Published: 20-02-2010, 22:12

Christmas in Nineteenth-Century America

At the beginning of the nineteenth century American Christmas celebrations varied considerably from region to region. These variations reflected religious and ethnic differences in the population. In PURITAN New England, for example, many people ignored the holiday (see Christmas in Colonial America). In Pennsylvania German-American communities reproduced a number of German Christmas traditions. Prosperous Southerners, especially those of Anglican English or French descent, hosted lavish Christmas meals and parties. All across the country many of those who celebrated Christmas in nineteenth-century America did so with noisy, public, and some-times drunken, reveling. By contrast, non-observers tried to ignore the noise and the festivities. They treated the day as any other workday, since it was not a legal holiday in most of the century.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, however, more and more people began celebrating Christmas. Regional and religious differences faded as new American Christmas customs emerged. These customs helped to transform the American Christmas into the tranquil, domestic festival we know today. As the century rolled on, larger numbers of people incorporated customs and myths surrounding the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, and family gift exchanges into their Christmas celebrations. The Civil War (1861-65) served as a watershed in American Christmas observances, after which time the commercial trappings of the holiday—especially Christmas cards, store-bought gifts, store window displays, and wrapping paper — took on greater importance.
New York and Pennsylvania
In the early nineteenth century some New Yorkers and Pennsyl-vanians celebrated Christmas with mumming and other forms of noisy, public merrymaking. Young men of German extraction carried out their own variation of mumming known as “belsnickeling”. In Pennsylvania Dutch country, students sometimes celebrated Christmas by barring out the schoolmaster. In
New York brazen parties of drunk men sang, played instruments, and shouted in the streets on Christmas Eve, disturbing the sleep of more serious-minded citizens. On New Year’s Day custom dictated that ladies stay at home to exchange New Year’s greetings with a string of gentlemen callers, all of whom were entertained with food and drink. For gentlemen with a wide range of female acquaintances, this custom presented yet another opportunity to consume large quantities of alcohol. Christmas mumming occurred in both New York and Pennsylvania, to the dismay of those who favored a more solemn observance of the season.
In addition to those customs it shared with New York, Pennsylvania boasted its own highly developed noisemaking traditions during this era. In Philadelphia young men wandered the streets during the Christmas season, drinking, shooting off firecrackers, shouting, and sometimes fighting with one another. Some even strutted about in costume and were referred to as “fantasticals.” Many of these celebrants wandered about the downtown blowing horns on Christmas Eve. Those who could not lay their hands on horns added to the pandemonium with tin whistles, sailors’hornpipes, tin pans, hand-held bells, sleigh bells, or homemade instruments. In the year 1861 these mock minstrels raised such a racket that they reduced the center of the city to chaos.
The city government, dominated by those who did not celebrate Christmas, made two attempts to outlaw parading, masquerading, and horn playing on Christmas Eve, once in 1868 and again in 1881. The practice proved too deeply rooted to stamp out, however. Eventually, the city instituted the New Year’s Day Mummers Parade, which modified these activities and channeled them into a controlled format. This popular parade continues today. (For other nineteenth-century Pennsylvania customs, see Amish Christmas.)
The South
Southerners also celebrated Christmas by making noise. Men shot off guns both on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Firecrackers and gunpowder explosions added to the din. Children without access to either of these items sometimes celebrated by popping inflated hog bladders, the nineteenth-century farm equivalent of a balloon. Southern Christmas celebrations featured so many bangs and explosions that some witnesses said they rivaled Independence Day celebrations. In 1902 an article printed in a New York newspaper claimed that New York manufacturers had sold $1 million worth of fireworks to Southern buyers during the Christmas season.
In addition to noisemaking, residents of many Southern cities also enjoyed dressing in costume on Christmas Eve. In some places they were referred to as “fantasticals,” like their fellow celebrants in Pennsylvania. Baltimore, Savannah, Mobile, and St. Augustine hosted versions of this Christmas Eve masquerade. Arrayed in costumes ranging from funny to frightening, residents sallied forth to promenade up and down the main streets of the town. Something similar survives today in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations. Lastly, many residents of the former French territories, which became the states of Louisiana and Missouri, celebrated Christmas with French customs. These customs included assembling Nativity scenes, attending Midnight Mass, cooking up sumptuous réveillon suppers, and hosting parties in honor of New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night.
The Slaves
The slaves developed Christmas customs of their own. In North Carolina some celebrated Jonkonnu. Some slaves observed an all-night vigil on Christmas Eve during which they sang, danced, and prayed. Throughout the South slaves greeted white folk on Christmas morning with the cry of “Christmas gif!” According to custom, the white person responded by giving them a present, either a coin or a gift. In addition, slaveowners often distributed presents of clothing, shoes, blankets and other necessities to their slaves at Christmas time. Some slaveowners provided their slaves with extra rations of food at Christmas, including meat, which was something the slaves rarely ate during the rest of the year. Slaveowners frequently provided ample portions of liquor as well. At many plantations slaves celebrated Christmas by dressing in their best clothes, feasting, and dancing. At other plantations slaves worked through the Christmas holidays. Sometimes slaveowners withheld the privilege of celebrating Christmas from those slaves who had displeased them during the year. Others gave presents only to women who had borne babies or to the most productive workers. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) later looked back on the customs of the plantation Christmas as mechanisms for controlling the slaves. He argued that days of drunken carousing subtly convinced some slaves that they were incapable of productive behavior if left to their own devices.
After Slavery
In the late nineteenth century African-American Christmas celebrations varied quite a bit. Some African Americans celebrated a modest Christmas, exchanging gifts of homemade food and clothing and attending church. Visitors to the Indiana State Museum’s Freetown Village, a permanent, living-history exhibit, can watch a play that reenacts an 1870s African-American Christmas of this type. Others reproduced some of the old customs of the plantation Christmas. The children greeted any adult they could find with the cry of “Christmas gift!” and the adults danced, drank to excess, and refrained from work. African-American educator Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) observed these conditions in Tuskegee, Alabama, in the 1880s. As head of the town’s newly founded school for African Americans (now Tuskegee University), he made it a point to teach his students to celebrate a sober Christmas, dedicated at least in part to religious observance and to aiding the less fortunate.
The West
Out on the Western frontier men celebrated Christmas by shooting off their guns and banging on tin pans in noisy and often drunken processions. In Minnesota settlers of Swedish descent attended Julotta services on Christmas morning (see also Christmas carol). Texans celebrated with Christmas Eve balls. Throughout the Southwest many of Hispanic descent staged Las Posadas and Los Pastores, traditional Christmas folk plays.
Christmas Becomes a Legal Holiday
After the Revolution the newly established American government revoked all British holidays. This act left the United States without any national festivals. In 1838 Louisiana was the first state to recognize Christmas as a legal holiday. One by one, the other states followed suit. Finally, on June 26,1870, in recognition of the large number of people who already observed the day, Congress declared Christmas to be a national holiday.
Protestants Embrace Christmas
Just as the states of the nation began to declare Christmas a legal holiday, many Protestant denominations that had previously rejected Christmas began to accept the festival. Between the years 1830 and 1870 Christmas slowly crept into Sunday school curriculums. The middle of the century also witnessed the publication of new American Christmas hymns. A number of these, such as “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and “We Three Kings” — all composed by clergymen — have become Christmas standards. By the end of the century Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and Congregationalist churches were offering Christmas services on the Sunday nearest Christmas. Perhaps this change signified that the passage of time had finally severed the connections made by many Protestants between Christmas, Roman Catholicism, and the religious oppression of past eras.
A Festival of Home and Family
The Christmas celebrations that the Protestant denominations were now embracing were not quite the same ones their ancestors had rejected. Several researchers of nineteenth-century American Christmas customs point out that as the century progressed many of the more boisterous elements of the festival diminished. These elements included mumming, belsnickeling, public drinking, and noisemak-ing. Americans increasingly viewed these activities as unworthy of the season. Instead, they began to create a tranquil celebration that focused on home and family ties. These changes probably encouraged former non-celebrants, including many previously hostile Protestant denominations, to adopt the new version of the holiday. Several new Christmas customs helped to facilitate this transition to a more peaceful, domestic festival, including the Christmas tree, Christmas cards, the family gift exchange, and the new American gift bringer, Santa Claus.
Christmas Trees and Gift Giving
Most colonial Americans who observed the day did not give Christmas gifts to their children. Eighteenth-century Americans were more likely to give gifts to servants or to those who performed services for them during the year (see Boxing Day). Likewise, many nineteenth-century Americans resisted the idea of exchanging Christmas gifts with friends and family because they viewed Christmas gifts as something one gave to social inferiors. At the turn of the nineteenth century those who did give presents to family members and neighbors frequently gave simple, homemade gifts, such as handsewn or knitted articles of clothing, wooden toys, or homemade preserves. Family gift giving appears to have been somewhat more frequent in German-American and Dutch-American communities. In these areas children might receive fruits, nuts, and sweets from Christkindel or the local belsnickelers. Some adults in these communities also exchanged small gifts, such as handkerchiefs, scarves, or hats. Of those adult Americans who exchanged gifts during the winter holiday season, many did so on New Year’s Day rather than on Christmas.
Christmas gifts started to become more common about mid-century. Several factors contributed to this rise in popularity. First, people began to adopt the German custom of installing a Christmas tree in their parlors as a holiday decoration. The Germans covered their trees with good things to eat and small gifts. Hence, the tree focused everyone’s attention on giving and receiving. In addition, because it stood at the center of the household, the tree showcased the family gift exchange. Whereas, in the past, some parents may have stuffed a few sweets into their children’s stockings, they now could hang little gifts from a tree branch. Liberated from the tight quarters of the Christmas stocking, the gifts parents gave to children grew in size and substance. Before 1880 people usually hung their unwrapped gifts from the tree with thread or string. After that time, wrapping paper and fancy decorated boxes slowly became fashionable. As Christmas presents grew too large or heavy to hang on the tree, people began to place them beneath the tree.
Although charity had been an element of Christmas celebrations for centuries (see also Christmas in Europe), it became a more prominent theme of the festival during the nineteenth century. Some writers credit the Christmas stories of English author Charles Dickens (1812-1870), especially A Christmas carol, with significantly increasing public interest in Christmas charity. In addition, many ministers preached to their congregations about giving to those less fortunate. The Salvation Army took this message to heart in the 1890s, mounting a successful campaign to raise funds to provide the poor with bountiful Christmas dinners in large public halls.
Santa Claus and Children’s Gifts
Santa Claus played an important role in the popularization of Christmas gift giving. This American folk figure became widely known in the second half of the nineteenth century, consolidating and replacing the lesser-known, ethnic gift bringers Christkindel (also known as Kriss Kringle), Belsnickel, and St. Nicholas. This bit of American folklore did not spring up from the masses of the American folk, however. Literary and artistic figures, such as Clement C. Moore (1779-1863), the author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and illustrator Thomas Nast (1840-1902), developed the myth and image of Santa Claus that became popular through their works. Nevertheless, the American people quickly adopted him as their own. Santa delivered gifts to youngsters by visiting their homes on Christmas Eve. The increasing popularity of Santa Claus boosted the importance of gifts, especially gifts for children, in American Christmas celebrations.
Commerce and Cards
The decade following the Civil War witnessed a sudden rise in store-bought gift giving. Researchers have traced this upsurge to two complementary factors: consumer demand and commercial promotion. Although some people objected to the impersonality of store-bought gifts, others desired the new, manufactured goods. Moreover, retailers set about enticing the public into spending money on Christmas with such innovations as lavish store window displays, wrapping paper, and special advertising campaigns (see Commercialism). Stores began to schedule special holiday season hours to accommodate the seasonal increase in customers. In New York City shop doors remained open until midnight during the Christmas season, generat-ing concern in some quarters for the plight of overworked shop assistants.
Christmas cards achieved widespread popularity by the 1880s, about the time when Americans began celebrating Christmas by exchanging store-bought gifts. According to one researcher, nineteenth-century cards replaced more personal yet more time-consuming ways of sending seasonal greetings, such as writing letters and visiting (see also Children’s Letters). The cards anchored themselves more firmly among America’s Christmas customs after the turn of the twentieth century, when people began to use cards to replace cheap gifts for more distant friends and relatives.
During the nineteenth century American Christmas celebrations be-gan to coalesce around customs that promoted symbolic exchanges of love and good will both between family members and in the wider community. These customs—the night visit of Santa Claus, Christmas trees, family gift exchanges, Christmas cards, and Christmas charity—still stand at the center of today’s festivities. Throughout the nineteenth century regional differences in the celebration of Christmas diminished, although they never quite disappeared. The twentieth century would witness the further erosion of these regional customs.