Since publishing its first issue in 1857, The Atlantic has marked 160 Christmases. Contributors, by dint of the magazine’s New England and Christian roots, made a point each year to memorialize the birth of Jesus and the many traditions celebrating it in every section and medium of the publication. For more than 16 decades, there have been myriad articles, stories, poems, book reviews, recipes, art, and even, in the mid-20th century, dozens of annual subscription gift cards.
“Whoever has passed the month of December in Rome will remember to have been awakened from his morning-dreams by the gay notes of the pifferari playing in the streets below,” wrote an unnamed contributor in April 1859, evoking the music of the season. The pifferari, as the article described, were shepherds who came to Rome at Christmastime to play music before shrines of the Madonna and child; these performers, and their songs, were a staple of Decembers in the city.
Eighteen years later, Luigi Monti recalled another Italian Christmas—this one passed in an abbey in Sicily. He detailed how the religious traditions of the holiday bled into the social: how the Christmas Eve service “from time immemorial … has been followed by a reunion at home, with play and dancing till a late hour” and how, on Christmas, after a mid-day sermon, “if the weather was good, the whole population would go wandering through the streets, to cafés and restaurants, which were kept open all night.”
Other writers traveled still farther than Italy, sharing accounts of winters spent in Africa. Two such accounts, brought back from Ghana’s Dix Cove in 1870 and Egypt’s Assuan in 1895, were distorted by the prejudices of their Western writers; the unnamed visitor to Dix Cove noted the prevalence of “African barbarism” and remarked on the strangeness of “black Christmas” celebrations, while the American essayist Agnes Repplier described some of the wares at an Assuan market as “barbaric” and “absurd.” But both also found aspects of the holiday familiar, and beautiful: dinner parties, drinking, music, gifts.