American Antiquarian 
Society logoAAS Online 




Christmas has a long history, though the way we celebrate it today has changed significantly over the years. December 25th was recognized as the official day to observe Christmas because it was around the time of winter solstice, not because the day had any known religious significance. During the winter solstice, the return of the sun was celebrated, and indulgence in food and drink were tradition. Many traditions we associate with Christmas, including the Christmas tree, candles, and mistletoe, all have roots in these pagan celebrations. The image seen here is a watercolor from the McLoughlin Collection, used to illustrate A Christmas Carol. Click to enlarge.



Because of Puritan beliefs, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday in Massachusetts from 1659 to 1681, with a fine of five shillings if caught. Country folk were slow to begin celebrating Christmas on December 25th, though some churches, such as the Roman Catholic ones, did hold masses on the 25th in observance of the holiday. People began to learn more about and embrace the celebration of Christmas as it was written about more in the newspapers and journals, and more churches began to adopt traditional religious ceremonies. To the right is the cover page of A Sermon Preach'd On the 25th of December, being the Nativity of Our Saviour, a dated pamphlet from 1737. Click the image to enlarge.





Commercial Christmas presents became common by the 1820s. Before that time it was unusual to give a gift, other than something that was homemade or involved food. It quickly became a holiday for children. One gift giving custom that gained popularity quickly was the giving of books to children. By the nineteenth century, Christmas became a time of gathering friends and family together. Some books, periodicals, and sheet music are illustrated with depictions of this congenial aspect of Christmas. On the left, the 1878 sheet music cover, Little Stockings by the Fire, depicts children hanging their Christmas stockings on the fireplace mantel. In the center is a sheet music cover from 1875 titled Merry Christmas: Morceau de Salon for the Piano. On the right, the 1855 sheet music cover, Christmas Schottisch, depicts children having a snowball fight. Click to enlarge.


Sending Christmas greeting cards also became a more common part of the tradition throughout the nineteenth century, especially as mail service and printing methods improved. The first known Christmas card was designed by J.C. Horsley, and published by Henry Cole in London in 1843. It included space to write the names of the sender and the recipient. This is a facsimile copy of one of the very first designs. Click to enlarge.


The first Christmas card designed and sent in America was probably produced as early as the 1850's, though lithographer Louis Prang of Boston is credited with popularizing Christmas cards as we know them today. All of the following cards were created by Prang. Click to enlarge.




American Antiquarian 
Society logo

This site and all contents © 2004 American Antiquarian Society

Last updated December 9, 2004

Valid HTML 4.01!