among pundits and professional scribes was that holidays stressed unity, and the nation was in sore need of a celebration.
While Thanksgiving had been seen primarily as an institution of the Puritans and confined to New England, Christmas had been long celebrated by Anglicans and others in the South. Slowly, the cultures began to bleed across the regional borders and advocates for each holiday made themselves known in the public forum. Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godeys magazine and a New England native, had been a strong proponent of Thanksgiving since the late 1820s, calling it a time to enjoy in national union [a] feast of gladness, rendering thanks to Almighty God for the blessings of the year.
By the 1850s, she had mounted a full-fledged campaign to the nations presidents and governors to adopt her concept of Thanksgiving; Virginia declared it a state holiday in 1855; and Lincoln proclaimed it a national day in 1863. Even as Hale was stumping for Thanksgiving, Christmas was slowly gaining acceptance in the North. As early as 1856, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow detected a transition state about Christmas here in New England. ... The old puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful, hearty holiday, though every year makes it more so. Even though Harpers Weekly printed Thomas Nast renderings of Santa Claus with Union affections, Northern publications did acknowledge at the time that Christmas had never been fully observed in America, except in the South. Soon, fevered commentaries were being printed, denouncing the Puritan restrictions and celebrating new American traditions for Christmas.
For a season, the two holidays seemed to be in competition, with Charles Francis Adams writing in 1857 that it seemed superfluous to have them both. Oddly enough, it was the sentiment that Christmas evoked during the Civil War that gained it the greater prominence. As George Templeton Strong wrote in 1862, Christmas is a great institution, especially in time of trouble and disaster and impending ruin. By 1860, 14 states, including Virginia, had made Christmas a legal holiday; the U. S. Congress declared it a federal holiday on June 26, 1870.