December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
To the immigrants on the opposite page, spending their first Christmas in the New World on Ellis Island, the great tree with its dolls hung carefully out of reach of the children may simply have been the first of an endless number of puzzling American customs. But even as those who came before them altered the shape of the holiday with their own customs, so these newcomers’ traditions eventually left their imprint on the season. Just as America is a nation of nations, so our Christmas is a holiday of holidays.
Many of our Christmas customs, of course, predate Christianity itself. The Roman devotees of the sun-god Mithras celebrated his birthday on December 24 by hanging evergreen boughs with toys and trinkets. The Druids burned yule logs to provide the dead with heat and light. Among the German tribes, mistletoe was a symbol of peace: warriors battling beneath it in the forest were expected to drop their weapons, kiss, and pass a tranquil day before having at one another again. The earliest record of the seasonal celebration as Christ’s birthday occurs in 336 A.D. —and just fifty years later the Pope was already warning the faithful against Christmas gluttony. The word “Christmas” itself first appears in 1038 as “Christes Maesse.”
The Puritans deplored it as an “abomination,” a “wanton Bacchanalian feast” redolent of popery, and the Pilgrims studiously ignored it in 1620, as they doggedly built their first meetinghouse in the bitter cold. In 1659 Massachusetts Bay Colony levied a fine of five shillings on anyone who dared keep Christmas by “abstinence from work [or] feasting,” but the cause was already lost. Less rigorous Englishmen and immigrants from other lands were already arriving with their own holiday customs. The Dutch, for example, brought St. Nicholas— Sinter Klaas ; in fact, he adorned the prow of the first Dutch vessel to bring settlers to New Amsterdam. (In Santa’s original incarnation he wore bishop’s robes and rode either a white horse or a red wagon: the exact provenance of his reindeer fleet remains a mystery.) The Christmas tree is a German import, first seen in the homes of Pennsylvania farmers; the crèche is a product of France.
All these are pleasant customs, but as every parent knows who has tried to keep a child interested in a seasonal legend while presents are gleaming in the next room, a good deal of Christmas in America revolves around the giving of gifts. When this happy if enervating tradition originated is unknown, but it was clearly full grown and healthy a century ago, to judge by the magnificent marshaling of toys in the portfolio beginning on page 18. As for the rest of our December issue, my fellow editors join me in the hope that it might suggest another Christmas staple—that rich amalgam of a dozen different good things, the plum pudding. Here are such varied ingredients as an exclusive and delightfully frank talk with Lady Bird Johnson, the intricate behind-the-scenes story of how Lincoln freed the slaves, and the surprising tale of what happened when the richest man in the world set out to collect one of everything. And as our cover suggests, all of this comes to you with our very best wishes for a splendid holiday season.