SIDNEY – So why do we drink brandy-soaked raw eggs and cream at Christmas? Or place in our homes a live pine tree that leaves prickly needles in the carpet for weeks? How about the fact that the expected Christmas celebration of presents and parties was itself essentially banned here on the American continent for over 150 years?
It’s tradition! All these American customs concerning Christmas are a testament to our country’s evolving sense of values, as fresh waves of immigrants brought in new ideas over the last 350 years.
Some traditions are great. Some seem pretty weird.
For example, why would anyone drink a spiked mixture of raw eggs yolks and cream, served warm? And what the heck is “nog?” But eggnog is a tradition fostered by the unique idea of democracy, where equality was celebrated in a new land free of kings or classes.
Starting in Medieval times, eggnog was originally an expensive beverage only enjoyed by the wealthy in England. But in the newly-minted American colonies of the 1700’s, it became an everyman’s beverage of holiday cheer. The rich virgin farmlands provided Americans a surplus of chickens and cows and home-brewed rum.
As to the name, some say “nog” comes from “noggin,” meaning a wooden cup, or “grog,” a strong beer. By the late 18th century, the combined term “eggnog” stuck. So there you go.
Fruitcake as a Christmas tradition is a complete mystery to many. Some may even ask “Why?” Although its origins are a little murky, it seemed to have had negative baggage from the start. Late-night legend Johnny Carson joked that there was only one fruitcake in the world and that was being passed around the planet every year.
Even author Truman Capote weighed in with his 1956 short story “A Christmas Memory,” which has a 60-something woman and her 7-year-old, live-in cousin Buddy spending hours gathering supplies for a fruitcake, which involved everything from snitching fallen nuts from a neighbor’s pecan grove to procuring a quart of bootleg whiskey. After all that work, upon learning how his spirits are going to be used, the bootlegger told the woman, “That’s no way to waste good whiskey.”
Actually, homemade fruitcake, all moist dark dough, plump with fruit, dates, pecans, sugar-glazed then soaked in brandy for a month, is pretty tasty. Its roots go back to Roman times, when their version was used by soldiers as a kind of energy bar. Its fall from grace could be blamed on capitalism, because early in the 20th century, mass-produced mail-order fruitcakes became available, creating the regrettably classic image of a dry, leaden cake encrusted with garish candied fruits and stale nuts.
But how could you say no to Christmas tradition itself? Yet, early in our country’s growth, Christmas festivities were canceled. And it stayed that way for a very long time in the United States.
It started in 1659, when the Puritans actually banned Christmas celebrations in the Massachusetts Bay colony. The Puritans believed the ban was appropriate because there was no mention of Christmas celebrations in the Bible. Also, they knew many Christmas activities, like evergreen trees, yule logs, and drinking to excess, were related to pagan winter solstice customs. Bans like these would continue through the 18th and 19th centuries and so Christmas was considered just another day. For example, the US House of Representatives even convened on Christmas in 1802.
There were some advantages to a no-no on Christmas. The ban was a big reason why the struggling American Revolutionary troops won it’s most celebrated victory. On December 25, 1776, Gen. George Washington and his Army crossed the Delaware River, surprising and defeating the English and German troops celebrating Christmas. Caught with their eggnog going down, so to speak.
The joy of celebrating Christmas came to America again when between 1840 and World War I an estimated six million German immigrants came to America, a group that at one time represented 1/3 of the US population. Many came to Shelby, Auglaize, and Mercer counties via the Miami Erie Canal to settle the rich, but wet, lands available and their landmarks and names are everywhere here.
Most enthusiastically embraced has been the German tradition of the evergreen Christmas tree in the home. Since 1850, Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the United States. The love continues today. In 2019, about 26 million real Christmas trees were sold in the United States. During the 2020 Covid lockdown, trees were in high demand as at-home celebrations flourished.
However, sometimes American innovation goes too far. Consider the aluminum Christmas tree, which burst on the holiday scene in 1958 and withered to a welcome demise in the mid-60’s. Used as a symbol of the commercialization of Christmas in the 1965 television special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” it set a standard of unsuitability as holiday décor. The trees now occasionally appear in museum collections—where they belong.
Coming out of the conservative Eisenhower era of the 1950’s, movies and television of the 1960’s examined cultural mores against current issues, sometimes even Christmas traditions.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a 1960’s story about how being different was okay, has become the longest-running holiday special in history, aired at least once every year since its 1964 premiere. Written by a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store, it developed into a show that took over 18 months and $500,000 to create. That equals $4.5 million today.
The view of Santa as a “jolly old elf who was above the angst of the times” was reexamined in the 1960 Twilight Zone’s Christmas program, “The Night of the Meek.” Art Carney portrayed a derelict department store Santa Claus, who after being fired on Christmas Eve, finds a mysterious bag that gives out presents. With this bag he sets out to fulfill his one wish, to see the less fortunate inherit the bounties of Christmas. It was 1960, where the nation was torn by civil unrest and the Vietnam War was beginning to send back body bags from a war few supported. But even for this show’s bedraggled Santa, redemption was found and hope celebrated — although in a traditionally spooky Twilight Zone style.
There are some traditions that have not made it into our cultural Christmas history…and thank goodness.
One is Krampus, a half man/ half goat originating from Austrian history who punished naughty children, at times including eating them. To this day, in Austria’s alpine villages, dozens of men dressed as the half-goat demon parade through the streets on December 5th, brandishing sticks and terrorizing children. We’ll just stick to our lump of coal as negative re-enforcement, thanks.
Another tradition that never came here appears in Japan, where a successful 1970’s KFC campaign established the tradition of families eating buckets of fried chicken on Dec. 25. In fact, the holiday-themed bird has become so popular around Japan that restaurant reservations and specially packaged delivery orders are placed months in advance.
The writer is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News.