Friday, December 21, 2012

A Mid-19th Century Christmas Celebration

As written in previous posts, I have had numerous opportunities to celebrate Christmas as our ancestors might have done over a century ago. I have researched many aspects of the celebrations - from decorating to gifts to the holiday feasts - and my co-living historians have done the same, and together we have been able to put together what we feel are fairly accurate portrayals of Christmases past.The best part of it all is that we truly have a wonderful time in our "faux celebration," mainly because it isn't fake at all: we really are enjoying this time spent as if it actually were Christmas 1860! It's because of this that I can say - we can say - that we have experienced Christmas past as close to one can get without stepping through the literal port hole of time.
I suppose as Christians we are lucky that we celebrate the most splendid of all our holidays in the gloomy darkest time of the year. And it makes sense, too, when you consider that Jesus Christ is the Light - a Light when daylight is at its rarest! Here in southeastern lower Michigan December certainly has been rather dark and gloomy with thick grey clouds looming overhead. No snow, though lots of rain.
Oh, I know that the chances of Christ being born on December 25th are slim. More than likely He was born in the spring or the fall. But since the bible does not give us a specific date of His birth, our anti-pagan ancestors of many centuries ago blended the winter solstice celebrations with the Christian story of the Nativity, and through time, turned it into the Christmas we have come to know and love. Anyhow, being that we celebrate His birth in the way we do, I will present here for your reading pleasure words written over 150 years ago describing the way our 19th century ancestors observed this joyous holiday (with a few modifications and additions). The photos accompanying this posting are from recent reenactments, as well as some that I took at Greenfield Village and my own home. To see the images in a larger size, please click on the picture itself.

The Christmas Tree by Lizzie M’Intyre
(from Godey’s Lady’s Book December 1860)

“Won’t it be fun to dress the Tree?”
“Oh, how I wish it was to-morrow!” cried Eddie, the youngest, a boy of eight years old, the pet and darling of all the five sisters.
“To-morrow evening!” said Fannie, the next in order, “to-morrow evening. Oh, such fun. A Christmas tree!”
“Won’t it be fun to dress it?” whispered Grace.
“Oh, Marian, will it have my work box?” cried Hester.
“And my doll?” said Fannie.
The younger set play a game while the adults prepare the tree for dressing
“And my set of china tea things? You know you promised me a new set.” And fairly started, all the children joined in the list of demands, making a perfect Babel of the parlor.

     The little mantel clock struck nine. As the last stroke died away, Marian pointed with a smile to the clock, and the youngest children rose and went merrily to bed.
“There is much to do to-morrow, Gracie,” said Marian, as the chamber door closed, shutting out the sound of the merry voices, “there are so many things to attend to that I think we will dress the tree this evening. We can shut the folding doors and keep the children from the back parlor tomorrow.”
“Oh, yes, we will dress it now. I’ll call father.” And the young girl danced off, humming a merry tune.
The tree was a large evergreen, reaching almost to the high ceiling, for all the family presents were to be placed on it.
With the house dressed, I took the opportunity to catch up on the latest news from Harper's Weekly
The process of dressing commenced. From a basket in the corner, Marian drew long strings of bright red holly berries threaded like beads upon fine cord. These were festooned in graceful garlands from the boughs of the tree, and while Marian was thus employed, Grace and Father arranged the tiny tapers. This was a delicate task. Long pieces of fine wire were passed through the taper at the bottom, and these clasped over the stern of each branch and twisted together underneath. Great care was taken that there should be a clear space above each wick, that nothing might catch fire.
The tapers are lit!
Strings of bright berries, small bouquets of paper flowers, strings of beads, tiny flags of gay ribbon, stars and shields of guilt paper, lace bags filled with colored candies, knots of bright ribbons, all homemade by Marian’s and Gracie’s skillful fingers, made a brilliant show of a very trifling cost, the basket seeming possessed of unheard of capacities, to judge from the multitude and variety of articles drawn from it.
Meantime, upon the wick of each little taper, Father rubbed with his finger a drop of alcohol to insure its lighting quickly. This was a process he trusted to no one else, for fear the spirit might fall upon some part of the tree not meant to catch fire.
Dressing (or decorating) the Christmas Tree

At last, all the contents of the basket were on the tree, and then the more important presents were brought down from an upper room. There were many large articles seemingly too clumsy for the tree, but Marian passed around them gay colored ribbons till they formed a basket work, and looped them over the branches till even Hester’s work box looked graceful. Dolls for each of the little girls were seated on the boughs, and a large cart for little Eddie, with two horses prancing before it, drove gayly among the top branches, as if each steed possessed the wings of Pegasus. On the moss beneath the branches Marian placed a set of wooden animals for Eddie, while from the topmost branch was suspended a gilded cage ready for the canary bird the Doctor had purchased for the pet-loving Lizzie. Various mysterious packages, wrapped in paper and marked Grace, Marian, or Papa, were put aside, that all the delicious mystery of Christmas might be preserved. At length all was ready and, carefully locking the doors, the trio went up to their respective rooms.

Christmas Day 1861
(from Godey’s Lady’s Book December 1861)

Our home looked splendid and was ready for Christmas to commence!
I must tell you that grandmother Moore is going to give a grand family party. All the children, grandchildren, aunts, cousins, from far and near, are to be invited to spend the day.
We had arranged that all the gifts were to be sent to grandmother’s to be distributed. We decked the front parlor with evergreens, hollyberries, and everlastings, and over the folding doors which separate the rooms we made in green and crimson berries the words “A Merry Christmas.”
The servants were kept quite busy on Christmas Day!
The servants received useful gifts on Christmas morning; the rest were reserved for evening of Christmas Day during the social gathering.
The company, nearly forty in all, assembled to dine at four, and darkness came on before they left the table.
Such a feast!
Never was there a more cheerful supper, or one more heartily enjoyed. The table was covered with pork and chicken pies, boiled turkey with oyster sauce, mashed potatoes, turnips, winter squash, applesauce, bread and cheese, cranberry tart, the customary mince-pies and plum-puddings and a large cake called the yule-cake, overspread with leaves and ornaments. And eggnog, the drink of choice. 
And the desserts were beyond compare!
When the meal was finished, the little ones were directed to amuse themselves in their own way. The whole house was thoroughly warmed and lighted, and every room opened. They bounded away in merry glee, with Uncle Frank as leader in all their sports and frolics.
The piano was opened and, after many modern pieces and songs, Auntie was urged to play some old tunes. “Please play the first march you ever learned.” “The Bugle March” was played, followed by “Auld Lang Syne” and “Adeste Fideles,” with variations. Then we sang hymns, in which all joined.
At length the little ones came into the parlor thoroughly tired.
In the center of the room stood the Christmas Tree which reached from floor to ceiling and branched out on each side almost touching the walls. All the gifts were upon the tree, and much of our weeks’ worth was explained in the little labels which fluttered from each one. Every gift has an appropriate line or verse attached to it.
Gracie’s wand had a hook on the end, and was long enough to reach every part of the tree. After all had been sufficiently admired, the distribution of gifts began. Walter stood under the tree and received the articles as Gracie unhooked them, then read aloud the verse attached, and passed them to Harvey or me, and we distributed them in the proper order. 
Sisters telling secrets on Christmas Day!
 It was strange, for the old family clock that had for seventy years been a perfect timepiece pointed only to nine. On looking at watches, it was found to be half past ten; there was much winking and laughing among the children, but no one would tell who persuaded the old clock to stop precisely at nine. 
Notice the hands pointed only to nine o'clock!
“Now we must hurry and get home soon as possible.”
“Before separating, let us unite in prayer.”
We knelt while Uncle Ellis offered a fervent, heartfelt prayer. When we rose from our knees, there were a few moments of hushed silence, for all felt the presence of the Savior, whose advent had this day been celebrated. After cloaks, overcoats, hoods, and furs were on, there was a reassembling in the parlor for last words.
“What a delightful evening!”
“I never enjoyed myself so well before.”
There was a general kissing, a cheerful “good night,” and then the merry sleigh bells sounding in different directions told us that the loved ones were going to their homes.
The oil lamp gave off just enough light to have our image taken and realistically colored
 ~   ~~ ~~   ~~ ~~   ~

Since this will more than likely be my last posting until after Christmas Day, I would like to wish my readers and followers the Merriest of Christmases. May your day be filled with all the joys of the past, the present, and the future.


Isobel -Argante- said...

OMG... thanks so much for your comment :)
I LOVE your blog, it's so full of history, traditions, passion... Thanks so much for the gorgeous things you share with us :)
And Merry Christmas!


GinaBVictorian said...

Wishing you and your family a blessed Christmas!

Historical Ken said...

Thank you both!!
Hope yours was Merry and wishing for a bright New Year!