Christmas was only declared a national holiday in 1870 by President Grant, with maybe the hope that a joyous occasion could unite a divided and broken nation.
As to what Christmas meant, other than the Biblical story, I believe some changes came from books with authors like Louisa May Alcott with her Little Women along with, of course, Charles Dickens with A Christmas Carol. Stories like these created new ideas about what Christmas could mean. Both were widely read.
The carols we think of as always having been here—weren’t all. While Silent Night was written in 1818, Away in a Manger was in 1885.
And as for Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, well, the ideas have also evolved and
Clement Clarke Moore claimed he wrote it. (There is some controversy though as to who first wrote it.)
When something became part of Christmas gets important when an author wants to incorporate this very important holiday into a historical book. The elements should be accurate even though they might vary widely with where the story is set from the East Coast to the American West.
When I wrote The Marshal’s Lady, Book 2 in the Hunters Moon historical series, its beginning, late fall 1885, pretty much meant Christmas was going to be in the story. It became a major plot element with the arrival of the marshal's estranged, 9 year old daughter. Children add importance to any Christmas celebration.
In researching what Christmas might've been like in Tucson, Arizona Territory,
That didn't mean there couldn't still be the candles (highly risky but popular) as well as strings of popcorn or beads, paper snowflakes, and homemade trinkets. Should the tree be warm and homey, a showpiece of glittering angels and stars, or maybe a mix of both?
A snippet of the last touch of decorating Priscilla's tree:
Back in the parlor, they had to admire the tree, which was beautiful with the combination of antique ornaments, handmade strings of popcorn, and colorful paper chains.
“We have one last task,” Priscilla said pointing to the table where paper and scissors were now arranged. “No tree is complete without snowflakes. I hope you gentlemen know how to make them because we ladies have done all the work up until now—excepting getting the tree and putting up the star, of course.” She smiled at Cord.
Joe picked up a piece of the paper and began folding it. The Judge, James and finally Cord followed suit, watching to see what Joe did next when he picked up the scissors. “It’s easy,” Joe said, “just cut out pieces and when you unfold it, voila.”
“Maybe the artist should do it all,” the Judge suggested, but the ladies were not letting them off the hook. They gave up with relative grace and began clipping out squares and triangles. When the paper was unfolded, the images did bear a resemblance to snowflakes, as each was different. Cord’s ended up the most intricate.
“You are an artist too,” Melissa said admiring his workmanship.
“Coordination helps,” Priscilla suggested. She looked at Grace. “Why don’t you put your father’s on the tree?” She handed her a small piece of wire.
For a moment Cord thought she might refuse, but then she delicately reached out and took the flake. She studied it a moment with wide eyes, before attaching the wire, careful not to damage it, as she found its place on the tree. Melissa did the same for Joe’s, while Priscilla took James’ and Ellen attached the Judge’s.“It is perfect,” Priscilla said, admiring the tree as Grace came and hugged her as tight as she could.
Until after Christmas, The Marshal's Lady as well as four others, with Christmas in the story are on sale at 99¢ for eBooks. The Marshal's Lady
The two historicals are also part of the Hunter's Moon series with characters connecting but always standalone books.