History and Origins of Christmas Traditions  

Christmas Candlelight Tour at the Wornall House. Photo by Diane Euston.

By Diane Euston

The celebration of the Christmas season is upon us. We race from store to store, browse the Internet for cyber sales and tune into the stations that play seasonal music. Part of the glory of Christmastime is rooted in religious significance; however, in true American spirit, the holiday has morphed into so much more. When we pause for just a moment and look around us, these little pieces of what make up Christmas have origins that surpass our modern celebrations.

The Ancient Beginnings

Before Jesus even entered the world, Europeans celebrated the winter solstice. The goal was to bring light and joy in the darkest part of the year. Evergreen, holly and mistletoe were brought indoors because their colors would brighten the dull winter spaces. In pagan tradition, the greenery was said to ward off evil spirits and celebrate new beginnings.

The pagan custom of the Yule was celebrated on December 21st until the beginning of January. Family and friends would gather and cut down the largest tree they could find. These large logs were brought indoors. Tradition showed that as long as the yule log burned, the feasting would continue.

Christians Create Christmas

In early Christianity, only Easter was celebrated, as the Bible does not point to an actual date of Jesus’ birth. But as pagans were converted to Christians, some of these ancient traditions merged with the new. In the 4th century, December 25th was named a Christian holiday. By the Middle Ages, people celebrated Christmas by attending church and then released into the streets to festivals full of rowdy behavior.

Puritans in the 17th century aptly pointed out that the actual date of Jesus’ birth was unknown. As the Puritans engulfed Western Europe, their influence essentially stamped Christmas celebrations out. They did not celebrate or recognize its observance in the church. Early Puritan settlers into America, seeking religious freedom, continued “outlawing” Christmas. Even up until the American Revolution, Christmas celebrations were essentially erased in early history.

 The Victorian Era Reinvents the Holiday

With the help of a little book published in 1843 by Charles Dickens called A Christmas Carol, a rebranding of Christmas had begun in London. It wasn’t long before the idea of charity, giving and good will towards men made it to the United States.

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and her husband, Prince Albert changed the view of Christmas in England by the adoption of some of Prince Albert’s German customs. Queen Victoria was an iconic symbol at the time, and her choices of wardrobe and decorating were trendsetting.

A simple drawing, published in London in 1848, showed the royal family surrounding a table-top Christmas tree lit with small candles. Small unwrapped presents nestled underneath its branches. This simple drawing created a sensation throughout Europe and spread across the pond into the United States. Its influence had people on the east coast buying Christmas trees as early as 1850.

Santa Claus Emerges

 St. Nicholas, a Turkish monk, was celebrated for his kindness. His feast day is celebrated on December 6th. Even as Christmas was put on hold by reformation in the 17th century, St. Nicholas was still celebrated, especially in Holland. Gift-giving became popular in the 1800s, and the image of St. Nicholas, also known as “Sinter Klauss” in Dutch, became forever linked to the Christmas season.

In 1823, a poem “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” was published in New York and is attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. Now commonly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” this poem drastically changed the view of Santa Claus and his role for the holiday. Thomas Nast’s drawing of Santa Claus in Harper’s Weekly in 1881 leant the first modern view of Santa.

Kansas City Area Shows Signs of Christmas Celebration

Originally, the Christmas tree in the United States was displayed in churches and hospitals and decorated with dried fruits and small presents. The days surrounding Christmas along the frontier often consisted of visiting parties to neighbors and a jubilee or dance at a house nearby. Roasted meats and sweet, delicious smells would ooze out of kitchens of homes. Sugar, an expensive commodity, would be utilized to bake treats and cakes. Luxuries like canned oysters were opened in more prominent households.

On the frontier and in the south, the tradition of the yule log was continued. The J.H. Compton home, in what is now North Kansas City, was originally a log cabin built in the 1820s. When the family moved into it in the 1840s, they celebrated Christmas with the lighting of the yule log. Slaves on the property selected the largest and greenest tree they could find to put in the fireplace. Tradition had it that the slaves didn’t have to work as long as the yule log burned in the fire.

The house today is the site of Stroud’s on Oak Ridge Manor in North Kansas City.

The First Lighted Christmas “Tree” in Westport

German immigrant Oswald Karl Lux, a cabinetmaker living on Archibald St., set out to find a proper Christmas tree for his family in 1883. He searched in Westport and Kansas City but came up with no tree taller than 18 inches.

Dissatisfied, Lux took an old broomstick handle and broke apart a keg; the staves from the keg were used as curved branches. He drilled holes into the broom and fastened the staves to it. In Union Cemetery, Lux gathered sprigs of evergreen and then covered the staves with the greenery. A small nail at the end of each stave secured short, fat candles on the end of each branch.

Neighbor children on Christmas day spotted the lit tree in the Lux family’s small window. For days after Christmas, Lux and his family welcomed visitors that wished to catch a glimpse of the tree. In the next few years, imported trees from Michigan would allow Kansas City residents to purchase full-sized fresh Christmas trees for the first time.

 Hall Brothers, Inc. Revolutionizes Christmas

Sending Christmas postcards became popular during the Victorian era. In 1915, Kansas City’s own Joyce Hall revolutionized the Christmas card and created a new take on it. Postcards didn’t have enough room for messages that people wanted to write on them.

The Hall Brothers Company restructured the card into a four-inch high, six-inch wide card that folded once and was inserted in an envelope.

At the height of the Christmas rush around this same time, their store on 11th Street sold out of the tissue-style wrapping papers common at the time. Not wishing to disappoint their loyal customers, Rollie Hall raced to their warehouse to find a solution.

He found fancy envelope linings with patterns on them that were imported from France. They threw these sheets on the floor and slapped a ten-cent price on them. They were immensely popular and stronger than the thin tissue labeled as wrapping paper.

Two years later, they added this new industry standard to their manufacturing line, and modern day wrapping paper was born.

 Christmas Continues to Grow

Each year, as more innovations occur and the market for Christmas continues to flourish, the future of Christmas is unknown. Traditions rooted in pagan customs act as the foundation to the season even as more modernizations are made to the holiday. Immigrants to America brought with them much more than their possessions; they carried diverse traditions from their homeland that changed the way Christmas is celebrated today. Christmas, in some ways, ties all customs together and unites us in the joys of the season.

Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com

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