Christmas in the 19th Century by Jill Mountain
1) Christmas is a national holiday in the United States, and although it is a religious holiday, it is also a major popular cultural event marked by retail sales, movies and television programs, and community events. While twenty-first century Americans may believe modern observances of the holiday are based on traditions that date back for hundreds of years, in reality, the celebration of Christmas has changed quite a bit over time. In fact, if one were transported back in time to the mid-nineteenth century for the Christmas season, the experience would be very different.
2) The Christmas tree, for example, was not widely popular until 1850. The tree had long been a German tradition, but uncommon in England or in the United States. However, in 1850, a British publication, Godey's Magazine, published wood-block prints of the royal family's tree, which was installed by Prince Albert, who was German. In the years that followed the Christmas tree became increasingly popular until it was a standard feature of every holiday celebration. In 1856, President Franklin Pierce ordered that a "German Tree" be installed in the White House as part of the annual decorations. Although tree ornaments imported from German were widely available as early as 1860, most Christmas trees were decorated with candles, fruits, and colorful ribbons and yarn. In 1847, a German immigrant blacksmith in Ohio created a metal star for the top of his family's tree, which started a trend that is still followed today.
3) Similarly, Christmas cards were a new development in the mid-1800s. Some German families likely exchanged holiday letters with friends and family in the United States and back in Europe, but there were no pre-printed cards, nor had the tradition of mass mailing cards to all of one's acquaintances yet emerged in the early part of the century. In 1851, however, Richard Pease, a New York printer, offered the first Christmas cards for sale. The first card featured a family at dinner and read "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year" and included the words "To:" and "From:" for the sender to personalize. Until 1875, Christmas cards were a novelty, popular with wealthy families. In 1875 a Boston printer, Louis Prang, offered a line of cards that featured several different scenes and were somewhat more affordable, leading to widespread interest throughout the northeast and eventually the American tradition of sending out cards every year.
4) Nineteenth century Christmas celebrations focused on the opportunity for an extravagant holiday meal more than on the exchange of gifts. It was common for people to receive one or two small gifts from close relatives. Holiday advertisings, as a result, were primarily for foods, and often featured foods that were exotic or considered too expensive for year-round use, such as dried fruits, or special candies.
5) That is not to say, however, that Santa Claus wasn't a part of the celebration. In the early part of the nineteenth century, different cultures had different names for the man who traveled around bringing gifts to children. In 1823, Clement Moore's book, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (what we now call "Twas the Night Before Christmas") conflated many different legends, including Kris Kringle and Saint Nicholas into a single idea of Santa Claus. In 1869 artist Thomas Nast rendered a portrait of Moore's Santa, dressing him in the red suit and giving him the white beard we've all become familiar with. By the late nineteenth century men dressed as Nast's Santa could be found on street corners collecting money for charity and talking with children. By the end of the century, Santa moved indoors, and in Philadelphia, began meeting and greeting children in department stores.
6) Finally, Christmas carols, which are a staple of the holiday season today, first became popular in the 1800s. While there were hymns and religious songs long before the nineteenth century, many of the songs most associated with Christmas were not written until then. For example, "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" was written in the late 1800s, "Jingle Bells" around 1855, and "Joy to the World" in 1839. Since there was, of course, no radio, television, or movies at the time, the popularity of the songs grew slowly, as people heard them in public performances, bought sheet music, and played them at home.
7) While there might be some aspects of the nineteenth century Christmas a twenty-first century visitor would find familiar, what would likely be most striking would be how modest or reserved the celebration was. Christmas planning did not begin months in advance, and the focus was always on family and fellowship.