UWSP Professor on the backstory of Christmas traditions

By  | 

STEVENS POINT, Wis. (WSAW) -- Shanny Luft, an associate professor of Religion at UW-Stevens Point, weighed in on some of the history behind many of the traditions now commonly associated with Christmas in the United States.

"Most of what we associate with modern Christmas comes from the 19th century," he explained. And a driving factor behind many of those traditions, like gifts and Christmas cards? Commercialization.

Gift Giving

"Christmas gifts as a sort of modern idea in part is traced to St, Nicholas, because there's famous stories of St. Nicholas delivering gifts in order to save the lives of some young women," Luft said.

In fact, modern gift giving didn't become prevalent until the 19th century. "That's when commercial entities start to promote gift giving or Christmas cards as a way to celebrate the season and to celebrate our experience with one another."

Christmas Trees

German immigrants brought Christmas trees to the United States after they became popular in Germany in the 19th century.

And the real vs. fake debate? Didn't begin until the second half of the 20th century. Concerns for the environment have played into that to some degree, Luft said, as have tendencies toward trees made out of materials like plastic or metal.

Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays?

The "Christmas vs. Holiday" debate is fairly recent, starting in the 1990s. The popularized term "war on Christmas" came even later in the mid '00s, Luft explained. A lot of it lies in what you want to communicate.

"If you say merry Christmas to somebody or Happy Holidays, are you saying the words to reflect what you believe, or are you saying Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays to acknowledge what the other person believes? And my students wrestle with that," he noted.

Santa Claus

Santa Claus is another recent development, at least in its modern form, Luft explained--and a lot of what we picture in our head comes from the Saturday Evening Post.

"Every week, the Saturday Evening Post would put out these fabulous illustrated images of Santa Claus. And they really cemented in people's mind exactly what Santa Claus is supposed to look like today."