Americans Didn't Always Celebrate Christmas The Way We Do Today Steve Inskeep talks to commentator and historian Cokie Roberts for a look at the changing way Christmas has been celebrated in America.
NPR logo

Americans Didn't Always Celebrate Christmas The Way We Do Today

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/573365557/573365558" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Americans Didn't Always Celebrate Christmas The Way We Do Today

Americans Didn't Always Celebrate Christmas The Way We Do Today

Americans Didn't Always Celebrate Christmas The Way We Do Today

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/573365557/573365558" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Steve Inskeep talks to commentator and historian Cokie Roberts for a look at the changing way Christmas has been celebrated in America.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Americans did not always celebrate Christmas the way we do today. As we hear from our co-host, Steve Inskeep, it used to be very different.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Not only different - it used to be outlawed. That's what we've heard from commentator and historian Cokie Roberts, who joins us once again. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Merry Christmas.

INSKEEP: Merry Christmas to you as well. How was Christmas outlawed in America?

ROBERTS: Well, it was those puritans, Steve, those dour-looking people who came over on the Mayflower. They thought Christmas was sacrilegious - all that merriment, you know? So Christmas was banned in Boston in the 17th century along with a lot of other things. And someone celebrating was fined five shillings. Now, in Jamestown it was very different. But the Puritan influence held over once the new country was formed.

INSKEEP: So the Puritans did not like Christmas very much. What about other parts of the country in the early days?

ROBERTS: Well, it wasn't really celebrated as a big holiday for a long time. Remember; Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas for a crucial victory in the revolution because he knew he could take the Hessian soldiers by surprise because they would be celebrating. And that kind of put Christmas in a bad odor. Early Congresses were in session over Christmas. In fact, the Congressional ceremony after George Washington's death in 1799 was held the day after Christmas in Philadelphia because the Congress was all there.

But there's lots of evidence that holiday rejoicing started as the 19th century dawned. There's this lovely story from the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804 when the explorers had reached all the way to Oregon, but they were out of alcohol and tobacco and left with very little food. But still, Clark said in his journal that they were cheerful all the morning and he received a gift of two dozen white weasel tails from the intrepid Sacagawea.

INSKEEP: Just a last-second gift thought if you're still one gift short on this morning.

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Go get a weasel tail - makes people happy. So when did Christmas become an official holiday?

ROBERTS: Nationally not until 1870...

INSKEEP: Wow.

ROBERTS: ...When Congress proclaimed Christmas and the Fourth of July and New Year's - which was always a big day at the White House in the early years - they were proclaimed national holidays. But part of the reason for doing that was many states had already named Christmas as a holiday. The first, by the way, was Alabama in 1836.

But Christmas was celebrated in Washington officialdom long before 1870. Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams, wrote to her mother-in-law, Abigail, about attending a Christmas service at the Capitol itself in 1806. She deemed the preaching wretched and added, you cannot think of the purity of heaven in a place where corruption faces you in every corner.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, the effort is made. And it's made in a particular way today. Christmas has a certain look. Santa Claus has a certain look. When did all of this imagery come to us?

ROBERTS: Well, it happened in stages. Washington Irving wrote about St. Nick in the early 19th century, harking back to the Dutch origins of New York. And then the poem "The Night Before Christmas" took off in 1822. And then Harper's Magazine hired the cartoonist Thomas Nast, he of the famous donkey and elephant creations. And during the Civil War, he popularized the Santa we know today, drew him as the fat, bearded guy that's described in the poem. And that Santa was used as war propaganda by Lincoln. We saw Santa in a union camp.

INSKEEP: Wow.

ROBERTS: Yes. Of course, to me, the most memorable Christmas event of the Civil War was William Tecumseh Sherman's famous telegram to Lincoln - I beg to present to you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah. Not exactly a jolly old elf of a story, but very welcome news to a president trying to hold the union together.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks very much.

ROBERTS: Merry Christmas.

INSKEEP: That's Cokie Roberts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANNHEIM STEAMROLLER'S "LITTLE DRUMMER BOY")

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.