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Tagged with " Puritans"
21 Dec
2017

Christmas Traditions in 19th Century America

Christmas Traditions in 19th Century

This is the second in a series of explorations of the holiday traditions at the time of my grandparents, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This blog was first published on 12/14/15.

As this Christmas season bustles with tree decorating and shopping, gift giving and holiday parties, and children’s letters to Santa Claus, I wonder what Christmas was like in the time of my grandparents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. We often think that the traditions of Christmas have been handed down through the many generations of our multi-ethnic heritage. I discovered that most of the holiday celebrations and activities we observe today emerged in mid-nineteenth century America.

Christmas Holiday Barely Noticed

Americans, religious or not, northern or southern, barely noticed the Christmas holiday as late as the beginning of theChristmas Tree nineteenth century. The “creation of an American Christmas was a response to social and personal needs that arose at a particular point” in our history, concludes Penne Restad in History Today. The customs that emerged, addressed the insecurities, conflicts and confusion created by the civil war, urbanization and industrialization.

Christmas was not a holiday in the early colonies of the Puritans. In fact, the holiday was anathema and illegal for the Puritans who considered it raucous and sinful. They also banned any celebration because “Christmas” does not exist in the Bible nor did they believe that Jesus was born in December but rather in September. Christmas is often traced to the effort by Pope Julius I who chose December 25 to celebrate the birth of Christ to co-opt a Roman pagan ritual characterized by food drink and revelry. Thus, the lack of any theological justification for Christmas allowed the holiday to emerge in America as an event to be celebrated by the diverse ethnic, mostly Christian, immigrants to this country.  The ‘American’ Christmas holiday captured the sometimes conflicting themes of “commercialism and artisanship, as well as nostalgia and faith in progress, that defined late nineteenth-century culture,” according to Restad.

Albert_Chevallier_Tayler_-_The_Christmas_Tree_1911Popularity Grew

The popularity of celebrating the Christmas holiday grew after the Civil War, and the message of peace and goodwill resonated with many Americans who yearned for reconciliation and unity. By the end of the nineteenth century many of the familiar components and traditions as described by Robert McNamera in “The History of Christmas Traditions” of our modern Christmas had begun to take hold throughout the country. German settlers had introduced the tradition of the Christmas tree. It became popular outside German communities after Prince Albert, the German-born husband of Queen Victoria decorated a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in the 1840’s. Decorating Christmas trees and the commercially boosted practice of giving gifts and sending Christmas cards blossomed in the 1870-80’s.

Santa Claus face, rosy cheeksSt. Nicholas was considered the patron saint of Early Dutch settlers who practiced the ritual of hanging stockings. Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” often called “The Night Before Christmas” in 1823. Thomas Nast, a famous cartoonist is credited with creating in 1863, the modern portrayal of Santa Claus showing him on a sleigh and introducing the notion that Santa lived at the North Pole keeping a workshop with elves. In 1897 a young girl wrote to a New York newspaper and received a response from editor, Francis Pharcellus Church. It became the most famous newspaper editorial ever printed. The eloquent editorial asserted in an often quoted sentence, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Santa_Coming_Down_the_Chimney_Drawing

 

Christmas Traditions Firmly Established

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the popular traditions of Christmas celebration were firmly established broadly throughout the country. Ethnic Christian and Jewish communities added their own traditional twists. Families from humble circumstances found ways of sharing the joys of the season with handmade Christmas decorations and gifts, writing Christmas letters instead of purchasing cards and cooking more modest meals to share with family and neighbors.

What Are Your Family Traditions?

Do you have special traditions in your family? Are there special decorations that have been handed down? Do you have favorite foods that are served at Christmas dinner? Did Santa or St. Nick visit your house? How do you imagine the holidays were celebrated by your ancestors? Please share your traditions and stories below.

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6 Dec
2015

Imagining Thanksgiving on the American Prairie

Photos ThanksgivingI think about my grandmother often since I am working on the revisions of my novel, a fictionalized version of her life and the life of my grandfather. As I did the genealogical research on my grandparents, I was reminded that she was born one 145 years ago just before Thanksgiving. So this a time for me to honor her birth as well as to be grateful for her inspiration.

This year I celebrated Thanksgiving in Ireland where a dear friend cooked us a delicious traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Ireland is a country that doesn’t celebrate this most American of holidays. Thinking of my grandmother, I wondered how she might have celebrated Thanksgiving and her birthday which would have often fallen on Thanksgiving Day. I have no clues from my own family traditions. My curiosity led me to explore some of the history of one of the most favorite of American holidays. Thanksgiving combines the ancient traditions of harvest festivals and the religious observances of the Puritans grateful and giving thanks for their survival after a year of sickness and scarcity.

We learn as children in school about the Pilgrim story of Thanksgiving. But I had no idea that earlier ceremonies by other British Colonists and Spanish explorers in North America occurred before the Plymouth celebration of 1621. Although Thanksgiving in the colonies became a regular event by the middle of the 17th century, the first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed in 1777 by the Continental Congress. The early Presidents continued to proclaim a national day of Thanksgivings but it was not an official holiday. In fact, by the middle of the 19th century Thanksgiving was limited to individual state observances and had evolved from the religious and civil day of commemoration and giving thanks to a family holiday of feasting. President Lincoln was convinced to declare a national holiday in 1863 in an effort to unite the war-torn country. Lincoln’s successors proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day each year. It became a fixed annual celebration in 1941 when Congress established the fourth Thursday of the month of November as Thanksgiving.

Imagining Thanksgiving

Old Thanksgiving images

Without any family stories or traditions, I turned to my imagination about how my grandparents might have celebrated Thanksgiving Day. Since it was not a firm national holiday and observed differently by state, my grandparents, as struggling homesteaders, might not have even celebrated Thanksgiving. Certainly after my grandfather died leaving my grandmother in dire and impoverished circumstances, her ability to provide an extravagant feast would have been very limited. Yet, the tradition of acknowledging God’s blessings and giving thanks would have been important to my grandmother as I remember her. I imagine that when the President of the United States did declare a day of Thanksgiving, which may or may not have been in November, that she probably commemorated the day. She may have cooked something special and I am convinced that she would ensure that she and her children offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings in their lives. I also imagine that she ignored or discounted any celebration of her November birthday as too frivolous and extravagant.

What are Your Traditions?

Do you have inherited family traditions on Thanksgiving? What do you imagine your grandparents or great grandparents did to celebrate a day of family feasting or to express gratitude and give thanks in their faith on Thanksgiving Day? Please post your comments and share your stories below.

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