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.