Bright lights, snowmen, stockings packed with goodies and family dinners. Or, a much-awaited excuse to max out your credit cards with a combination of retail therapy and holiday cheer. Good old American Christmas, right? Well, not exactly. Yuletide in the United States has had a colorful (and controversial) career graph, at times far removed from the peaceful and popular holiday that it is today.
It all began in the 17th century when the Pilgrim Fathers, who disapproved of all things frivolous, cancelled Christmas to rid the newly conquered colony of decadence. Displaying the ‘Christmas Spirit’ could set you back by five shillings, so carol-singing was not a popular art form, as you can imagine. In fact, it wasn’t until 1870 that Christmas became a designated federal holiday and a time for family-centered celebrations.
Nineteenth century America was a land of class conflict, unemployment and gang rioting that often marred the Christmas festivities. Along came Washington Irving – author, biographer, historian – with his warm fuzzy English Christmas in The Sketch Book stories, and changed forever the way we perceive and celebrate the festival. Peace, nostalgia and reconciliation, Charles Dickens style, now became the hallmarks of the season.
America today is home to people of myriad geographical, cultural and ethnic origins. So the season has a multicultural flavor that makes it uniquely American.
For instance, you have traditionalists who go the whole hog, complete with outdoor lights and glittering Christmas trees with brightly wrapped gifts underneath, The more enthusiastic ones have Santa bearing candy and toys for the kids and a turkey dinner on Christmas Day. On the other side of the spectrum, you have austere Jehovah’s Witnesses whose religious beliefs forbid the celebration of Christmas. And of course, many Americans today are Muslims or Jewish, for whom Christmas is a secular rather than religious holiday.
Most cities across the United States and Canada celebrate the holiday with parades, decorations, lights and lots of events. Children look forward to getting presents from Santa if they’ve been good during the year and coal if they’ve been naughty. And if it snows, (which it does in most parts of North America) the kids make snowmen and play with snowballs. On the whole, Christmas in America is now a retail and family holiday when you go shopping for gifts, exchange presents, cook elaborate meals and enjoy quality time with your loved ones.
From being the Puritans’ pet peeve to a much-touted symbol of American multiculturalism, Christmas in the United States has certainly come a long way.
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