I am excited to have have another guest columnists write for Historically. He has some to add to my last Christmas post

Thanks to James Finck for his delightful column, “Historically Christmas II”. As he implies, there is much more to the story. We have largely forgotten how much of our Christmas customs we owe to immigrants. Washington Irving drew his sketches from his observations of Dutch communities along the Hudson. German political refugee Charles Follen introduced the Christmas tree to Puritan Boston in 1835, the same year he was fired from Harvard for his abolitionist activities. Their guest, British traveler Harriet Martineau, spread the word with an article in a popular women’s magazine.

A Missouri German from that era reported that his frontiersman neighbor was unclear on the month, much less the date of Christmas. The Texas legislature was in session on December 25, 1861, preparing war against the United States. Texas German William Trenckmann related how his parents managed to improvise a Christmas tree in 1863 despite the privations of the Civil War, and the astonishment it evoked with their enslaved black neighbors who had never seen anything like it before. The digitized newspapers on the Portal of Texas History reveal just how foreign the custom was. There were only two mentions of Christmas trees in the 1840s, just four in the 1850s, and only ten in the 1860s, nearly all from literature or reports from afar, compared to nearly five hundred in the 1870s.

Meanwhile in Yankee land, immigrant cartoonist Thomas Nast created the visual image of Santa Claus distributing presents to Union soldiers. In a second image, he shows Santa driving reindeer before his sleigh and climbing into the chimney, on the periphery of a double scene of a soldier’s wife praying with her children at home while her husband in the field reads her letter. Harper’s Weekly ran his images of Santa annually until 1886. But only in 1889 did President Benjamin Harrison erect the first White House Christmas tree.

Much more than the English wassailers begging/demanding gifts and libations, the Hispanic posadas reflect the Christian spirit of Christmas, Mary and Joseph going door to door seeking refuge. They and the Christ Child are seeking refuge still, in the form of “the least of these” (Matthew 25) on our Southwestern border.

Walter Kamphoefner is a professor of History at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Historical Christmas II

Christmas is the time of year when everyone seems a little happier and are a little nicer to each other. It is when we look forward to spending time with family and friends enjoying all of our favorite Christmas traditions. Yet, historically speaking, this was not always the case. Especially in America, we did not celebrate Christmas until the 1820s with the publication of a couple of important novels.

What was originally called the Feast of the Nativity reached England in the sixth century and began being called Christmas. Don’t think of it as the same holiday as we celebrate today. It was more a drunken party similar to Mardi Gras or Halloween than Christmas. It was gangs of poor going door-to-door demanding gifts. Think of some early Christmas carols. In “Here We Come A-Wassaling” there is the line, “We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door; but we are neighbours’ children, whom you have seen before.” In “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” we sing about going house to house basically demanding food. 

This debauchery at Christmas played a part in America’s founding. The radical religious sect known as the Puritans wanted to rid the Church of England of all things Catholic, including the pagan practices that had crept into the Church. One of those practices was Christmas. There is no mention of Christmas in the Bible and no set date for the birth of Jesus. The Catholic Church had set Christmas during the winter solstice to help convert the Germanic tribes by claiming their religious feasts. The practice of Christmas was one of many doctrinally differences that led the Puritans to the New World to set up their “City on the Hill.” With Puritanism being one of the most influential institutions in American culture, Christmas was not practiced in the colonies. During and after the Revolutionary War, many British practices, including Christmas, were seen as taboo. In fact, Christmas does not become an official American holiday until 1870.

Christmas as we know it comes in the 1820s because of two important works of fiction (reading really does change the world). America’s first great author was Washington Irving. We had many writers at that point, but they mimicked British writing. Irving was the first to write something uniquely American. In 1819 he wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent that includes some of his most famous stories such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”. The one entitled “Christmas” showed an English squire inviting peasants into his home for Christmas. Irving believed Christmas should be a peaceful time where all classes could live in harmony. In his story he invented ancient customs such as family members returning from far away “once more to assemble about the paternal hearth, that rallying-place of affections.”

The second book, of course, was The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This 1843 novel, even more than Irving, shaped our current idea of Christmas. The message of charity and good will to all struck a chord in America. I don’t have room to discuss this here, but childhood had only recently become a thing. Before, children were just small adults. Now with childhood, parents had a day to lavish their children with gifts without appearing to spoil then. 

Reading these stories, Americans came to assume this is how Christmas was supposed to be. Christmas quickly became seen as a family holiday, with peace towards all firmly part of the Christmas celebrations. 

Being my last article of the year, I want to give a quick thanks to everyone who makes Historically Speaking possible. A huge thank you to my wife Melissa Finck and Dr. JC Casey who edit all my stories. I could not do this without them. I now have a student assistant who does all the distribution. So, thank you Chris Wilson. Thank you to the editors who run these stories. Lastly, thank you to all the readers, especially those who have sent me positive feedback. I put a great deal of time into these stories and it makes it worth it knowing so many of you enjoy them. 

I hope this season does bring you the happiness that Ebenezer Scrooge and Irving’s English squire found in their lives. From my family to yours, we wish you a Merry Christmas. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.


As surprising as this may sound, presidents behaving badly is not new. President Trump is just the latest. Politicians have been skirting the law since the creation of politicians. This in no way condones bad behavior, yet if every conversation of every president was investigated, I believe we would be shocked at what we learned.
Trump’s Ukraine conversation in some ways is not unlike when President Obama was overheard telling the Russian President that he could be more flexible with missile defense after his reelection. Obama’s conversation was not illegal, but may walk a moral line. As for Trump, Congress will have to determine if the President’s conversation is an impeachable offense, but what may end up hurting Trump even more is a possible coverup of a complaint.

We have seen before where the cove up is worse than the crime for presidents. Richard Nixon had no part in the Watergate burglary, his crime was the cover up after the fact. With this same president, we also saw his downfall come because of a whistleblower, who went by the code name Deep Throat. Nixon and Deep Throat are responsible for the most famous presidential takedown, but they are not the only one. The 1912 election saw the take-down of President Howard W. Taft by whistleblower Louis Gavis.

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt decided not to run for his own second term and instead handpicked his successor. Taft was completely qualified for the office and Roosevelt liked his progressive ideology, but even more he liked Taft’s lack of personality that would not outshine Roosevelt himself. Roosevelt might be stepping down, but he did not intend to give up control. It turned out that Taft would be his own man, to the frustration of Roosevelt, and one issue in particular forced Roosevelt to return from his African safari to block Taft’s nomination for a second term. This incident became known as the Ballinger-Pinchot Affair.

When Taft took over the White House, one of his appointment changes was replacing James Garfield, son of the late president, as Secretary of the Interior with Richard Ballinger. Roosevelt and his friend Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service, were upset with the appointment. They feared Ballinger would not follow through with the conservation policies they had enacted. The two men were right to fear Ballinger. Once in office, he opened up federal land for commercial use.

Louis Gavis ran the Portland field office of the U.S. Forest Service. He came to suspect Ballinger was illegally selling rich coal lands in Alaska to private companies. He brought his suspicions to Pinchot, who suggested Gavis present his findings to President Taft. When Taft questioned Ballinger, he responded with a 730-page defense of his practices. Taft only took a week to investigate the charges, including reading Ballinger’s response, and cleared Ballinger of all charges. Taft followed up his investigation by firing Gavis for insubordination.

In retaliation Gavis went to Collier’s Magazine and gave his account. The story was so sensational that Congress called a hearing to look into the matter. Though Ballinger would be cleared by the hearing, the investigation turned up other improprieties. It proved that Taft was trying to protect Ballinger by firing Gavis. The investigation showed that a letter Taft circulated, claiming he wrote it before the firing of Gavis, was actually written after the fact and was written by Ballinger’s attorney.

Finally, during the trial Gifford Pinchot testified against Ballinger. When the trial was over, he too was removed from his position by the Taft Administration. Roosevelt was so incensed that it was one of the reasons he decided to challenge Taft for the Republican ticket in 1912. When Taft was successful in retaining the Republican nomination, Roosevelt and the progressive members of his party broke away to form the Bull Moose Party. With the Republicans split, the Democrats were able to elect their candidate for only the second time in fifty-six years.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.