Thank immigrants for your 'American' Christmas

Thank immigrants for your 'American' Christmas
© Greg Nash

Christmas kind of sucked for my ancestors.

The Jennings came to Massachusetts Bay Colony from England in the 1600’s. In England, Christmas had traditionally been a rollicking, raucous affair, replete with drinking and gambling and partying in the streets. 

The Puritans who founded Massachusetts didn’t much care for this largely-secular party and decided in 1659 to ban observance of Christmas altogether, imposing fines on those who took the day off, “fasted” or celebrated “in any other way.”

The tradition of Christmas as a workday would persist for quite some time (the House would meet on Christmas Day in 1797 and the Senate in 1802) and in fact, Christmas would not become a federal holiday until 1870. There would have been no Christmas tree, no wrapped presents beneath it, no singing for my ancestors — nothing of what we think of as a traditional Christmas today.

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So how did that Christmas become today’s Christmas? Immigrants.

 

Most of what constitutes a “traditional” American Christmas was brought over to us by immigrants, beginning with the Germans in the 1700’s. The Germans were into Christmas in a big way, having (among other things) begun the habit of bringing trees indoors and decorating them in the early 1600’s.

Apparently, the Moravians, Protestant Germans who came in the mid-to-late 1700’s were the first to do so in America. By 1856, the practice of “Christmas trees” had become so commonplace in the United States that President Franklin Pierce erected one in the White House for the first time. 

A few years later German immigrants would build 97 Orchard Street, the tenement house that is the centerpiece of the Tenement Museum I lead in New York City, to help accommodate the torrent of German immigrants streaming across the Atlantic. 

In fact, in the 1860’s New York was the third-largest German-speaking city in the world (after Berlin and Vienna) and approximately one in four New Yorkers had been born in Germany. The Lower East Side, where the Tenement Museum is located, was in fact called “Kleine Deutschland” (“Little Germany”) because of the preponderance of Germans living in the neighborhood.

These immigrants brought with them more traditions that we associate with Christmas today, from songs (“Stille Nacht,” written in 1820 in Germany, would be translated in 1859 as “Silent Night” and would basically become the soundtrack of the holiday season ever since) to the sending of Christmas cards, popularized by German immigrant Louis Prang who printed the first card with Christmas greetings on it in the U.S. in 1875.

The Germans would soon be displaced on the Lower East Side by a flood of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, who would also contribute mightily to our common observances of Christmas — a holiday they did not themselves celebrate. 

If you’re dreaming of a White Christmas, you might thank Irving Berlin, who penned the famous song encouraging you to do so, for planting that ditty in your head. Berlin, born in Russia in 1898 of Jewish parents, came to New York as a child and began a prolific songwriting career that generated many of the standards we still hum today, including “God Bless America” and “White Christmas.” 

Berlin was hardly the only Jewish songwriter to crank out a Christmas classic: in fact, when the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers posted its list of the best 30 Christmas songs ever written in 2014, half of them (including seven of the top 10) had either a Jewish composer or lyricist. Another Russian émigré, George Balanchine, would create one of our most cherished Christmas traditions, The Nutcracker ballet, in 1954.

We often think of immigration this way: immigrants come to America, get submerged in the melting pot, and come out “American.” What this oversimplified version of history obscures is the fact that much of what we now think of as American was created out of the traditions immigrants brought with them to this New World.

It wasn’t a one-way street where “foreigners” came here and learned “our culture.” it was an exchange where the traditions of immigrants became “our culture.” Christmas is but one example where the contributions of immigrants shaped a holiday that became “American.”

So, if you’re enjoying Christmas traditions like trimming a tree or sending and receiving cards or singing along to “Silent Night” and “White Christmas” or an outing to The Nutcracker, you’ve got an immigrant to thank for that. Personally, I’ll be giving thanks this Christmas for immigrants because — thanks to them — my Christmas beats the crap out of that of my ancestors.

Kevin Jennings is president of the Tenement Museum, which focuses on America's urban immigrant history.