Three Centuries of Christmas


In early December, we were happy to bring back our Three Centuries of Christmas in America program after being on hiatus last year. This program explores the many traditions of Christmases past, and how some of the celebrations we have today have historical origins.

We began in Hanna’s Tavern, discovering how many Christmas traditions like bringing boughs of evergreen into the home have their origins in ancient Roman, Celtic, Norse, and Germanic culture. In late 18th century America, the celebration of Christmas varied according to religious tradition, with some groups like the Germans celebrating Christmas with a Paradeisbaum (paradise tree), while others like the Scots-Irish of Hanna’s Town let Christmas pass uneventfully. 

The mischievous figure from German folklore, Belsnickel, paid a visit to Hanna’s Tavern. If he thought you were good this year, you were rewarded with a sweet, but those who were not received coal! Belsnickel consulted a totem of the Norse god Odin to help make his decision. 

Belsnickel also demonstrated the traditional yet dangerous game of snap dragon, which involved snatching raisins from a skillet of flaming brandy!

Belsnickel safely escorted guests to the Lefevre House, where they learned about the development of American Christmas traditions in the early 19th century. The Christmas tree and the traditions surrounding it, such as gift giving and ornaments, was becoming more popular with German immigration to the United States. Stories of Santa Claus also became popular through publications like T’was the Night Before Christmas.

In the late 19th century, Christmas traditions extended beyond ethnic and religious groups, becoming more widespread across cultures in the United States. Industrialization brought mass produced glass ornaments, cards, and toys, often sold in department stories opening up in the cities. The era was also marked by turmoil of the Civil War. It was often debated whether Santa Claus, whose image was popularized by Thomas Nast, was a supporter of the Union or Confederacy.

The program ended with a retrospective on the 20th century and a look at how technology (like electric lights on trees) and media (like popular music and movies) created the Christmas we know today.

Thank you to everyone who joined us, and we look forward to hosting this program again next year!

Special Thanks

18th century: Joanna Moyar, Pam Curtin, Tom Klingensmith, and Thelma Matthews

Early 19th century: Lisa Hays, Claudia Winter, and Dar DeJesus

Late 19th century: Lillian Shea and Cathy Miller

20th century: Barbara Ferrier

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