by Ron and Arlene Kaiser
Today, Christmas brings families together for traditions of gift-giving, food, church services, carols and more. The film “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart and Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” join the list of popular songs for the season.
But these modern-day traditions date back in 1223 when St. Francis of Assisi enlisted the townsfolk to create a live Nativity, or crèche. Songs were sung and the Christmas story was told about animals, shepherds, the three Wise Men and the Holy Family, so those who were unable to read could hear the blessed story.
Martin Luther is credited with making the pagan evergreen tree the symbol of Christmas when he decorated it with candles to symbolize Christ’s love as ever alive and “the light of the world.”
In America, the Christmas tree appeared in Bethlehem, Pa., as early as 1747. The Pennsylvania Germans also had Kriss Kringle, the Christ Child, as the giver of gifts.
The German Christmas tree and gift-giving customs spread across America, in part because of Charles Follen, a 19th-century German immigrant and Harvard professor. In 1835, he surprised his son and guests with a German Christmas, including a tree with lighted candles and goodies for the children.
In the 1840s, German families began to invite their neighbors to see their tree. Publicity of the Follen family celebration helped counteract drunken revelries, increasingly popular in many northern cities.
In England, people warmed up to German Christmas customs after Prince Albert of Germany wed Queen Victoria in 1840. Some wealthy Americans with an English heritage emulated those aristocratic practices, particularly after magazines pictured Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree.
But as late as mid-19th century, any celebration of Christmas was frowned upon by some Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Quakers. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were normal workdays, and celebrations in homes were uncommon. Christmas trees adorned with gifts only appeared in communal settings, such as churches, schools, Grange halls and courthouses.
Gradually, objections to the celebration of Christmas dissipated. In 1870, Dec. 25 was declared a federal holiday. A German-American cartoonist, Thomas Nast, created an image of Santa Claus, embraced by most Americans. Louis Prang, a German-American lithographer, initiated the idea of sending Christmas cards.
Americans gradually picked up the German Christmas customs and celebrated Christmas with eating, drinking, playing music and gift giving.
However, we celebrate the holiday in 2018, may we all experience peace, hope and love.
If you go
You can experience the Christmas traditions of a German family in the late 1800s, complete with music, a parlor tree covered in kugels (ornaments) and a table set with Christmas treats, at the Waterloo Farm Museum, Dec. 1 and Dec. 2. See the ad in this edition for more information.
Source: Many facts for this article were gleaned from George Wieland’s book, “Celtic Germans, The Rise and Fall of Ann Arbor’s Swabians.”