Primary Source: A Very American Christmas

Egg nog and cinnamon rolls. Christmas cards and pictures with Santa. Trimming the tree and gift exchanges. Each year we celebrate Christmas by observing our traditions: maybe a Christmas Eve church service, stockings by the fireplace, breakfast with family, leaving out milk and cookies for Santa, going out to a movie, or trying to stay in bed as long as you can on Christmas morning before the kids threaten you with parental negligence.

With our favorite Christmas traditions ruling how we celebrate, we forget that observing Christmas took many forms in America’s 400+ years, provided Americans were allowed to celebrate at all. How has Christmas in the United States changed or stayed the same in that time?

Christmas in the desert.

The Puritans shun Christmas (1621).

The Puritans, who came from England to settle in the new world, were not the people you’d go to for party ideas. At that time in Europe, Christmas meant having a good time: mummers blackened their faces and dressed as the opposite sex, carolers sang door to door, and wealthy lords invited the peasants into their manors to stuff themselves with food and drink.

The Puritans did not like this. They groused that Christmas was less pious and more revelrous, calling the holiday “Foolstide.” And according to the New York Times, “Puritans argued (not incorrectly) that Christmas represented nothing more than a thin Christian veneer slapped on a pagan celebration. Believing in the holiday was superstitious at best, heretical at worst.” On Christmas Day in 1621, the second in America for the colonists, the Puritans in Massachusetts were put to the test when some non-Puritan immigrants decided some fun was in order. Historian William Bradford, captured what happened next.

On the day called Christmas day, the governor called them out to work, (as was used) but the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away the rest and left them; but when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar and some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it a matter of devotion, let them keep their houses, but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing has been attempted that way, at least openly.

“The Puritan Governor Interrupting the Christmas Sports,” by Howard Pyle, 1883.

The Puritans outlaw Christmas (1647).

Over the next two and a half decades, shaming, a favorite Puritan method for social compliance, must have produced mixed results, for in 1647 Puritan leaders put a law on the books to make it official.

For preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction, by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others, it is therefore ordered by this Court and the authority thereof, that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon such accountants as aforesaid, every person so offending shall pay of every such offence five shillings, as a fine to the county.

Image from Josiah King’s 1687 pamphlet “The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas.”

Lewis and Clark celebrate the holiday on their expedition (1804).

By and by, as immigrants of various backgrounds made their way across the ocean, the Puritans’ influence waned on what was legal to celebrate (which wasn’t much). By the late 1700s, coughing up five shillings for Christmas “feasting and other satanic practices” was no longer a hazard of living in the U.S.

In 1804, at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began their expedition to explore and map the middle and western portions of the continent. Among their retinue was Patrick Gass who served as sergeant. He kept detailed notes of their adventures in his journal and published the first journal of the expedition in 1807. On Christmas day in the first year of the exploration, Lewis and Clark were camped at Fort Mandan in North Dakota. Gass recorded how the team and others celebrated.

The morning was ushered in by two discharges of a swivel, and a round of small arms by the whole corps. Captain Clarke then presented to each man a glass of brandy, and we hoisted the American flag in the garrison, and its first waving in fort Mandan was celebrated with another glass. — The men then cleared out one of the rooms and commenced dancing. At 10 o’clock we had another glass of brandy, and at 1 a gun was fired as a signal for dinner. At half past 2 another gun was fired, as a notice to assemble at the dance, which was continued in a jovial manner till 8 at night; and without the presence of any females, except three squaws, wives to our interpreter, who took no other part than the amusement of looking on. None of the natives came to the garrison this day; the commanding officers having requested they should not, which was strictly attended to. During the remainder of the month we lived in peace and tranquility in the garrison, and were daily visited by the natives.

Fort Mandan in winter. (Ralph Waldo Smith)

A gold rusher’s sentiments turn eastward (1849).

On January 24, 1848, in Coloma, California, James Marshall and his band of Mormon laborers caught a glint of something shiny in the river on which they were building a lumber mill. It took a while for the news to spread, but once President James Polk announced it in his State of the Union address in December, the rush was on. Fortune-seekers from across the continent and the globe swarmed to California. One was John McCrackan, a lawyer from the east coast.

In 1849, San Francisco was a fledgling village yet expanding rapidly by the day. Its population was over 90% male and had barely any time for social interaction for all the gold, it was believed, to be plucked from the ground. But nearly all were homesick and the prospect of spending Christmas with strangers made them long for their families and the familiar comforts of home, as revealed by McCrackan’s letter he wrote to his loved ones.

Christmas Day, and I not with you, and yet, and yet, I am with you. Yes, I feel it, I know it. I am present although absent. I am with you at the festive board, and the family altar. I am seated where I see your bright and lovely faces and there I hear your kind and endearing words. Many, many a merry Christmas dear ones, do I send to you upon the wings of love. My spirit joins you in the festivities of this holy and happy season. It leaves its wandering tenament and seeks its earthly home and resting place where, with kindred spirits, it revels in the fullness of happiness.

I attended church this morning and listened to a very good sermon from our clergyman, the Rev. Mr. Mines. Our church was very full and the service of course most impressive and beautiful. I am regularly installed in the choir and never till now did I seem to appreciate the pleasures and privileges of our church. Deprived as I have been for so long of its services it seemed like getting home once more after a long and painful absence.

I have used every exertion to appear happy and enjoy the day. In my imagination I have returned to you. I hear the warm greeting and have felt the sweet kiss. I listened to the kind solicitations and anxious remembrances and heartfelt prayers offered for the absent ones.

Gold rushers attempt to navigate the muddy streets of San Francisco in the winter of 1849. (Frank Marryat)

A Confederate soldier reveals his painful thoughts (1862).

The American Civil War, a battle over slavery and states’ rights, raged for four long years from 1861 to 1865. No one was left unaffected. Christmas highlighted the hardships: Folks at home lamented their missing family members and soldiers on the battlefields tried to normalize the holiday the best they could. Some, however, like Confederate soldier Tally Simpson, couldn’t help but become overwhelmed by the gravity of the conflict. He wrote a letter to his sister from near Fredricksburg, Virginia on Christmas day in 1862.

My dear Sister,

This is Christmas Day. The sun shines feebly through a thin cloud, the air is mild and pleasant, a gentle breeze is making music through the leaves of the lofty pines that stand near our bivouac. All is quiet and still, and that very stillness recalls some sad and painful thoughts.

This day, one year ago, how many thousand families, gay and joyous, celebrating Merry Christmas, drinking health to absent members of their family, and sending upon the wings of love and affection long, deep, and sincere wishes for their safe return to the loving ones at home, but today are clad in the deepest mourning in memory to some lost and loved member of their circle. If all the dead (those killed since the war began) could be heaped in one pile and all the wounded be gathered together in one group, the pale faces of the dead and the groans of the wounded would send such a thrill of horror through the hearts of the originators of this war that their very souls would rack with such pain that they would prefer being dead and in torment than to stand before God with such terrible crimes blackening their characters. Add to this the cries and wailings of the mourners — mothers and fathers weeping for their sons, sisters for their brothers, wives for their husbands, and daughters for their fathers — how deep would be the convictions of their consciences.

Yet they do not seem to think of the affliction and distress they are scattering broadcast over the land. When will this war end? Will another Christmas roll around and find us all wintering in camp? Oh! That peace may soon be restored to our young but dearly beloved country and that we may all meet again in happiness. . . .

Your bud,

Civil War soldiers celebrate the holiday on a rare break from military life.

Children at the turn of the 20th century send their wishes to Santa (late 1800s, early 1900s).

The earliest correspondence between children and Santa were actually the other way around. Parents “wrote” letters from Santa to children reminding them of the virtues of being good . . . and where they stood with him. By the latter part of the 1800s, the flow reversed and children were petitioning Santa for gifts and defending their behavior over the year. The following are ten letters that could have only been written by children.

Dearest Santa:

I am a little girl five years old. Please bring me candy, a head for my dollie, and a little axe.

Your friend,
Agnes (1900)

Dear Santa,

I heard that you was shot over yonder in the European war. Please hobble over here and bring me anything you can spare.

— Renel (1914)

Dear Santa,

Please do not forget that I want a toy opera house.

Your friend,
Milton Faber (1904)

P. S. Do not forget my opera house.


Just bring me the same things as my brother Joe, only more of them and better. I live at the same place as he does.

Guy (1901)

Dear Santa,

Just bring me everything that you can get your hands on. Be sure not to forget. Well, that is all I want.

Alice (1900)

Dear Santa,

I am a sick boy. And cannot go to school. And the Dr. says i must have a gun, and some shot.

Yours truly,
John Littleton (1900)

Dear Santa,

I would like to have the world and a fence around it but as I can not have it I will just ask for a nice new dress.

Marie (1896)

Dear Santa,

I am a very good boy because I got an A in Deportment. Well lets get down to business. Bring me a football suit like the gophers and an apple for my canary Betty. I want to see you on Sat. and you better come, because if you don’t, boy o’ boy.

Kenneth (1934)

Dear Santa,

Please don’t forget me I am a boy 8 years old. I’ve put out every effort to be good and have sacrificed grimly.

Your little friend,
Paul (1913)

Dear Santa,

Will you bring me a man doll as ugly as sin, with a ugly old high beaver hat to make me laugh. I like funny things.

Helen (1903)

A mother chronicles her changing neighborhood and family in a Christmas letter (1962).

Christmas cards made their debut in England in the 1840s as a quick and efficient way to send Christmas greetings to friends. The practice of writing a full letter with the family update emerged a hundred years later in the United States and took off in the '60s with the wider availability of photocopiers. Women wrote the majority of Christmas letters, according to Smithsonian Magazine, and one study found that common topics included weather, travel experiences, Mom and Dad’s professional accomplishments, the kids’ academic achievements and the family’s material possessions.

Add to that the suburbanization of the ’50s and '60s and you have the quintessential American Christmas letter from Grace Erickson (names have been changed), a California homemaker in the Santa Clara valley.

The obvious signs of Christmas are coming to Rose Hill Road — decorated trees, colored lights, and the incessant coming and going of cars. Nearby, the windows at Safeway display their Christmas specials . . . . We can look in and see tables with glittering ornaments, toys, shimmering tinsel trees, bright colored papers and ribbons and, maybe, among the crowd one of the Ericksons.

Over the way at 571 Rose Hill Road, we know Christmas is near because of Francine’s restless excitement, Lizzy furtively pulling packages on her closet shelf, Edward’s complete lack of money, and Albert playing Christmas carols on his trumpet. Yes, we’re in the same house, although the City of Santa Clara has embraced us and given us a new house number. Still in the middle of a commercially growing area, we’ve learned to overlook the traffic and appreciate the proximity of good shopping, the church, and the three different schools the children attend.

This year will be remembered in our family’s annual not by Nixon’s defeat, the Giants playing in the World Series, or Astronaut Schirra’s orbits around the earth, but as the year of our Mexican trip and our Donner Lake cabin. . . .

Many subtle changes have revealed the boys’ growth during the past year. When Edward enters a room we really turn and look. He has grown taller, his feet larger, and his voice is two octaves lower. . . .

In the seventh grade now, [Albert] sports a flat top haircut, wears only the “coolest” clothes to school, and does a pretty good twist in dancing class. . . .

At fifteen [Lizzy is] the typical “Seventeen” reader, loves clothes, cold apples, new hair styles — and talking to her friends on the phone. . . .

Following the pattern of many eight year olds, [Francine] belongs to a Brownie troop, takes beginning piano and ballet lessons. . . .

George and I continue to supervise, encourage, console and reprimand, besides participating in the parental responsibilities of school. Scouts, and church groups. . . . As for me, my time is spent mostly as chief coordinator, chauffeur, and clothes lengthener. The skirts and pants always seem to be too short this year.

We certainly wish that we could say “Merry Christmas” to you in person. As this is impossible, please accept our very best wishes for a wonderful holiday season and a Happy Happy 1963 — via this letter.

Two singers #MeToo a classic song (2019).

“I really can’t stay,” sings a female, getting up for the door. “But baby it’s cold outside!” protests a man, moving to block her escape. In 1944, husband and wife Frank Loesser and Lynn Garland wrote and performed “Baby it’s Cold Outside” as a closing song for the many holiday parties they were attending in Hollywood. For years it was a Christmas staple.

Starting in 2009, however, the song came under fire for its lyrics, with some interpreting the message as non-consensual or harassing. Cultural lines were drawn, with some radio stations canceling the song while others doubled down. In the #MeToo era of the late 2010s, singers John Legend and Kelly Clarkson updated the song to reflect more modern sensibilities. Legend and Clarkson’s changes are in bold.

I really can’t stay (But baby it’s cold outside)
I’ve got to away (But baby it’s cold outside / But, I can call you a ride)
This evening has been (Been hoping that you’d drop in / I’m so glad that you dropped in)
So very nice (I’ll hold your hands, they’re just like ice / Time spent with you is paradise)

My mother will start to worry (Beautiful what’s your hurry / I’ll call a car and tell ’em to hurry)
My father will be pacing the floor (Listen to the fireplace roar / Wait, what are you still livin’ home for?)
So really I’d better scurry (Beautiful please don’t hurry / Your driver, his name is Murray)
But maybe just a half a drink more (Put some records on while I pour / Oh, we’re both adults, so who’s keepin’ score)

The neighbors might think / What will my friends think? (Baby it’s bad out there / I think they should rejoice)
Say what’s in this drink / If I have one more drink? (No cabs to be had out there / It’s your body and your choice)
I wish I knew how / Ooh you really know how (Your eyes are like starlight now)
To break this spell / To cast a spell (I’ll take your hat, your hair looks swell / One look at you and then I fell)
I ought to say “No, no, no sir” (Mind if I move in closer? / Then you really ought to go, go, go)
At least I’m gonna say that I tried (What’s the sense in hurtin’ my pride? / Well, Murray, he just pulled up outside)

I really can’t stay (Oh, baby, don’t hold out / I understand, baby)
Baby it’s cold outside

I simply must go (But baby, it’s cold outside / Text me when you get home)
The answer is no / Oh, I’m supposed to say no (But baby, it’s cold outside / I guess that’s respectable)
Your welcome has been (How lucky that you dropped in / I’ve been lucky that you dropped in)
So nice and warm (Look out the window at that storm / But you better go before it storms)

My sister will be suspicious (Gosh your lips look delicious)
My brother will be there at the door (Waves upon the tropical shore / Oh, he loves my music, baby, I’m sure)
My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious / My gossipy neighbor’s vicious (Gosh your lips are delicious / I’m a genie, tell me what your wish is)
But maybe just a cigarette more (Never such a blizzard before / Oh, that’s somethin’ we should probably explore)

I’ve gotta get home (But baby, you’d freeze out there / Oh, baby, I’m well aware)
Say lend me a coat (It’s up to your knees out there / Oh, keep it girl, I don’t care)
You’ve really been grand (I thrill when you touch my hand / I feel it when you touch my hand)
But don’t you see? (How can you do this thing to me? / I want you to stay, it’s not up to me)
There’s bound to be talk tomorrow (Think of my lifelong sorrow / Well, they can talk, but what do they know?)
At least there will be plenty implied (If you got pneumonia and died / Oh, let them mind their business, and go)

I really can’t stay / I don’t want to go (Get over that holdout)
Baby it’s cold outside

Dean Martin sings the original lyrics in 1959.
John Legend and Kelly Clarkson sing with updated lyrics in 2019.

I am currently working on Gold in the Fire, a book about Ah Toy, the first Chinese brothel madam in gold rush San Francisco.

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