Christmas, and most winter holidays, have a special sepia tone glow of nostalgia and tradition surrounding them. With the gentle unwrapping of each and every Christmas tree ornament and the retelling of where it came from, we reaffirm the importance of our own personal histories. Each time we open the oven to check on the progress of a heralded family recipe, we can rest easy on the continuity of our our families.
As most people know, holiday traditions have changed vastly over the past two or three centuries, but cultural memory tends to only go back two or maybe three generations. Telling a story from your grandmother's time is one thing; telling one from her mother's time gets more difficult.
So today I've decided to review a few historic ways to celebrate the holidays. By no means is this meant to be an exhaustive examination of Christmas celebrations. But at least I can touch on a few now, and maybe (if I get any better at following through on my grand goals for posts in a series) I'll follow up with more later.
Celebrate New Year's Day: Christmas traditionally was a church holiday, celebrated with small gatherings and long days at church. This was true in the 18th century and all the way into the 19th. In 1845, a letter from the Livingstons' neighbor Mary Clarkson wrote "Christmas Eve Clermont [Livingston] and Cornelia were tired for they had been at church all day." Even Christian people who were not regular church-goers made an effort to get there, and it could be a little overwhelming to the church's capacity: "the Church was very crowded...[with] many strangers who attend on that day..." wrote Clermont Livingston in 1841. In nearby New England in the early 19th century, Christmas was not celebrated with any particular flare at all. In the 18th century, gifts were few and small, and generally they were given to the less fortunate or dependents. St. Nicholas day (December 6th) was celebrated by the Dutch, and that was a more gift-oriented holiday (seen at left).
In New York and elsewhere, New Years' Day continued to get lots of attention however. Again, some presents were exchanged, and the tradition of New Year's Day visiting was king. It began with the Dutch, but it was too much fun for everyone else to get left out. On New Year's Day, young gentlemen went from house to house on brief social calls (remember that the well-to-do were back from their country houses and warmly in the city by this time of year)--especially the houses with pretty, unmarried ladies in them. The young ladies were responsible for handing out food and lots of drink while looking absolutely stunning. It was a point of pride for ladies to collect as many gentleman's calling cards as possible, and it was a point of pride for young gentlemen to visit a lot of houses.
By the end of the 19th century, the obvious implications of young men dashing about picking up drinks from their girlfriends as possible began to become unpopular. Harper's Bazar decried turning the city's best young women into barmaids as well, and eventually the practice fell out of fashion.
Hand Decorate Your Christmas Tree: I don't know about you, but I always know it's Christmas when I start seeing cars on the highway with big green trees waving around on top. The Christmas tree has become a crucial part of American Christmas celebration, fraught with deeply-felt household traditions. Each time a special ornament gets pulled out, we have to retell the story of its origin. My family was using 20-year-old origami mice and cranes when I was little because those were the ornaments my parents had made for their first Christmas tree together.
Since the trees were new to America, the large industry of ornament production had not developed yet. Instead, trees could be decorated with a variety of objects--many of them hand-made, toys to be given as presents, or candy. Note that the 1860s tree above left is covered with toy drums, dolls, and tiny baskets of candy (also note that the presents aren't wrapped. Wrapping presents in brown paper became popular at the end of the century. Pretty printed wrapping papers increased in popularity in the 1920s and 30s). In 1888 Clermont Livingston thanked his brother for the "candy for the tree." The 1895 Library of Congress photo at right shows popcorn garland still in use (along with tinsel, which was still somewhat new). Other ornaments could be made from clever cutting of printed materials (trade cards with holiday designs on them) or even hand-sewn from cloth.
Handmade or edible ornaments could be mixed with mass produced. Ball-shaped ornaments became popular early on, and blown-glass ornaments grew in popularity during the 19th century. Clermont houses a collection of late 19th century tree ornaments, seen at left. Some of our rare ornaments date back to the earliest production of tree ornaments in the 1860s. Apparently the Livingstons took their tree decorating pretty seriously from early on. In particular, note the strings of blown-glass beads. We have a number of these, and I've seen them portrayed on other historic trees. Apparently the form went out of style in the early 20th century, but I find them quite interesting!
Break Open a Christmas Bag: Christmas stockings were a common means of dispensing presents to children early in the 19th century. But sometimes stockings for 4-10 children could be overwhelming, and a new practice developed: "They say that some families, to avoid the inconveniences of so many
stockings, hang up a great bag, and St. ’Eclaus is so obliging as to put
his presents, properly directed, into the bag," wrote one New Englander in the 1830s. Christmas bags don't seem to have been recorded at Clermont, but they were widely popular in the Northeastern United States at least until the 1860s. Much like a Christmas pinata, a little paper bag for of toys was hung in a doorway. Then a few children were blindfolded and handed sticks with which to poke at it. When the bag broke open, children scattered around on the floor, scrambling to pick up whatever they could.
Make the Kids Dress Up: I've got a closet full of cute Christmas dresses for my daughter, but the 19th century well-to-do wanted something more. After dinner, the children were welcomed into the dining room (most children didn't share formal dinners with their parents until they were "old enough") to put on a parade or a play. They dressed up in costumes, made plenty of noise, and did what children are best for: making their parents laugh. I've seen several references to this holiday tradition, though sadly none at Clermont, and I feel that it is time that this one get revived. Dinner theater anyone?
So while you are feeling the warm glow of Christmas tradition this winter and yearning for even more, you might take a moment to consider some of the traditions that go "way back." Victorian Christmas is a buzzword for museums, stores, and anyone trying to conjure up idyllic images of days gone by, but armed with a few historical oddities (and not much money), you can make your season just a little more interesting this year!