Would you be surprised to learn that religion has very little to do with our current Christmas traditions?
Many people believe that modern holiday practices stem solely from beliefs founded in Christianity, and although a variety of religious factors have influenced our current holiday traditions, the beginnings of what have come to be known as an American holiday season have far more to do with a developing economy and population boom than they do with the story of the three wise men.
So, why do we give gifts during the holidays? Where did this tradition originally begin, and how has it changed over the years, ultimately coming to be known as the holiday gift-giving season that it is today?
The Game of Monopoly
Many families strive to spend additional time together over the holidays. They may build snowmen, go sledding, travel during the vacation, or sit down to a good old-fashioned family game night. Monopoly, for example, is a popular game for American families to play together. Ironically, this game shares much in common with the economic disparity that originally prompted wealthier families in New York’s early nineteenth century to begin to impact the shifting traditions of New England.
Dancing in the Streets
Like Halloween, holiday festivities during the early 1800s could get a bit… unpredictable. Writer and historian Stephen Nissenbaum details the unfolding of events in his book, The Battle for Christmas. Between the years 1800-1850, New York’s population grew nearly ten-fold. It was during this time that the members of New York’s social elite became increasingly scared of the perceived “barbaric” rituals of the lower class.
Over the course of the holiday, it was quite common for poorer people to practice what is referred to as traditional rituals of “social inversion,” openly demanding food and drink from the wealthy and celebrating in the streets without restraint. These rituals, recognized any time between St. Nicholas Day, a European holiday recognized on December 6th, and New Year’s Day, were a means by which peasants and members of the lower class could vent their frustrations during the seasonal agricultural downtime.
All About the Benjamins
It was the fear surrounding these traditional celebrations and subsequent potential for protest at things like employers refusing to provide their respective employees with time off, or denying them additional wages (what we know today as bonuses) for time well spent during an employee’s work year that prompted American aristocrats to push for change during winter festivities.
It was during this time, that a group of wealthy socialites referring to themselves as “The Knickerbockers” invented a new series of traditions that moved the winter festivities out of the streets and into American homes.
These modified traditions were based upon Dutch ideologies as well as other European influences such as the celebration of the life of one legendary Greek Bishop whose story was later influenced by the now classic poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” by Clement Clark Moore. It is known today as “The Night Before Christmas.”
Paired with ideas drawn from the Christmas tales found within story collections by Washington Irving, another influential Knickerbocker, it was then that the beginnings of modern holiday traditions began to form.
Fear of Commercialism
Ironically, another factor that helped to move holiday festivities into the home related to New Yorkers’ mounting fears about the influence that corporate America was to have on its youth. Wanting to shelter their children from the influence of rapid population growth coupled with emerging American capitalism and commercialism, families aimed to keep their children within the home. There they would be safe from the corrupting influence that commerce would have on their developing minds.
Snug as a Bug in a Rug
These shifts in practice ultimately resulted in a domesticated Christmas where young people associated the holidays and Christmas time with the morally safe space within the home, as well as the religious practices of their respective families. This rings true to this day, as a culturally diverse United States finds many families celebrating their holidays in a culturally traditional fashion, with many Americans continuing to celebrate Kwanza, Hannukah, or one of the many different holiday-time traditions found around the world.
The True Meaning of It All
Regardless of cultural background or socioeconomic status, today you will find families nationwide coming together to exchange gifts during the holidays, expressing their love and gratitude towards one another. Although critics hone in on the dangers of corporate greed during this time and the influence it can sometimes have on young people’s minds, the message that seems to transcend all of this is that gifts are a wonderful part of all of our holidays, but the greatest gift of all is spending time with the ones you love.