Christmas Celebrations Through the Years

Christmas Through the Years


From family correspondence and greeting cards to comedic one-liners and personal accounts of holiday gatherings and gifts, there are over 5,000 references to Christmas in transcribed Smithsonian collections. We've outlined a few of our favorite finds below.


Christmas family gathering, circa 1950s, Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (seated on right) Collection, National Air and Space Museum Archives.


Holiday Greeting Cards from the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History, the Archives of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and the National Air and Space Musem (1840s - 1970s) demonstrate changing artistic styles over the years and include heartfelt messages to loved ones. 




This one, from the Archives of American Art, was written by Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Robertson Moses) to family friends and former neighbors, Frances and Mary Greer. 



Diaries and correspondence offer a glimpse into the personal lives of everyday people celebrating the holiday season. Documents dating from the 19th century to the present, detail Christmas gatherings with familiy and friends, gifts given and received, and the sadness of being apart from loved ones during the holidays. 




Christmas took on a new level of importance for Americans following the Civil War and Emancipation. Although the holiday was celebrated in many areas of the U.S. in the antebellum period, the hardships and losses of the war cemented Christmas as an important moment to gather with family and collectively heal. For formerly enslaved people, it offered a chance to celebrate fully on their own terms. By 1870, Christmas had been declared a national holiday. 


Letters from the Freedmen's Bureau Records detail various Christmas celebrations during this time, including mentions of Santa Claus, presents, and decorated trees:


A December 1868 letter from the Pennsylvania Freedmen's Union Commission. notified Bureau agents of their plan to send a "box of some little Christmas things for 13 of our Maryland schools....making a little present to each child at each school."



In 1869, a Pennsylvania church sent "books, a few pictures and toys for the tiny ones" to a school for freedchildren in Maryland. Describing the students' delight, teacher Dellie Gordon wrote: "It was truly a season of special rejoicing to the children, they were having a mighty good time." 



Looking for a laugh this holiday season? Check out hundreds of Christmas and New Year's themed jokes from Phyllis Diller's Gag File at the National Museum of American History. 



Have you stumbled upon a lovely story from Christmas past in the records, volunpeers? Reach out or post your discovery on social media! We'd love to have you join us as we spread holiday cheer from the collections.