How Uncle Sam Observes Christmas by Clifford Howard
Of course Uncle Sam is best acquainted with the good old-fashioned
Christmas—the kind we have known all about since we were little bits of
children. There are the Christmas trees with their pretty decorations and
candles, and the mistletoe and holly and all sorts of evergreens to make the
house look bright, while outside the trees are bare, the ground is white with
snow, and Jack Frost is prowling around, freezing up the ponds and pinching
people's noses. And then there is dear old Santa Claus with his reindeer,
galloping about on the night before Christmas, and scrambling down chimneys to
fill the stockings that hang in a row by the fireplace.
It is the time of good cheer and happiness and presents for everybody; the
time of chiming bells and joyful carols; of turkey and candy and plum-pudding
and all the other good things that go to make up a truly merry Christmas. And
here and there throughout the country, some of the quaint old customs of our
forefathers are still observed at this time, as, for instance, the pretty custom
of "Christmas waits"—boys and girls who go about from house to house on
Christmas eve, or early Christmas morning, singing carols.
But, aside from the Christmas customs we all know so well, Uncle Sam has many
strange and special ways of observing Christmas; for in this big country of his
there are many different kinds of people, and they all do not celebrate
Christmas in the same way, as you shall see.
IN THE SOUTH
Siss! Bang! Boom! Sky-rockets hissing, crackers snapping, cannons roaring,
horns tooting, bells ringing, and youngsters shouting with wild delight. That is
the way Christmas begins down South.
CHRISTMAS IN THE SOUTH
It starts at midnight, or even before; and all day long fire-crackers are
going off in the streets of every city, town, and village of the South, from
Virginia to Louisiana. A Northern boy, waking up suddenly in New Orleans or
Mobile or Atlanta, would think he was in the midst of a rousing Fourth-of-July
celebration. In some of the towns the brass bands come out and add to the
jollity of the day by marching around and playing "My Maryland" and "Dixie";
while the soldier companies parade up and down the streets to the strains of
joyous music and fire salutes with cannons and rifles.
To the girls and boys of the South, Christmas is the noisiest and jolliest
day of the year. The Fourth of July doesn't compare with it. And as for the
darkies, they look upon Christmas as a holiday that was invented for their
especial happiness. They take it for granted that all the "white folks" they
know will give them presents; and with grinning faces they are up bright and
early, asking for "Christmus gif', mistah; Christmus gif, missus." No one thinks
of refusing them, and at the end of the day they are richer and happier than at
any other time during the whole year.
Except for the jingle of sleigh-bells and the presence of Jack Frost, a
Christmas in the South is in other ways very much like that in the North. The
houses are decorated with greens, mistletoe hangs above the doorways, Santa
Claus comes down the chimneys and fills the waiting stockings, while Christmas
dinner is not complete without the familiar turkey and cranberry sauce, plum
puddings and pies.
IN NEW ENGLAND
For a great many years there was no Christmas in New England. The Pilgrims
and the Puritans did not believe in such celebrations. In fact, they often made
it a special point to do their hardest work on Christmas day, just to show their
contempt for what they considered a pagan festival.
During colonial times there was a law in Massachusetts forbidding any one to
celebrate Christmas; and if anybody was so rash in those days as to go about
tooting a horn and shouting a "Merry Christmas!" he was promptly brought to his
senses by being arrested and punished.
CHRISTMAS SPORTS IN NEW ENGLAND
Of course things are very different in New England now, but in many country
towns the people still make more of Thanksgiving than they do of Christmas; and
there are hundreds of New England men and women still living who knew nothing of
Christmas as children—who never hung up their stockings; who never waited for
Santa Claus; who never had a tree; who never even had a Christmas present!
Nowadays, however, Christmas in New England is like Christmas anywhere else;
but here and there, even now, the effects of the early Puritan ideas may still
be seen. In some of the smaller and out-of-the-way towns and villages you will
find Christmas trees and evergreens in only a very few of the houses, and in
some places—particularly in New Hampshire—one big Christmas tree does for the
whole town. This tree is set up in the town hall, and there the children go to
get their gifts, which have been hung on the branches by the parents. Sometimes
the tree has no decorations—no candles, no popcorn strings, no shiny balls.
After the presents are taken off and given to the children, the tree remains
perfectly bare. There is usually a short entertainment of recitations and songs,
and a speech or two perhaps, and then the little folks, carrying their presents
with them, go back to their homes.
IN NEW MEXICO
In certain parts of New Mexico, among the old Spanish settlements, the
celebration of Christmas begins more than a week before the day. In the
evenings, a party of men and women go together to the house of some friend—a
different house being visited each evening. When they arrive, they knock on the
door and begin to sing, and when those in the house ask, "Who is there?" they
reply, "The Virgin Mary and St. Joseph seek lodgings in your house." At first
the inmates of the house refuse to let them in. This is done to carry out the
Bible story of Joseph and Mary being unable to find lodgings in Bethlehem. But
in a little while the door is opened and the visitors are heartily welcomed. As
soon as they enter, they kneel and repeat a short prayer; and when the
devotional exercises are concluded, the rest of the evening is spent in
On Christmas eve the people of the village gather together in some large room
or hall and give a solemn little play, commemorating the birthday of the
Saviour. One end of the room is used as a stage, and this is fitted up to
represent the stable and the manger; and the characters in the sacred story of
Bethlehem—Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, and the angels—are
represented in the tableaux, and with a genuine, reverential spirit. Even the
poorer people of the town take part in these Christmas plays.
AMONG THE SHAKERS
The Shakers observe Christmas by a dinner at which the men and women both sit
down at the same table. This custom of theirs is the thing that serves to make
Christmas different from any other day among the Shakers. During all the rest of
the year the men and women eat their meals at separate tables.
At sunset on Christmas day, after a service in the church, they march to the
community-house, where the dinner is waiting. The men sit on one side of the
table and the women on the other. At the head sits an old man called the elder,
who begins the meal by saying grace, after which each one in turn gets up and,
lifting the right hand, says in a solemn voice, "God is love." The dinner is
eaten in perfect silence. Not a voice is heard until the meal comes to an end.
Then the men and women rise and sing, standing in their places at the table. As
the singing proceeds they mark time with their hands and feet. Then their bodies
begin to sway from side to side in the peculiar manner that has given this sect
its name of Shakers.
When the singing comes to an end, the elder chants a prayer, after which the
men and women silently file out and leave the building.
AMONG THE PENNSYLVANIA GERMANS
"You'd better look out, or Pelznickel will catch you!" This is the dire
threat held over naughty boys and girls at Christmas-time in some of the country
settlements of the Pennsylvania Germans, or Pennsylvania Dutch, as they are
Pelznickel is another name for Santa Claus. But he is not altogether the same
old Santa that we welcome so gladly. On Christmas eve some one in the
neighborhood impersonates Pelznickel by dressing up as an old man with a long
white beard. Arming himself with a switch and carrying a bag of toys over his
shoulder, he goes from house to house, where the children are expecting him.
A VISIT FROM PELZNICKEL
He asks the parents how the little ones have behaved themselves during the
year. To each of those who have been good he gives a present from his bag.
But—woe betide the naughty ones! These are not only supposed to get no presents,
but Pelznickel catches them by the collar and playfully taps them with his
IN PORTO RICO
The Porto Rican boys and girls would be frightened out of their wits if Santa
Claus should come to them in a sleigh drawn by reindeer and should try to enter
the houses and fill their stockings. Down there, Santa Claus does not need
reindeer or any other kind of steeds, for the children say that he just comes
flying through the air like a bird. Neither does he bother himself looking for
stockings, for such things are not so plentiful in Porto Rico as they are in
cooler climates. Instead of stockings, the children use little boxes, which they
make themselves. These they place on the roofs and in the courtyards, and old
Santa Claus drops the gifts into them as he flies around at night with his bag
on his back.
He is more generous in Porto Rico than he is anywhere else. He does not come
on Christmas eve only, but is likely to call around every night or two during
the week. Each morning, therefore, the little folks run out eagerly to see
whether anything more has been left in their boxes during the night.
Christmas in Porto Rico is a church festival of much importance, and the
celebration of it is made up chiefly of religious ceremonies intended to
commemorate the principal events in the life of the Saviour. Beginning with the
celebration of his birth, at Christmas-time, the feast-days follow one another
in rapid succession. Indeed, it may justly be said that they do not really come
to an end until Easter.
BETHLEHEM DAY IN PORTO RICO
One of the most popular of these festival-days is that known as Bethlehem
day. This is celebrated on the 12th of January, in memory of the coming of the
Magi. The celebration consists of a procession of children through the streets
of the town. The foremost three, dressed in flowing robes to represent the wise
men of the East, come riding along on ponies, holding in their hands the gifts
for the Infant King; following them come angels and shepherds and flute-players,
all represented by children dressed in pretty costumes and carrying garlands of
flowers. These processions are among the most picturesque of all Christmas
AMONG THE MORAVIANS
For many days before Christmas the Moravian housewives in Bethlehem,
Pennsylvania, are busy in their kitchens making good things for the
holidays—mint-cakes, pepper-nuts, Kümmelbrod, sugar-cake, mince-pies,
and, most important of all, large quantities of "Christmas cakes." These
Christmas cakes are a kind of ginger cooky, crisp and spicy, and are made
according to a recipe known only to the Moravians. They are made in all sorts of
curious shapes—birds, horses, bears, lions, fishes, turtles, stars, leaves, and
funny little men and women; so that they are not only good to eat, but are
ornamental as well, and are often used by the good fathers and mothers as
decorations for the "Putz."
Every Moravian family has its Putz at Christmas-time. This consists of
a Christmas tree surrounded at its base by a miniature landscape made up of moss
and greens and make-believe rocks, and adorned with toy houses and tiny fences
and trees and all sorts of little animals and toy people.
A CHRISTMAS "PUTZ"
On Christmas eve a love-feast is held in the church. The greater part of the
service is devoted to music, for which the Moravians have always been noted.
While the choir is singing, cake and coffee are brought in and served to all the
members of the congregation, each one receiving a good-sized bun and a large cup
of coffee. Shortly before the end of the meeting lighted wax candles carried on
large trays are brought into the church, by men on one side and women on the
other, and passed around to the little folks—one for each boy and girl. This is
meant to represent the coming of the Light into the world, and is but one of the
many beautiful customs observed by the Moravians.
"Going around with the star" is a popular Christmas custom among some of the
natives of Alaska who belong to the Greek Church. A large figure of a star,
covered with brightly colored paper, is carried about at night by a procession
of men and women and children. They call at the homes of the well-to-do families
of the village, marching about from house to house, headed by the star-bearer
and two men or boys carrying lanterns on long poles. They are warmly welcomed at
each place, and are invited to come in and have some refreshments. After
enjoying the cakes and other good things, and singing one or two carols, they
take up the star and move on to the next house.
These processions take place each night during Christmas week; but after the
second night the star-bearers are followed by men and boys dressed in fantastic
clothes, who try to catch the star-men and destroy their stars. This part of the
game is supposed to be an imitation of the soldiers of Herod trying to destroy
the children of Bethlehem; but these happy folks of Alaska evidently don't think
much about its meaning, for they make a great frolic of it. Everybody is full of
fun, and the frosty air of the dark winter nights is filled with laughter as men
and boys and romping girls chase one another here and there in merry excitement.
The natives of Hawaii say that Santa Claus comes over to the islands in a
boat. Perhaps he does; it would be a tedious journey for his reindeer to make
without stopping from San Francisco to Honolulu. At all events, he gets there by
some means or other, for he would not neglect the little folks of those islands
away out in the Pacific.
They look for him as eagerly as do the boys and girls in the lands of snow
and ice, and although it must almost melt him to get around in that warm climate
with his furs on, he never misses a Christmas.
Before the missionaries and the American settlers went to Hawaii, the natives
knew nothing about Christmas, but now they all celebrate the day, and do it, of
course, in the same way as the Americans who live there. The main difference
between Christmas in Honolulu and Christmas in New York is that in Honolulu in
December the weather is like June in New York. Birds are warbling in the leafy
trees; gardens are overflowing with roses and carnations; fields and mountain
slopes are ablaze with color; and a sunny sky smiles dreamily upon the glories
of a summer day. In the morning people go to church, and during the day there
are sports and games and merry-making of all sorts. The Christmas dinner is
eaten out of doors in the shade of the veranda, and everybody is happy and
IN THE PHILIPPINES
"BUENAS PASQUAS!" This is the hearty greeting that comes to the dweller in
the Philippines on Christmas morning, and with it, perhaps, an offering of
CHRISTMAS IN THE PHILIPPINES
The Filipino, like the Porto Rican and all others who have lived under
Spanish rule, look upon Christmas as a great religious festival, and one that
requires very special attention. On Christmas eve the churches are open, and the
coming of the great day is celebrated by a mass at midnight; and during all of
Christmas day mass is held every hour, so that every one may have an opportunity
to attend. Even the popular Christmas customs among the people are nearly all of
a religious character, for most of them consist of little plays or dramas
founded upon the life of the Saviour.
These plays are called pastures, and are performed by bands of young
men and women, and sometimes mere boys and girls, who go about from village to
village and present their simple little plays to expectant audiences at every
stopping-place. The visit of the wise men, the flight into Egypt—these and many
other incidents as related in the Scriptures are acted in these pastores.
A festival held every year in memory of the birth of Christ. Christmas
is essentially a day of rejoicing and thanksgiving and of good will
toward others. Many customs older than Christianity mark the
festivities. In our country the observance of the day was discouraged in
colonial times, and in England in 1643 Parliament abolished the day. Now
its celebration is world-wide and by all classes and creeds.