Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Merry Christmas, Washington: Evolution of the Holiday in the Nation’s Capital

What Once Was

Merry Christmas, Washington: Evolution of the Holiday in the Nation’s Capital

click for complete article: http://intowner.com/2018/12/30/merry-christmas-washington-evolution-of-the-holiday-in-the-nations-capital/

 By Matthew B. Gilmore

During December of 1923 a 48-foot balsam fir tree arrived in Washington from Vermont. Installed on the Ellipse south of the White House, it was called the National Christmas Tree — the first in a tradition continuing to this day. The ceremonial lighting of the tree brings the local and the national and federal together in a unique way, with the First Family lighting it, to the delight of locals and tourists.

As the National Park Service noted a few years ago, “The ceremony on the Ellipse was consciously endowed with national significance and elevated by presidential involvement. However, this was also a ‘community Christmas tree,’ marked by its sense of citywide participation and service to the District of Columbia.” [1]

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The 1920s seem to have seen an intensified energy in the celebration of Christmas. The rough years and privations of the Great War were over, and normalcy restored under President Warren Harding, followed by Calvin Coolidge. But the Christmas holiday has its own conflicted origin and history, unknown to most of the spectators at the tree lighting event.

Washington and Christmas

“Holidays” had their origin in the Catholic liturgical calendar of “holy days” — which had ballooned to 95 by the time of the Reformation. The Anglican church rejected most of these “red letter days” but English Puritans went so far as to abolish them all: “Festival days, vulgarly called holy-days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued.” [2]Christmas was not celebrated in the Puritan Commonwealth.

The earliest English North American colonies inherited Puritan (in Massachusetts and New England) or Anglican (in Virginia) attitudes toward holidays and Christmas in particular. The influx of Irish, Dutch, Germans, Swedes, and other Europeans brought other traditions and attitudes towards Christmas as the 18th century progressed. There’s little doubt that some churches did have religious ceremonies for the day, but it went generally unrecognized in public press until the 1820s. The Presbyterian Church was particularly hostile to any commemoration of Christmas, harking back to its roots as the pagan Saturnalia — a hostility not dissipated until well into in the 19th century. [3]

So many of the familiar elements of today’s Christmas, including Santa Claus, came together starting in the 1820s. Clement Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” published anonymously in 1822 is one of those early influences. It is more popularly known from its first line “’Twas the night before Christmas.” [4]

continued…..

click for complete article: http://intowner.com/2018/12/30/merry-christmas-washington-evolution-of-the-holiday-in-the-nations-capital/

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