What’s up with Christmas?

As we get ready for the holidays here in Gleeson Library, I found myself wondering how we got our modern tradition of Christmas. What’s up with bringing a cut pine tree inside your home to decorate? What’s up with all the poinsettias? Why do Brits give gifts on Boxing Day, December 26, while here in the US we give gifts on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning?

The Gleeson tradition of erecting a Christmas Tree out of the National Union Catalog. Way to go, Access Services!

Lucky for us all, Gleeson Library has the sources you need to find out! Here are some Reference Books that will help us learn a lot more about Christmas:

The Folklore of American holidays by Hennig Cohen and Tristram Potter Coffin, editors, devotes nearly 40 pages to Christmas, and confirms that the religious roots of Christ’s birth coinciding with the date we now know as Christmas melded with pagan and mythological traditions: “The western date of Christmas was made to coincide with the Roman midwinter festival of the Kalends… many of the pre-Christian rites are still celebrated as part of Christmas: the evergreen decorations, the exchange of gifts or strenae, the indulgence in food and drink, the license in kissing and sexually related activities, the mumming” (p. 371).

Holidays, festivals, and celebrations of the world dictionary by Helene Henderson, editor. This one is fun because it has pages and pages of entries dedicated to Christmas the world over, so you can easily see how Christmas traditions vary around the world. 

Encyclopedia of Christmas by Tanya Gulevich & illustrated by Mary Ann Stavros-Lanning. This is our go-to for all things Christmas and will answer our question, “What’s up with the Christmas Tree?” (Hint: most scholars can’t agree on the legend of the Christmas tree, but the earliest written record of “Christmas Tree” is from Germany in 1561 — see page 141!)


Through the course of my recent research on holidays, I was fascinated to see a world wide movement of nationalizing holidays took place in the last half of the 19th Century — Thanksgiving was made a national U.S. holiday in 1863 by President Lincoln (previously it was a Northeastern holiday) and Boxing Day was made a national holiday by Parliament in England/The UK in 1871 (previously it was known as St. Stephen’s Day). There have been feasts and festivals all throughout history, but much of our modern day holiday traditions have only been standardized and canonized in the last 150 years or so. 

There is still time to check these out for yourself! Gleeson Library will be open until 6 pm today 12/19, 10 am – 6 pm tomorrow 12/20, 8 am – 6 pm on Monday 12/22, and 8 am – 4 pm on Tuesday 12/23. See our hours for more info, and most importantly, have a very merry Christmas!

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