Can you imagine that Christmas wasn’t declared as a federal holiday in the U.S. until June 26, 1870? The first Christmas under America’s new constitution was on December 25, 1789, and on that day Congress was in session. I will explore further if or how the holiday was celebrated. I mean this is quite confusing because Christmas just didn’t turn up as a holiday it is supposed to be the celebration of the birth of Christ. To make matters worse Christmas wasn’t declared to be a holiday in the state of Virginia until 1890.
The good news is that people did exchange Christmas cards however in 1822 the U.S. Postal Service wanted to have Christmas card delivery outlawed because there was so much seasonal mail that it put a great strain on resources and employees.
This boggles the mind. From 1659 to 1681 it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Boston, Massachusetts and those who celebrated were fined five shillings or around 40 cents for celebrating.
Finally, we come to Christmas carols. They were abolished in England by the Puritan Parliament in 1649. Therefore any Christmas hymns were really scarce between the late 17th and the early 18th century. This happened under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. It was during this time that Charles Wesley wrote the popular Christmas carol “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”. This song became popular when Christians gathered together during the Advent.
After Cromwell passed on in 1658 it was no longer prohibited to sing Christmas carols and many hymns for the Christmas season began to be written. “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” became one of the most popular Christmas carols and it has been played in popular movies such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.
However today this carol is completely different from the time it was originally written. Both Wesley’s words and tune were changed. The first line of this hymn originally was
“Hark! how all the welkin rings, Glory to the King of Kings”. In Old English welkin means “vault of heaven”. It was George Whitefield a famous English preacher who rewrote the first line giving it a modern version “Hark! the herald angels sing – Glory to the newborn King!” Even if we don’t know for sure that angels do really sing I think it is a nice first line to this lovely song.
The melody was also very somber and was given a lift. The present tune was composed by Mendelssohn and comes from the second chorus of a cantata he wrote in 1840. Finally, the Christmas carol has uplifting words and a wonderful tune and it has been passed on from generation to generation ever since.