On December 25, Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Christ. The origins of the holiday are uncertain; by the year 336, however, the Christian church in Rome observed the Feast of the Nativity on December 25. At that time, Christmas coincided approximately with the winter solstice and the Roman Festival of Saturnalia. Today, observations of Christmas incorporate the secular and religious traditions of many cultures, from the ancient Roman practice of decorating homes with evergreens and exchanging gifts at the New Year to the Celtic Yule log.
For Margaret Davis, born in Clarke County, Georgia, in 1887, Christmas brought to mind memories of the food and family that filled her parents’ home between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. She recalled:
Mama killed turkeys, chickens, and…cooked cakes for two weeks….
…that was the way we spent our Christmas then, eating and dancing, and parties all through the week….
There was not so many things for children to get then, as they have now, but we got many nice things.
“Mrs. Margaret Davis,” Grace McCune, interviewer, December 9, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940
Alan Wallace of Brookfield, Massachusetts, cherished his mother’s tradition of making Christmas gifts by hand. When she was a girl during the Civil War, he recalled, her family “couldn’t afford to spend money on anything but food. The habit stuck to her and so, when my brothers and I came along she taught us to do many things that ever since makes Christmas to me.” Preparations for Christmas began, Wallace remembered, when the family went to the seashore for their summer vacation:
Half the fun of going was the finding of shells to take home to make into Christmas presents. We’d pick up the prettiest clam shells and scallop shells, a whole basket full, and then when we got back home, we’d paint them in the evenings – make ash trays, pin trays and – and – oh, yes, paper weights and sometimes door stops.
As I look back on it now I realize that some of them were pretty awful but Mother always seemed delighted with our efforts, no matter how feeble they proved to be.…
To Father and Mother, Christmas meant love and love means happiness—doesn’t it?
“Alan Wallace,” Louise G. Bassett, interviewer, December 1, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940
- Listen to Christmas music sung in a variety of languages. Search on Christmas in California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell.
- Search on Christmas in the following American sheet music collections to find songs appropriate to the season, such as the undated song sheet “Christmas Carol” and “Christmas and New Year Musical Souvenir” (1863):
- Search on Christmas in the Music, Theater, & Dance collections to find additional holiday sheet music as well as Christmas correspondence from Leonard Bernstein.
- View the film TR calls on neighbors at Christmas, 1917 in the collection Theodore Roosevelt: His Life and Times on Film.
- Learn about the inventors of electric Christmas lights on the Library’s Everyday Mysteries Web site.
- The collections contain a panoply of holiday pleasures, from festive photographs of Christmas cards, to Christmas trees, decorated homes, choirs, nativities, and Santa Claus. To locate more images, search the photographic collections on Christmas.
- Search the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 collection on Christmas or Christmas Day to find more memories of the season. After retrieving a list of hits, go to any item and use the BEST MATCH link in the page header to jump to the most relevant segment of the piece.
- Topics range from Christmas in Cuba, described by Miami resident “Mr. Pedro Barrio,” to a native Spaniard’s perspective on Christmas in Vermont in “From Quarry to Cemetery.” “I Have Talked with Grandma Handy” includes recollections of Christmas in Missouri during the Civil War from the perspective of a white woman who lived through it; in “Ella Lassiter (Life and Songs in Slavery),” a woman born in 1859 describes Christmas on a Georgia plantation.
- Search on the term Christmas in Prairie Settlement: Nebraska Photographs and Family Letters, 1862-1912 to learn how the holiday was celebrated by settlers on the Great Plains. Read, for example, Ella E. Oblinger’s January 12, 1880, letter to her grandparents in which she tells them about her Christmas gifts, including a “red oil calico dress” and a candy apple.