Christmases Past: what happens next?

With the close of the 18th century, we run into a sort of black hole of information about how people celebrated Christmas. The next big era everyone looks at is the Victorian era, when Christmas trees come into vogue and many of the “Christmas Traditions” we take for granted are first introduced. None of this kicks in until the 1840s, at the earliest. What happened in the interim?

There are new Christmas ideas afoot in the first 40 years of the 19th century. A small group of historian/writer types in New York (city) make a big deal out of Saint Nicholas and ‘traditional’ Christmases. Everyone’s favourite Christmas poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (aka “The Night Before Christmas”), was published anonymously in 1823. The poem is generally attributed to Clement Clark Moore, although there’s also an argument to be made for it having orginally been penned by Henry Livingston Jr.; either way, both of these men had probably been exposed to the works for fellow New Yorker Washington Irving. In 1809, Irving had published A History of New York, which included mentions of Saint Nicholas bringing gifts to the early inhabitants of New York (described in a way which resembles that of “Visit from Saint Nicholas.”) Moreover, Irving described an ideal Christmas, to him, in his 1819/20 Sketch-book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Among the short stories in the Sketch-book are a series on ‘old Christmas’ as celebrated in England. Although these are technically fiction, Irving had spent time in England and may have based his descriptions on observations.

So we have a handful of publications out of New York in the early part of the 19th century which talk about Christmas celebrations. They aren’t wildly divergent from the Christmases of the 18th century, although I feel that they are more vibrant. There is also a strong German/Dutch influence, due to the history of New York. What I have not been able to discover is how widely read these works were. By the end of the 19th century Irving’s “Old Christmas” essays were being published independently of the rest of the Sketch-book; when did they catch the public eye? Before or after the “Visit from Saint Nicholas” and the popularisation of that other Germanic tradition, the Christmas tree? Did the story of a Saint Nicholas with tiny reindeer become popular in the Southern states immediately after the poem was published, or did it take decades?

Somehow the celebration of Christmas in America shifted from a non-holiday in the Northeast and a time for church and visiting in the South to something more standardized (as much as anything could or can be standardized here). How long did the transition take, and how did it manifest? I have not yet been able to uncover answers to my questions. I can only hope that there were some very descriptive diarists and letter-writers in the mid-Atlantic and Southern states who recorded their memories of Christmas.

Christmases Past: the Eighteenth Century

Fans of the eighteenth century who are curious about Christmas in the American colonies have a number of excellent resources: colonial-era historic sites have dug into records and primary sources to try and find a historical way to interpret Christmas. I’m briefly going to try and describe what Christmas was (and wasn’t) in the 18th century, but if you’re really interested I highly recommend the research available on the web from Colonial Williamsburg. Emma L. Powers’ article Tis the Season is an excellent overview, and there’s a slew of articles on Christmas in Williamsburg – I think my favorite thing about the latter is how all of the decorating articles basically say “the wreaths you see at CW are totally not historical.”

It’s true. The fruit-decked wreaths they put up in Williamsburg are a 20th century invention. Outdoor decorations of the 18th century were probably limited to a bit of greenery. there was not an emphasis on decorations. In Massachusetts area, Christmas was still frowned on. In Virginia and other southern states, it was party time for a fair portion of the population. Some of the various Christian sects, Presbyterians for example, did not mark Christmas with any celebration, and of course the small scattered Jewish populations wouldn’t. The dominant religion was Anglicanism, which does observe Christmas with a special service, and in this time it was one of the few opportunities to take Communion.

The celebration of the season was very much what you find in the Dickens quote I posted a few days ago: dancing, feasting, parties, visiting friends and family. Essentially, the things I love about Christmas now. Goodwill towards all expressed in fun and games and laughter. For me the most surprising thing about the 18th century Christmas was that people didn’t give a lot of gifts, and most gifts were food. Apparently there’s a good historical foundation for the exchange of goodies from Harry & David between my parents and their friends, and my grandfather sending us citrus fruit.

All in all, I think that most of us today could enjoy an 18th century Christmas, at least for a few hours.

A Bit of Dickens’ Christmas

I do have more coming about the history of the celebration of Christmas, but this weekend my time was taken up with the actual activities of the season (decorating, a party, attending church, writing Christmas cards). So, in lieu of a proper post, here’s a quote from one of the stories I read every year at this time: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in Prose

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,” said the Spirit. “Look upon me I”

Scrooge reverently did so. It was clothed in one simple deep green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.1

I love this because it is so very British. This pre-dates Nast’s image of Santa Claus, and is much more in the vein of Father Christmas, the Bishop Saint Nicholas, and idealized concepts of British paganism.  Growing up in the Episcopal Church, I was aware of Saint Nicholas the bishop and historical figure in addition to the American Santa Claus; on top of that, my father lived in England when a boy and so we also had images of Father Christmas. The Ghost of Christmas Present encompasses all these things for me: the bishop, the gift-bringer, and the joy and generosity of spirit which warms us at Christmastime and, in the words of the Muppet Ghost of Christmas Present, hopefully lasts all year.

Christmases Past: Knox, Cromwell, and Co.

When considering the history of Christmas in the early American republic, it’s essential to understand the history of Christmas in Britain. Not all of the population of the first states were British in origin, but the government had been.

What most people do not know is that Christmas was banned in England in the 17th century, by an Act of Parliament: “19 December, 1644 Ordinance to observe the Monthly Fast, especially on the day which heretofore was called The Feast of the Nativity of Our Saviour” (The power of the internet: lists of the acts of Parliament!). Puritans, Oliver Cromwell among them, were concerned that the celebration of Christmas was too Papist and too unruly. Medieval celebrations of Christmas were a time of feasting, drinking, and a great deal of chaos (consider the traditions of the Lord of Misrule and the Feast of Fools).

So, they banned Christmas. It was against the law to hold Mass, receive Communion, or have a feast. Instead, it was to be a day of fasting, and otherwise business as normal. This wasn’t exactly a new idea on the island; the Presbyterians up in Scotland had done essentially the same thing years back.

With the Restoration of the Monarchy, there was more or less the restoration of Christmas in England, but it was a little quieter than it had been. The large-scale misrule was replaced by smaller-scale partying, although in some places the tradition of wassailing was preserved.  In the American colonies, there were places where it remained illegal to celebrate on Christmas – mostly in the north-east colonies which had been established by Puritans.  The celebration of Christmas in other colonies, Virginia included, depended as much on your background as your location. Presbyterians didn’t make much of Christmas on either side of the Atlantic, well into the eighteenth century.

One short side note about Christmas in Scotland: it only ‘came back’ as a public holiday within recent memory. In the course of a dicsussion about holidays (and the Americanisation/Comercialisation of them), one of my mentors in Scotland told me that when he was a boy, it was just another day. His father and most everyone else went to work as normal. The major winter celebration in Scotland was and is Hogmanay, even with the commercial, Santa-Claus Christmas just a few days before.

(a note: this post and some of the others like it are a consolidated version of my research on Christmas in Virginia in the early 19th century. As such, there won’t be all that many footnotes or other citations. However, if you’d like something sourced or cited, comment and I’ll try to remember where I read it)

A Christmas Quote

(possibly the first of a few)

One of the fun aspects of working with historic documents is seeing annual events through other people’s eyes.  I initially found this quote from an 1834 Christmastime letter to be entertaining in a macabre way (I first read it shortly after Halloween). On reflection, it seems to parallel a little our situation with the various flus. Perhaps it is also a reminder that even in the midst of despair, there can still be joy. Or, more cynically, it is a lesson in the relationship between social/economic standing and health. At any rate, I give you Christmas in Richmond, 1834.

“the Cholera has been threatening us, and given some very severe intimations of what it can do, it has not, however, yet invaded the higher ranks of society, and we go on feasting—dancing & making merry as tho’ the Enemy were not at the Gate” – Sarah (Sally) Coles Stevenson to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, 24 December 1834,

Original at the Library of Virginia. Transcription from The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, ed. Holly C. Shulman. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2004.