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December 19, 2006 > Christmas in America

Christmas in America

What's Happening magazine and the Tri-City Voice wish all our readers and their families a very Merry Christmas!

by Pushpa Warrier

Christmas in America today grew from different observances before the Civil War, when the North and South were as divided over the issue of Christmas, as they were over the question of slavery. Many Northerners saw sin in the celebration of Christmas; to these people Thanksgiving was the priority celebration. But in the South, Christmas was an important part of the social season. Not surprisingly, the first three states to make Christmas a legal holiday were in the South: Alabama in 1836; then Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838.

In the years after the Civil War, as the country slowly knit together, Southern Christmas traditions spread. Children's books played an important role in this, especially in establishing the traditions of trimmed trees, and gifts delivered by Santa Claus. Sunday school classes encouraged Christmas as a religious observance. And women's magazines were instrumental in promoting ways to decorate for the holidays, as well as how to make these decorations. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Americans all over eagerly decorated trees, caroled, baked, and shopped for gifts.

Consistent with our "melting pot" origins, many of today's Christmas practices derive from those of countries around the world. In fact, the central figure of American traditions, Santa Claus, seems to have emerged from a centuries-long blending of many different cultural influences. Most scholars agree, however, that the original figure for all of this was a man named, Nicholas, who was born sometime around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey.

Much admired for his piety and kindness, Nicholas became the subject of many legends, some of which paved the way to his canonization as a saint. Among other acts, he is credited with giving away his inherited wealth and traveling the countryside helping the poor and sick. He is considered the patron saint of an amazing variety of individuals. Most notably, St. Nicholas is regarded as the patron saint of children everywhere.

Leave to academics the task of sorting fact from fiction in the matters of Christmas tradition origins. For most Americans, our twenty-first century holiday practices and observances bring us back to richly emotional memories of warmth, love and fellowship. These are the things that truly make the season bright.

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