Monday, December 24, 2012

The American Tradition of Christmas and the Mystery of the Aluminum Christmas Tree

In the spirit of the holidays, I set out to write a short essay on what I had learned about the origins of our Midwinter holiday and its traditions. I grew up in Virginia where Christmas was a much more important religious holiday than it is out here or other places I have lived, so perhaps that explains my interest.

So in this essay, I hoped to cover (a) the specific mechanisms by which Christmas traditions came into the popular culture in this country, (b) why these traditions seem to be rather oddly selected from a much larger set of European traditions, (c) why these traditions seem to be rather secular, which is odd, given that nature of the holiday, (d) whether any of these traditions are in any way based on the old religions of Europe as might seem likely in a few cases (e.g. the decorated evergreen), (e) why it is that Virginia seemed more devout and frankly Christian in its celebration than other places I have lived in this country, and (f) why an Aluminum Christmas Tree.  Lesser issues would also include the origins of the Yule Log, the various nativity scenes that are often set up, the tradition of the shop window Christmas displays such as one sees at Macy's in New York City, and the tradition of the candle in the window as one sees in Virginia.

Implicit in this might be why a third generation atheist liberal Jewish Virginian family such as mine should celebrate Christmas at all.  Not all of these questions are answered in this essay, but a few of them are partially answered. 

When I grew up in Virginia we had an aluminum Christmas tree. My father, a reformed sports writer, worked for Reynolds Aluminum and perhaps that is why we had a Christmas tree. It was pretty great, although as you might imagine it did not smell as good as a real evergreen. I always wanted to know where this thing had come from.

As I studied the origins of the various traditions of Christmas that I had experienced while growing up, two observations were reinforced, none of them particularly original.   The first is that what we celebrate in America seems to be combination of (as you would expect) a large number of Anglo-Saxon traditions in place about the time of the colonization but with an almost equal number of traditions seemingly picked almost at random from a large number of potential continental European traditions. The second observation was that these traditions were nearly all secular in origin and purpose.

But a third observation was somewhat new to me, but certainly not new to others who had studied the topic.  Apparently a significant number of attributes of what we consider to be a traditional Christmas celebration actually is American in origin and rather recent, e.g. the 19th century.   They just pretend to be older traditions, something I find amusing.

The following is an incomplete list of my research. I expect that many of you knew this already, but I did not know most of this.

I wish to emphasize here that there is a lot bad information out there which I hope I am not contributing to, but I probably am.   One such "wrong" belief is the common lore about the origin of the date of Christmas, at least in the Western Church, December 25th.  For many years I thought that it was accepted that the date of the Western Church's Christmas came from a very specific holiday, Sol Invictus, of the late Roman Empire.  I had been led to believe this by literally dozens and dozens of essays on the subject.  Looking a bit closer, I learn, again, that what one is commonly told is just flat out false.  So we begin with the issue of why December 25.

1. Most historians do NOT believe that the Western Church celebrates Christmas on December 25th because it was the date of a significant Roman religious celebration (e.g. Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, which was itself layered on top of other previous traditions). They do not believe it, because when Christians had started celebrating the birth of Christ, in the 3rd century AD, they were still in their conflict with Rome, e.g. before Constantine, and working hard to distance themselves from pagan traditions in any way they could.

The most commonly held belief among scholars for the date has to do with the psychology of determining aspects of Jesus's life from traditions in the so-called Old Testament regarding prophecy of the Messiah. The trick here is to find a day such that Jesus was conceived (not born, conceived in Mary's womb, e.g. a miracle) and executed which was the same day of the year although obviously in a different year.   So take the date of the Crucifixion as the date of conception, advance 9 months for a canonical pregnancy period, and you have December 25 as a birth date.   People used to do calculations like this all the time back in the good old days (e.g. 2000 years ago).

This is a specific example of a larger heuristic: that if Jesus was the messiah, then he must have fulfilled various biblical prophecy about who the messiah was.  Therefore, people worked backwards from these prophecies or what they thought those prophecies must have been to determine details about Jesus for which there was no clear documentation.  Getting to the bottom of what was and what was not prophecy for this and other matters is a job for a specialist, and I am not going to go further here.

Note that the Eastern Church(es) also have disparate ways of celebrating the event, but their chosen day is January 6. Note that this is all mixed in with issues involving the Marian traditions of the various churches, specifically the Feast of the Annunciation which celebrates the visit by the Angel Gabriel to Mary to tell her that she should expect a blessed event, as unlikely as that might have seemed to her at the time.

This reminds me of a joke I learned in the Upper West Side of New York.   How to annoy your Christian friends on Christmas day.   On Christmas, you call up a friend and invite them out for pizza.  When they say "But today is Christmas!", you feign ignorance and say: "Oh! Is that today?"

2. There were various traditions in Anglo-Saxon England for midwinter celebrations, including the tradition of a family dinner on December 25th (the wealthy had roast beef, but the poorer classes had a goose which was far less expensive, hence the Christmas goose). And also a tradition of people singing carols outside homes on Christmas eve, particularly homes where they might expect the people inside to give them a few coins for their effort. In other words, it was mixed in with the various traditions that make it more socially acceptable for the poor to request money from the more wealthy on a special day. Many of these traditions would have crossed the Atlantic with the settlers, particularly those who came to the more Anglican part of the colonies, e.g. Virginia and also (but its more complicated) to the mid-Atlantic states.

[I am told that beef is now much less expensive than goose today, but the point that Hutton was trying to make was that goose was less expensive back then].

3. Most Americans are blissfully ignorant of most of the history of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, but this affected everything in Europe and it certainly affected the Colonies and what beliefs were transferred.  England had a reformation all its own and there were several centuries of a complicated and messy process of  determining which pre-reformation traditions they were going to keep, and which they were going to suppress. But the more purely Calvinist in England believed rather strongly that the celebration of Christ's birth was an accretion that was not justified by scripture, more papist frippery if you will. As you must have guessed by now, these Calvinist dissenters emigrated (or some of them did) to New England and are who we incorrectly call Puritans.

4. So to begin with we have the Calvinists of New England, the more Anglican states like Virginia, and the mid-Atlantic states which have their own unique story here including as it does not only members of the Roman Catholic church but also protestants from other parts of Europe, especially and including the Low Countries, e.g. the Dutch Netherlands who settled New Amsterdam, and various regions of Germany who went to various places in the middle Atlantic, often Pennsylvania, and still spoke German and maintained their traditions.  Other dissenters from England, not the Calvinists we call Puritans, but of other beliefs, such as Quakers, generally went to the middle Atlantic states.

[Just a reminder, the Calvinists mostly went to New England to build their "City on the Hill".  People of other variations on the theme of Christianity, e.g. Quakers, Catholics, presumably Lutherans, in general went to the mid-Atlantic states: New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland.  Various religious groups went to Virginia but most of them were vanilla Anglicans of one school or another.  There were also other faiths such as Presbyterian in Virginia from the earliest days.  This is not a hard and fast rule: the Calvinists in New England were quite strict, but the mid-Atlantic states were specifically open, and Virginia and other territories did not have much of a policy either way as far as I can tell.  What they did have was an Anglican "founder effect" which persists to this day.]

5. We now jump ahead to after the American Revolution: the Anglicans in this country have become Episcopalians because of the issue of Archbishop of Canterbury needing to swear loyalty to the King. New England is no longer a pure Calvinist enclave but has begrudingly diversified by allowing people of other faiths to live among them. The Middle Atlantic states have enclaves of Germans who are true to their traditions and language. And there have been a few Jews there all along the seaboard, from top to bottom, although they play very little role in the rest of our story ironically since, of course, Jesus was a very devout 1st Century AD Jewish apocalyptic prophet and the influence of Judaism is all over the various Christianities in various diverse ways.   There are other minority communities seeded here and there in North America, keeping or not keeping to their traditions each in their own way.

6. Our story now enters the 19th century, e.g. from the 1800's on, and we have some specific events in popular culture that have immense impact.

In 1809, former lawyer and writer Washington Irving, executed a hoax claiming that a Dutch writer and historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, had disappeared and failed to pay his hotel bill, and if he or someone on his behalf did not pay the bill, that the hotel would publish a manuscript found in his room.

This was all made up of course, and the manuscript had been authored by Washington Irving and purported to be a history of New York from the beginning of time to the present day, from a Dutch point of view.   This was also a satire on the self-important local histories that one could find in different communities.

New Yorkers fell for this hoax hook, line and sinker, and as it was serialized, it went viral, as we say today.  A search was supposedly made for the disappeared Dutch historian, Mr. Knickerbocker, but to no avail.  Eventually the book got published, was very popular and established Mr. Irving's reputation.

In the history of New Amsterdam, Irving/Knickerbocker discuss the traditions from the Low Countries of Sinterklaas, of St. Nicholas, and of hanging stockings by the bed to be filled mysteriously with various edible goodies and toys by the morning of Christmas Day.  And this is the accepted version of the specific reason that we in America who are not from the Low Countries originally associate Santa Claus, St. Nicholas and hanging stockings on Christmas Eve with Christmas.

Knickerbocker's History of New York Complete by Washington Irving

7.  In England another writer, and social reformer, Charles Dickens, was struggling with his work and very upset about the poverty and misery among the working poor, after a lecture he gave in Manchester in 1843, walked around Manchester at night and conceived of a story of a greedy industrialist who is visited one Christmas eve by the ghost of his former business partner.   He went home and wrote the story as a short novel in six weeks and published it on 19 December 1843.   To his surprise, it became immensely popular, and has never been out of print since.

According to various accounts, including that of historian Ronald Hutton, whose book we discuss later, this story had a vast impact.  From it, he claims, came the particularly British charitable tradition that no one should go hungry on Christmas.   Whether or not this is true seems difficult to believe, but that is what he and other sources say.   Furthermore, it supposedly influenced an industrialist to begin the tradition of letting the workers have Christmas Day off, a tradition our right wing has been fighting and trying to destroy ever since.

[My readers in England dispute that Dickens was ever surprised by his success and dispute that Christmas Carol had that much influence on the charitable organizations.  I also wonder about this, but historians such as Hutton claim up and down that it is true.  Read Hutton and tell me what you think.]

8. Note we still have not explained Santa Claus' sleigh with reindeer, with his bag of gifts, in a red suit, or even the notion of having a decorated tree and other important elements.

9. Then in 1823 a poem was published anonymously in Troy, NY called "A Visit from St. Nicholas". It had been written by a professor of Classics at Columbia University and published without his permission (or his name) in a local newspaper. The poem tells the story of a Christmas Eve and a man who wakes up in the middle of the night to find a miniature sleigh flying over his house with eight miniature reindeer, and a person who is recognized as St. Nicholas (an elven and miniaturized version of the 4th Century AD Greek saint and bishop, I suppose) who climbs down the chimney with a sack of presents, and fills the children's stockings with candy. The man and the mysterious visitor exchange a conspiratorial wink, then the stranger leaves by the chimney and flies away saying "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!".

Clement Moore supposedly came up with the idea during a sleigh ride to do some Christmas shopping for his family, incorporating certain aspects about St. Nicholas that he had learned from a local Dutch handyman. But the rest of it, the sleigh, the eight reindeer, their names, etc, he made up himself out of whole cloth.  This poem became immensely popular, went viral as we say, and I end the essay with it.

10. But we still have not explained the tradition of the Christmas Tree. The various German ethnic groups that had emigrated to this country, the Moravians, etc, had/have a variety of traditions for their Christmas celebration. One of them is the notion of having a tree, given the time of year it is an evergreen, and having a celebration in which the tree is decorated with little ornaments. Somehow this became something that the President of the United States did every year in the White House.  But believe it or not, it is not clear when the tradition started.  Some say it was in the 1850s when Franklin Pierce was President, and other say it was 1889 during the Harrison Administration.  This became a tradition, became electrified, and is now one of the ceremonies of the season in Washington DC, the lighting of the Christmas tree.  From this, it is alleged, having a Christmas tree became a generalized holiday tradition for the American household.

Implicit in this explanation is the idea that perhaps the President was running for reelection and was trying to attract votes from the German ethnic groups in this country.  This last observation is pure cynical speculation on my part and is not in any way implied by anything I have read on the topic.

At some point we are going to get to the topic of the Aluminum Christmas tree, but this seems a good time to interject that Pierce or Harrison may electrify their tree, but if you have an aluminum tree it would be a very bad idea to try to electrify it.   Aluminum is very conductive of electricity and an electrical short would be very exciting but also unpleasant.   One uses an external color wheel to illuminate the tree in a festive manner.

Of course this begs the question of where the German's got their tradition from and whether it is a remnant of an archaic belief system, perhaps of the evergreen representing eternal life, as some assert. This essay will not go into that, it will have to be a topic for another time.  For now we must be content with the notion of how a specific German tradition came into American popular culture.

11. Although there is far more to mention, our research and this essay will almost but not quite end with mentioning one more influence because it was so important.  Apparently, a lot of what Americans think about Christmas from a visual point of view came from an illustrator and publisher, Thomas Nast, in the mid to late 19th century. He is known for many things, including his depiction of Boss Tweed, Uncle Sam and last but not least Santa Claus in his red suit (a Nast invention, among others).  (I have checked and this Nast appears to have no relationship to Conde Nast).

Not allergic to cats, I hope! 

But still we are not done, for we have not explained the notion of an Aluminum Christmas Tree, the Yule Log, the candle in the window, why Virginia appears to be more devout (e.g. Christian) in their celebration, and other matters.  I have not been able to figure out where the Aluminum Christmas Tree came from but I suspect from the image I found online and put at the top of this essay, that it may have been a marketing effort on the part of the Richmond, Va based Reynolds Aluminum.   I only know that we had one and that I was very unhappy to hear that it had been thrown out because it was in such bad shape after decades of use. It was in our family when I was growing up, and I wish it was in our family today.

What can we conclude from the stories reported above?   That Christmas in this country was, as it appears to be, a pastiche of traditions from England and the rest of Europe, but not all of them by any means, and that they were in part selected for their secular character because many Americans were ambivalent about the various religious traditions of Europe.  Whatever a stocking or a decorated tree may stand for, the relationship to the birth of Christ is not obvious.   The closest we get to religion seems to be a reference to a saint (St. Nicholas) and that star at the top of the tree, which may indeed be the Star of Bethlehem.   Even more amusing is that the details of many of these traditions were elaborated and created in this country by writers and artists of various types and only pretend to be older than they are.

When I transcribed Clement Moore's poem written for his children, also published here without his permission as is traditional, I discovered to my amazement that I knew it by heart. I have no idea how it is that I happened to know this poem by heart, but I do.

And so with that thought, I am wishing you a happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

A Visit From St. Nicholas

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc'd in their heads,
And Mama in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap —
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Gave the luster of mid-day to objects below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call'd them by name:
"Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer and Vixen,
"On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Donder and Blitzen;
"To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
"Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys — and St. Nicholas too:
And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dress'd all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish'd with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look'd like a peddler just opening his pack:
His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh'd, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh'd when I saw him in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill'd all the stockings; then turn'd with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight —
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.


By far the most comprehensive work that discusses and attempts to explain where various Holiday traditions in England came from is Ronald Hutton's book "The Stations of the Sun".  If you are at all interested in this topic, this is the book to get.

Essay on the origin of American Christmas Myth and Customs

Clement Moore


A Christmas Carol Wikipedia Page

The Manuscript for A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol at Project Guttenberg

[December 25, 2012: This is the 4th rewrite of this essay, and it will not be the last].
[December 26, 2012: We have some comments from friends in England, see below].
[December 27, 2012: More rewrite on the date of Christmas]
[December 25, 2013: Miscellaneous but especially on the ambiguity of which president started the tree]

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