American views of Christmas have evolved
By Chuck Wullenjohn, Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground

Today, the United States is the most powerful nation on the face of the globe, whether the consideration is military strength or cultural reach. People around the world look to us for leadership, but it's well to remember that it wasn't always that way. Let's turn the calendar back to early America, when our nation was young and our political institutions new.

Life was different in ways we in the modern world can barely imagine. The 1815 population of the United States tended to be young, with the median age 16 years. Only one person in eight grew to the ripe age of 43.

Agriculture provided the livelihood for the overwhelming majority of Americans, with a gross domestic product similar to a third world nation today. Wooden plows used by farmers to till fields were basically the same as they had been for hundreds of years. Few people were entirely self sufficient, but bartered with neighbors. The vast majority of clothes manufacturing was performed by women in the home.

One author has described life in early America as "dirty, smelly, laborious, and uncomfortable." Most waking hours were spent working and public education was unknown. Professionally made shoes were expensive, with most country people of ordinary means going barefoot much of the year. A single fireplace provided heating and cooking for the common household and, during the winter, everybody slept by the fire on shared beds.

Few bathed once per week, as the process was time consuming and inconvenient. Water had to be fetched from a well, spring or stream, then heated over a stove and poured into a washtub. People most often simply "rinsed off." As late as 1832, a New England doctor complained that four out of five of his patients bathed no more than annually.

One factor, a large one, which differentiated America from the old world in our early years was the widespread distribution of land. Ownership meant a great deal and created immense pride. People defined themselves as "citizens" rather than "subjects.

Some sort of harvest festival took place in most areas. Many called it Thanksgiving Day, but it didn't become a national holiday until 1862. Christmas was viewed by many as a Catholic holiday and shunned by most mainstream Protestants. They also disliked the many "pagan" customs borrowed for use in activities celebrating what they considered a solemn religious observance -- the burning of Yule logs and gaudy decorations such as holly, mistletoe and Christmas trees.

At the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Christmas was not widely celebrated in North America. An interesting fact is that the U.S. Congress in 1789 chose to be in session on Christmas Day. It was not recognized as a federal holiday until 1870.

No one can deny that life in the early United States dramatically differed from the nation of today. A great many momentous changes, too many to enumerate, occurred in the ensuing years, from the Industrial Revolution and a bitter Civil War, to the dawn of flight, universal tax-supported free education, a sophisticated network of concrete highways, and instant communication.

Yet we, as a people, still remain somewhat the same. Our republic stands in accordance with the original Constitution written in 1787. We still assert our rights and seem to have no qualms doing so. Though we are an independent people, many are willing to drop all to help others in need.

A learned man once said that if we do not remember the past we are doomed to repeat it. As we enter 2014, let us remember what we have achieved as a people, be forever grateful for it and solemnly vow to work toward a future that is equitable for all, both in our nation and around the world. From everyone at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, Merry Christmas!

Page last updated Mon December 2nd, 2013 at 17:55