Christmas traditions

The Christmas we celebrate today is a result of materialism, media hype, advertising, and mass marketing. However, the traditional Christmas celebrations some of us still enjoy are the result of the blending together of customs from many other countries into what is considered by many to be our national holiday.

The intrepid Captain John Smith, on one of his expeditions out of Jamestown, recorded in his journal what is probably the first account of a Christmas celebration in North America. The year was 1608, and the enigmatic captain described the occasion thusly:” The extreme winds and rayne, frost and snow prevented our returning home and caused us to keep Christmas among savages where we were never more merry, nor fed on more plenty of good oysters, fish, flesh, wilde fowl, and good bread nor never had better fires than in England.”

A few years later, up the coast in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the puritans frowned on any observation of Christmas, and anyone caught celebrating the holiday was fined. Connecticut passed a law forbidding the celebration of Christmas and a ban on the baking of mincemeat pies during the holiday period. A few of the earliest settlers did celebrate Christmas, but this was not a common occurrence during the colonial times.

No one knows exactly when the practice of decorating Christmas trees began. Some say the Moravians of Bethlehem, Pa. started the custom in the early 1800s, but others insist Hessian soldiers at Trenton, N.J., erected the first American Christmas tree in 1776. German immigrants moving south and west beginning in the early 1800s spread the Christmas tree tradition across America. These frugal people baked fancy ornaments to decorate their trees and then ate the ornaments when the tree was taken down.

During the period of the Civil War, the North and South were also divided on the issue of Christmas. Many in the North associated the celebration of Christmas with sin, but Christmas in the South became an important part of the social season. It is not surprising that the first three states to make Christmas a legal holiday were Alabama in 1836 and Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838.

Many ethnic groups held on to the traditions observed in the old country. The fun-loving early Dutch colonists of New Amsterdam, although they observed Christmas by attending church services, singing carols, and having family gatherings, made it their principal holiday when Sint Klaas (St. Nicholas) came to visit astride his great white horse to fill the children’s stockings with gifts.

In the southern colonies there was usually visiting between members of neighboring plantations and farms, with feasting, dancing, and primitive fireworks. It was the custom to present each servant or slave with a gift and a reprieve from work as long as the traditional Yule log burned.

The burning of the Yule log is said to be pagan in origin. It is thought it was instigated by the Vikings to honor their god Thor. The tradition of burning the Yule log became firmly entrenched in early America, though few practice it today.

My father, whose parent were Swedish immigrants, recalled that when he was a boy on the family farm in Rock Island County, the lighting of the Yule log on Christmas Eve was a cherished tradition. After the log was blazing, the family dined on lute fish (lutfisk), the traditional Scandinavian Christmas dish.

The first record of a Christmas celebration in our area took place in the vicinity of what is now Chicago and is found in the journal of the missionary explorer, Father Marquette. The festivities took place on Christmas Eve 1674 in a crude hut on the banks of the Chicago River. Some three score of Indians gathered to meet Fr. Marquette upon his return from a trip to Green Bay. He celebrated mass at midnight, and then they enjoyed a rather unique Christmas banquet. A large bowl of porridge, mixed with buffalo fat, was passed from man to man as only one spoon was available. The meal was topped off with a special treat, a boiled dog, which the good father observed, “was enjoyed by all.”

I doubt if boiled dog will be on many of our Christmas Day menus, but have a merry Christmas anyway.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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