Eat, Drink, and Be Merry:
Some Holiday Histories
By Henry Frost
The History Channel Magazine, November-December 2005,
with new material added in 2008 and 2009
The Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in November, 1620, on the good ship Mayflower, 101 weary souls praying for survival. A year later, only 52 were still alive in Plymouth Colony. The immigrants decided to conduct a harvest festival – a celebration of a successful crop of corn, beans, and squash – a celebration of being alive.
Games were played, military drills conducted, and food and drink were spread out in abundance, including lobster, venison, eel, fresh vegetables, cranberries, gooseberries, plums, eggs, beer, and wine. Wild turkey might have been served but there’s no definite record of this; turkeys were hard to catch, so it’s more likely that the fowl on the table were goose and duck. Members of the local Wampanoag tribe participated in the festivities.
Four decades later, in the 1660s, New Englanders began conducting an annual, official Thanksgiving Day at harvest time. Today’s Thanksgiving Day descends as much from this development as from the celebration in 1621.
The first national Thanksgiving Day came in 1777 to celebrate the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga, but this was a one-time deal. Thanksgiving observations over the next few decades were essentially regional, most prominently conducted in New England.
Then came a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale with a good idea.
Hale (1788-1879) was a journalist and novelist, editor of the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. She was also a wife, mother, New Englander (a native of New Hampshire), and lover of Thanksgiving Day. Hale began suggesting a yearly national day of thanks in the 1820s and ’30s as America developed a sense of itself as a unified entity rather than a collection of states. She wrote, “We have too few holidays. Thanksgiving like the Fourth of July should be considered a national festival and observed by all our people.” She wrote dozens of letters and editorials about the topic and gradually the idea took hold. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving an annual national holiday.
Sarah Josepha Hale recommended turkey as the culinary centerpiece of Thanksgiving Day, based on her childhood memories. Over the course of the 19th century, turkey cemented its position in the U.S. and Britain as a holiday bird reserved for a couple of days a year – Thanksgiving and Christmas. Charles Dickens featured a Christmas turkey in his 1843 book “A Christmas Carol”; the tale helped popularize the fowl’s connection to the holiday season.
As recently as 1930 Americans rarely consumed turkey more than twice annually. (Per capita consumption in ’30 was 1.5 pounds.) After World War II turkey growers resolved to put their product on millions of plates not only during the holidays but year-round. This effort has succeeded; Americans today consume about 17 to 18 pounds of turkey annually per capita, and the turkey sandwich has become the mainstay of many a lunch.
The best film about the Mayflower Expedition is “Desperate Crossing.”
“When I was a boy I wondered what Christmas was,” said the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, born in 1813, recalling his Connecticut childhood.
Beecher knew full well that Christmas was a centuries-old recognition of the birth of Jesus, but he was raised in an austere Calvinist/Puritan household, and Puritans were leery of the rowdy frivolity of the 12 days of Christmas. Only in the middle and latter years of the 19th century was Christmas accepted as a major holiday by many Christians in the U.S. and the U.K. (That said, the 12 days of celebrating were relished by many less strict people for centuries. And – to add another layer of complexity to the holiday’s history – even as Christmas became more important for Christians in the 1800s, it became more secular.)
The Oxford Movement in Britain in the 1830s and ’40s (also known as the Tractarian Movement) helped propel Christmas to the center of the British church calendar. “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens in 1843 was highly influential for the wider society. Dickens was of course English, but his work was read and loved internationally, and this work was an instant classic. “If (Dickens) did not quite invent the English Christmas as has sometimes been said,” write Michael and Mollie Hardwick, “he made of it something it had never been before.”
A major reason for the blossoming of Christmas in America was the upheaval of the second half of the 19th century, including the Civil War and immense economic change. The “creation of the Christmas we celebrate,” writes historian Penne L. Restad, “cannot be considered apart from these tumultuous events.” Christmas brought solace and unity to a country torn apart by war and preoccupied with industrialization, Reconstruction, a bitterly disputed presidential election in 1876, bloody labor conflicts, and the arrival of millions of immigrants (including many Germans, who were big-time Christmas lovers dating back centuries). (See here for more on the tumult of the latter part of the 19th century.)
The new Christmas focused on joy and laughter, the eager anticipation of children, gentle moral and religious instruction, glowing evergreens in homes, and the sending of Christmas cards.
Versions of the figure we know as Santa Claus have been around for centuries under various names, including St. Nicholas and Father Christmas. American creativity in the 1800s generated his global image as a 100 percent jolly and non-religious soul, and U.S. artists in the 19th and 20th centuries established his appearance.
A key moment in Santa’s evolution came in 1823 with publication of the poem “An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore in a newspaper in Troy, New York. (The poem was published in book form in 1844; it’s also known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”) The protagonist in this work is St. Nicholas, but it’s a new St. Nick – his most marked characteristic is merriness. St. Nick thus became a “genial and generous American saint,” writes historian Restad, in keeping with how Americans thought of themselves.
The physical appearance of Santa Claus developed in the cartoons of Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly from the 1860s to the 1880s, and was heavily influenced over the years by art commissioned by several companies, the most prominent of which was Coca-Cola. From 1931 through 1964, Coke paid for annual Santa paintings by Haddon Sundblom, and featured the works in magazine ads. (Sundblom found initial inspiration in Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, according to the Coca-Cola Co.; it seems possible he consulted the work of other artists as well.) Coke spent a fortune creating its version of Santa; the intent was to increase sales in winter-time, and the long-term effect was to enshrine the Coca-Cola Santa in our heads. The artists J.C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell were also important illustrators of Santa Claus in the first half of the 20th century, but Sundblom’s work got greater exposure.
Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus painted by
Haddon Sundblom. Mr. Claus seems to be
using yellow Post-it notes (on the
right) years before their introduction
to the market. But then, he would be an
early adaptor, wouldn’t he.
The Saturday Evening Post’s elf-sized
(or child-sized) Santa Claus by
J.C. Leyendecker (1925),
six years before Coke’s
In his poem about St. Nick, Clement Clarke Moore invents and names eight flying reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen. Among the ancestors of Santa’s flying ruminankwats are the two flying goats who hauled the sled of the Norse god Thor.
The ninth reindeer, Rudolph, was created in 1939 by a writer and advertising man named Robert L. May as a promotional tool for the department store Montgomery Ward. Rudolph was a star from the beginning – the store gave away a couple million free copies of a book about him written by May, composed in verse similar in structure to the Clement Clarke Moore poem.
Rudolph became a multimedia superstar in 1949 with cowboy singer Gene Autrey’s record “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” written by May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks. In 1964 came a stop-motion animated TV special about the animal. More on Rudolph here.
In 1971 the comedy team Cheech and Chong, in their stoned-hippie record “Santa Claus and His Old Lady,” memorably screwed up the names of Santa’s reindeer: “On Donner! On, Blitzen! On Chewy! On Tavo! C’mon, Becto!”
Holiday trees have a long history. In pre-Christian Europe, Druids established sacred tree groves for worship of the gods, tying apples to branches to thank Odin for his blessings. Sacred trees were disliked by the early Christian church as remnants of paganism, but with the passage of time, the Church lightened up a bit, and Europeans began bringing evergreens into homes in the solstice period, often putting candles on them. German immigrants to America helped popularize the idea of Christmas trees on these shores. Today, writes author Sheryl Ann Karas, the winter holiday tree stands as a symbol of nature and mystery, a yearly counter-point to technology and gizmos, evidence of that aspect of ourselves that’s “drawn to fairy tales – the side that deals with myth and symbol.” Winter evergreens are widely loved, including by people who salute the Winter Solstice on December 21 – “the alternative Christmas,” as it’s sometimes called.
Kwanzaa, a celebration of the cultural roots of African-Americans, is conducted at year’s end over a seven-day period. “A central model for Kwanzaa is Umkhosi, or the Zulu first-fruit celebration,” says Maulana (Ron) Karenga, the American black scholar who founded the holiday in 1966. The word “Kwanzaa” means “the first” or “first fruits of harvest” in the language of Kiswahili. The event is guided by seven principles formulated by Karenga, one for each of the days: Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba, and Imani – i.e., unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.
Journalist Michael C. Moynihan wrote snarkily in Reason magazine in 2008, “Kwanzaa, an Afrocentric celebration of black-reliance….has largely disappeared. Back in the day, its champions and critics alike thought it could potentially replace Christmas in the very Christian African-American community. But now, silence….The great majority of African Americans have little interest in dressing up like Jim Brown and lighting candles that symbolize the workers controlling the means of production.”
Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights in December, was first celebrated in 165 BCE, according to tradition, with the re-consecration of the Temple at Jerusalem, in the wake of a victory over the Greeks by the Maccabees (warriors who helped restore Jewish religious and political life). The holiday’s eight-day length is a reminder of a small flask of ritually-purified olive oil, which, according to legend, miraculously burned for eight days. The Hebrew word “Hanukkah” (sometimes rendered “Chanukah”) means “dedication.”
The festival is actually a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar compared to Yom Kippur and others, notes author Eric A. Kimmel, but ranks as “one of the most beloved” of the religion’s special events: “Candles flicker; dreidels spin; latkes sizzle in the pan as Jewish people the world over recall the heroes of ancient times….” At the heart of the festival is the nine-branched Hanukkah menorah, a candelabrum that’s lit according to specific guidelines, offering, writes literary editor Leon Wieseltier, a “fiery silence.”
Hanukkah is “the most adult of the holidays,” writes eminently grown-up journalist David Brooks: It “commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today. It’s a holiday that accurately reflects how politics is, how history is, how life is.”
New Year’s Day
New Year’s Day is the oldest holiday, with roots in the early stirrings of human consciousness, tens of thousands of years ago.
Our distant ancestors, according to scholar James George Frazer, probably had short memories and limited skill at “marking the flight of time.” They may not have recognized the year as a predictable cycle of seasons. When warm weather came they surely were pleased. At some unmarked moment deep in the mists of time they began celebrating the occasion and offering thanks to the gods. There’s a connection between the spring-time joy of our ancestors, long ago, and the champagne toasts at midnight on New Year’s Eve as the ball drops in Times Square.
For ancient Egyptians, New Year was an autumn event coinciding with the flooding and receding of the Nile, which deposited fecund silt on the desert sands – thick mud in which almost any crop would thrive.
In 153 BCE, the Roman Senate declared January 1 to be the official beginning of the new year – an arbitrary decision made in the interest of calendar reform and perhaps to add a party to the winter schedule. The Romans did lots of mid-winter celebrating, and are important progenitors of our year-end festivities; for example, Christmas owes a debt to the pagan Roman holidays of Saturnalia and Natali Sol Invicti.
“First Night” on New Year’s Eve is an example of the American willingness, or should we say eagerness, to tinker with holidays. The first First Night was conducted in Boston on December 31, 1976/January 1, 1977 by a group of artists and community activists that included Clara Wainwright, a quilter and public artist. (She is a spiritual descendant of Sarah Josepha Hale, advocate of Thanksgiving Day, and Robert L. May, creator of Rudolph. Here’s another descendant.) For millions of people, First Night has re-cast New Year’s Eve as a family-friendly celebration of the arts and community, with food, music, theater, puppet shows, and ice sculptures. First Night International, a non-profit group, licenses the concept to about 200 localities, mostly in North America. The idea suffered decline in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 but has recovered nicely.
Robert Burns wrote and published the New Year’s song “Auld Lang Syne” in the 1790s basing it on a folk tune; the Scots phrase means “old long since” in English, also translated as “days of long ago” and “long, long ago.” Bandleader Guy Lombardo turned the song into a New Year’s Eve tradition on the radio starting in the late 1920s. Lyrics and music are available here. ●