Kay Nelson

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Agricultural Extension Service, South Dakota State College

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Today it is hard to realize that Christmas was once a subject of strenuous controversy. Its religious observance was the source of bitter denominational quarrels during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Large groups of colonists objected to Christmas at that time. For the Church of England, the Feast of the Nativity was one of the most important of the year, yet the English Puritans condemned it. Eventually attention turned to the realm of economics and politics so that religious controversies, including that of Christmas observance, became of less importance. The American Constitution established separation of church and state and gradually opposition to Christmas disappeared. Sunday schools began to integrate Christmas celebrations with those of religion. Finally in 1847 a Sonday school Christmas tree was set up in a New York City church where carols were sung, and gifts were provided for under-privileged children. By 1880 the religious significance of Christmas had improved in all Evangelical churches. Now Sunday schools support Christmas widely as a religious and as a social observance by commemorating the Nativity with special services and activities.

The St. Nicholas figure, from which Santa Claus developed, was brought to the American colonies as a mixed religious-folk figure. He had long been popular in several European countries. During the past 50 years Santa Claus has become a symbol of charity and generosity. To children he expresses affection and devotion. He depicts the "spirit" of Christmas. Christmas not only affects the family unit internally but also relates it to the community. Many families have developed their own personal traditions. They attend church activities together; they have special festive occasions; home and tree decorations often represent certain incidents or memories to cherish. The philosophy of "doing-for-others" grows stronger at Christmas time.

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