The Christmas season is upon us, though for some it is hard to see the holiday as we hide behind text books and lean close to computer screens in our final week of classes and exams. If you are lucky enough to get out of the library for a few minutes, however, you will be surrounded with the sounds and sights of the season. Many of these images are unique American ways and traditions of portraying the season of Christmas.
The traditional image of Santa Claus that we see around us began its development in 1604. As the Dutch settled the area of New York City, they brought with them the traditional Saint Nicholas Day and Sinter Klass.
The Dutch were later joined by the English Father Christmas, along with the newly arrived British colonists to the same area. These two traditions converged over time to bring us to our modern Santa Claus. It is this Santa Claus we see riding a sleigh in parades behind his reindeer, and it is this Santa Claus for whom children all over America wait in lines in order to relay their Christmas wishes.
In Virginia, colonists celebrated Christmas much as they had in England. There were Yule logs, mince pies, caroling and decorating with greenery. As Eastern Europeans immigrated to America in the 18th century to flee persecution, they also brought Christmas traditions with them, specifically the Putz (a nativity scene) and candlelight services.
The Putz became a distinctly Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, as children were sent out some time before Christmas to collect moss, sticks and whatever else they could find to build the tiny landscape scene. In true American fashion, these traditions have converged to contribute to how we decorate and celebrate Christmas today.
There is a historic city filled with Christmas tradition that is surrounding us in this season. Philadelphia, some would say, is the home of American ideas of freedom and liberty. It has also been the home of many holiday traditions as various nationalities have combined in this city.
In recent years, more traditions have developed in the city. It has been a tradition of the department stores in the city to set up light displays and Christmas displays in the windows. For many, it would not be a true Christmas without a trip to the city to gaze on the display of toys, trees and lights through the windows of shops.
The John Wanamaker building (now home to Macy’s) is celebrating its 150th Anniversary this year with a traditional Christmas Light Show and a Dickens village. This village is a replica of Charles Dickens’ characters and scenes in A Christmas Carol. This tradition has continued throughout the life of the building, though the owners of the building have changed through time.
As you celebrate family traditions this holiday, remember that your traditions have come from places around the globe. It is a time of solidarity with many cultures as we build nativity scenes, sing carols, eat food and spend time with family. In distinctly American fashion, we celebrate Christmas with many cultures and traditions.