December visitors to SPNEA's Otis House are often surprised that it contains neither holiday decorations nor a Christmas tree. But, while today Christmas is considered one of the most important holidays of the year, most of its traditions originated in the Victorian era, many decades after the Otis House was built. The Puritans who settled New England refused to celebrate Christmas because they saw no biblical sanction for the holiday that, in England, was commonly marked by singing, drinking, and the exchange of goodwill gifts. In 1659 the General Court of Massachusetts outlawed the observance of Christmas in the colony, fining persistent revelers five shillings. Although the ban was repealed by 1681, negative attitudes toward the holiday persisted, and Christmas remained a regular work day until well into the nineteenth century. As late as 1845, Lydia Maria Child, a noted reformer, remarked that "the Puritan blood still flows too briskly in my veins to allow me to relish over much the Christmas tree."
By 1845, however, Christmas celebrations, many of which incorporated European traditions, were becoming more widespread. In the early nineteenth century, churches began to hold Christmas services and, in 1819, Joseph Lye of Lynn, Massachusetts, noted that "the church was handsomely draped with green boughs, the day previous to Christmas." The tradition of Santa Claus evolved in New York, originally a Dutch settlement, from the Dutch celebration on December 6 of the Feast of Saint Nicholas. In the early nineteenth century, several writers, including Washington Irving, published works about the saint, but it was "An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas," the poem published in a Troy, New York, newspaper in 1823, that made Santa Claus a holiday icon.
Christmas trees were a German tradition brought to America by immigrants to Pennsylvania after 1810 that, like Santa Claus, slowly spread over the course of the century. In 1820, a German story about Christmas trees was published in The Atheneum, a Boston Unitarian magazine. The Unitarians promoted the Christmas tree and the idea of Christmas as a benefit to families and sponsored local church fairs, where many people undoubtedly encountered their first Christmas tree. But most people first learned about Christmas trees through books, newspapers, and magazines. British author Harriet Martineau, for example, observed a Christmas tree in 1835 at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Charles Follen, a German immigrant and Harvard professor, and found it remarkable enough to mention in her widely read book, Society in America. In 1850 an image of Britain's Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with a table-top tree appeared in Godey's Lady Book, one of America's most widely read magazines.
As trend-setting magazines such as Godey's Lady Book and Harper's Weekly encouraged family-centered celebrations and customs that glorified the home, Christmas trees, and the holiday itself, became an integral part of middle-class family life. Early trees were small, usually set on a table, and decorated with toys, candy, fruit, ribbon, garlands, and candles. In 1851 Joseph Kidder of Manchester, New Hampshire, noted that his tree "grew as if by magic and bore fruit in abundance in its season. There were nearly seventy different articles suspended from its evergreen branches, making a very beautiful and attractive appearance." Early ornaments were generally homemade, often from instructions published in magazines. In the mid-1860s, glass ornaments (which today are highly prized collectors' items) were first imported from Germany.
By the 1870s, most of the traditions we associate with Christmas were firmly in place. Christmas cards had been increasing in popularity in England since the 1840s. In 1875, Louis Prang of Boston produced the first American Christmas cards-simple floral designs with the inscription "Merry Christmas." By the end of the century, Americans were buying larger Christmas trees, Santa Claus had become a fixture of the holiday, and store displays and home decorations had grown more extensive. When families like the Bowens (whose house appears on the cover of this issue) gathered for Christmas, their customs would have seemed familiar to the modern eye.