Christmas, Antebellum, Confederate White House

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FROM: The New York WORLD, Sunday, December 13, 1896 (p. 26): Written especially for the Sunday World Magazine by Mrs. Jefferson Davis.

    NOTE:  The  left  margin of this clipping is  ragged  in  places.
    Missing  or fragmentary words that could not be puzzled  out  are 
    indicated as "[missing]."
          While  looking  over  the advertisements of  the  toys  and
    everything  else  intended  to make the children  joyful  in  the
    columns  of  the  city papers, I have  been  impressed  with  the
    contrast  between the present time and the con-[missing]  of  the
    Southern  country thirty-one years ago, but not withstanding  the
    great facilities of the present time, have been unable to  decide
    whether for the young it was not as gay then as now.

          For  as Christmas season was ushered in under  the  darkest
    clouds, everyone felt  the cataclysm which impended but the rosy,
    expectant  faces of our little children were a constant  reminder
    that self-sacrifice must be the personal offering of each  member
    of  the family.  How to satisfy the children when nothing  better
    could  be  done  than  the little  makeshift  attainable  in  the
    Confederacy  was  the  problem  of  the  older  members  of  each
    household.  There were no currants, raisins or other  ingredients
    to  fill the old Virginia recipe for mince  pie, and the children 
    considered that  at  least  a slice of  that  much-coveted dainty
    was their right and the price of indigestion paid for  it  was  a 
    debt  of  honor  [missing]  from them to the  season's exactions.   
    Apple trees grew  and  bore  in  spite of war's  alarms,  so  the 
    foundation   of   the  mixture  was  assured.  The  many  excited    
    housekeepers in Richmond had preserved all the fruits attainable,
    and  these  were  substituted for the  time-honored  raisins  and
    currants.   The   brandy required for seasoning  at  one  hundred
    dollars a  bottle   was  forthcoming,   the  cider  was obtained.   
    Suet  at  a  dollar a pound  was  ordered  --  and  the [missing]  
    seemed   a  blessed  certainty --  but  the  eggnog  -- [missing]  
    were  the  eggs  and  liquors  to  be procured  --  without which 
    Christmas would be a failure to the negroes.


          "If  it's  only a little wineglass,"  said  the  [missing],
    dusty-looking  negro rubber in the stables who [missing]  in  the
    back log (our substitute for the [missing] eggnog).  "I dunno how
    we  gwine  git  along without no eggnog."   So,  after  redoubled
    efforts,  the  liquors  and other  ingredients  were  secured  in
    admirable quantities.  The little jackets, pieced together out of
    such  cloth  remaining  when  uniforms were  turned  out  by  the
    tailors,  were issued to the children of the soldiers,  amid  the
    remonstrances  of  the mothers that the pattern of  them  "wasn't
    worth a cent."

          Rice, flour, molasses and tiny pieces of meat, most of them
    sent to the President's wife anonymously to be distributed to the
    poor,  had  all be weighed and issued, and the  playtime  of  the
    family began, but like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky  came
    the  information  that the orphans at the Episcopalian  home  had
    been promised a Christmas tree and the toys, candy and cakes must
    be  provided,  as well as one pretty prize for the  most  orderly
    girl  among  the  orphans.   The  kind-hearted  confectioner  was
    interviewed  by  our  committee of managers, and  he  promised  a
    certain  amount  of  his simpler kinds of candy,  which  he  sold
    easily  a  dollar  and a half a pound, but he drew  the  line  at
    cornucopias  to hold it, or sugared fruits to hang on  the  tree,
    and all the other vestiges of Christmas creations which had  lain
    on  his hands for years.  The ladies dispersed in anxious  squads
    of  toy-hunters,  and  each  one turned over  the  store  of  her
    children's treasures for a contribution to the orphans' tree,  my
    little ones rushed over the great house looking up their treasure
    eyeless  dolls,  three-legged  horses, tops with  the  upper  peg
    broken off, rubber tops, monkeys with all the squeak gone  silent
    and  all  the ruck of children's toys that gather  in  a  nursery


         Some  small  feathered chickens and  parrots  which  nodded
    their heads in obedience to a weight beneath them were  furnished
    with  new  tail  feathers, lambs minus much of  their  wool  were
    supplied  with a cotton wool substitute, rag dolls  were  plumped
    out and recovered with clean cloth, and the young ladies  painted
    their  fat faces in bright colors and furnished them  with  beads
    for eyes.

         But  the tug of war was how to get something with  which  to
    decorate  the orphans' tree.  Our man servant, Robert Brown,  was
    much   interested  and  offered  to  make  the  prize  toy.    He
    contemplated a "sure enough house, with four rooms." His part  in
    the domestic service was delegated to another and he gave himself
    over in silence and solitude to the labors of the architect.
          My sister painted mantel shelves, door panels, pictures and
    frames  for  the walls, and finished with black grates  in  which
    their  blazed  a roaring fire, which was  pronounced  marvelously
    realistic.  We all made furniture of twigs and pasteboard, and my
    mother made pillows, mattresses, sheets and pillow cases for  the
    two little bedrooms.

          Christmas Eve a number of young people were invited to come
    and string apples and popcorn for the trees; a neighbor very deft
    in  domestic arts had tiny candle moulds made and  furnished  all
    the candles for the tree.  However the puzzle and triumph of  all
    was  the construction of a large number of cornucopias.  At  last
    someone  suggested  a  conical block of  wood,  about  which  the
    drawing paper could be wound and pasted.  In a little book shop a
    number  of  small, highly colored pictures cut out and  ready  to
    apply  were  unearthed,  and our  old  confectioner  friend,  Mr.
    Piazzi,  consented,  with a broad smile, to give  "all  the  love
    verses the young people wanted to roll with the candy."


           About  twenty  young men and girls  gathered  around  small
    tables  in  one  of  the drawing rooms of  the  mansion  and  the
    cornucopias  were begun.  The men wrapped the squares  of  candy,
    first reading the "sentiments" printed upon them, such as  "Roses
    are  red, violets blue, sugar's sweet and so are you,"   "If  you
    love  me  as I love you no knife can cut our love in  two."   The
    fresh  young faces, wreathed in smiles, nodded attention  to  the
    reading,  while  with  their  small  deft  hands  they glued  the
    cornucopias and pasted on the pictures.  Where were the silk tops
    to come from?  Trunks of old things were turned out and snippings
    of silk and even woolen of bright colors were found to close  the
    tops, and some of the young people twisted sewing silk into cords
    with  which to draw the bags up.  The beauty of  those  home-made
    things  astonished us all, for they looked  quite  "custom-made,"
    but when the "sure enough house" was revealed to our longing gaze
    the  young people clapped their approbation, while Robert,  whose
    sense  of  dignity  did  not  permit  him  to  smile,  stood  the
    impersonation  of successful artist and bowed his thanks for  our
    approval.   Then  the coveted eggnog was passed  around  in  tiny
    glass cups and pronounced good.  Crisp home-made ginger snaps and
    snowy lady cake completed the refreshments of Christmas Eve.  The
    children  allowed  to  sit up and be noisy in  their  way  as  an
    indulgence took a sip of eggnog out of my cup, and the eldest boy
    confided to his father: "Now I just know this is Christmas."   In
    most  of the houses in Richmond these same scenes  were  enacted,
    certainly  in  every  one of the homes of  the  managers  of  the
    Episcopalian  Orphanage.   A  bowl  of eggnog  was  sent  to  the
    servants, and a part of everything they coveted of the dainties.

          At  last  quiet  settled on the  household  and  the  older
    members  of  the family began to stuff  stockings  with  molasses
    candy,  red apples, an orange, small whips plaited by the  family
    with high-colored crackers, worsted reins knitted at home,  paper
    dolls,  teetotums  made of large horn bottoms and a  match  which
    could  spin  indefinitely, balls of worsted rags wound  hard  and
    covered  with old kid gloves, a pair of pretty woolen gloves  for
    each, either cut of cloth and embroidered on the back or  knitted
    by some deft hand out of home-spun wool.  For the President there
    were   a  pair  of  chamois-skin  riding  gauntlets   exquisitely
    embroidered on the back with his monogram in red and white  silk,
    made, as the giver wrote, under the guns of Fortress Monroe  late
    at  night for fear of discovery.  There was a  hemstitched  linen
    handkerchief,  with  a  little sketch in  indelible  ink  in  one
    corner;  the  children  had written  him  little  letters,  their
    grandmother  having  held  their  hands,  the  burthen  of  which
    compositions  was how they loved their dear father.  For  one  of
    the  inmates  of  the  home, who  was  greatly  loved  but  whose
    irritable  temper was his prominent failing, their was  a  pretty
    cravat, the ends of which were embroidered, as was the fashion of
    the  day.  The pattern chosen was simple and on it was  pinned  a
    card  with the word "amiable" to complete the sentence.   One  of
    the  [missing]  received  a present of  an  illuminated  copy  of
    Solomon's  proverbs  found in the same old store from  which  the
    pictures came. He studied it for some time and announced: "I have
    changed  my  opinion  of Solomon,  he  uttered  such  unnecessary
    platitudes  -- now why should he have said 'The foolishness of  a
    fool  is  his folly'?"

         On Christmas morning the children awoke early and came in to
    see  their toys.  They were followed by the negro women, who  one
    after another "caught" us by wishing us a merry Christmas  before
    we  could say it to them, which gave them a right to a gift.   Of
    course, there was a present for every one, small though it  might
    be,  and one who had been born and brought up at  our  plantation
    was  vocal in her admiration of a gay handkerchief. As  she  left
    the room she ejaculated: "Lord knows mistress knows our  insides;
    she jest got the very thing I wanted."


          For  me there were six cakes of delicious soap,  made  from
    the  grease of ham boiled for a family at Farmville, a  skein  of
    exquisitely fine gray linen thread spun at home, a pincushion  of
    some  plain  brown cotton material made by some  poor  woman  and
    stuffed  with  wool  from her pet sheep, and a  little  baby  hat
    plaited  by the orphans and presented by the  industrious  little
    pain  who  sewed  the straw together.   They  pushed  each  other
    silently  to  speak,  and at last mutely  offered  the  hat,  and
    considered  the  kiss  they gave the sleeping  little  one  ample
    reward  for the industry and far above the fruit with which  they
    were  laden.   Another present was a fine, delicate  little  baby
    frock  without  an inch of lace or embroidery upon  it,  but  the
    delicate  fabric was set with fairy stitches by the dear  invalid
    neighbor who made it, and it was very precious in my eyes.  There
    were also a few of Swinburne's best songs bound in wall-paper and
    a  chamois needlebook left for me by young Mr. P., now  succeeded
    to his title in England. In it was a Brobdinagian thimble "for my
    own finger, you know," said the handsome, cheerful young fellow.
           After breakfast, at which all the family, great and  small,
    were present, came the walk to St. Paul's Church.  We did not use
    our carriage on Christmas or, if possible to avoid it, on Sunday.
    The saintly Dr. Minnegerode preached a sermon on Christian  love,
    the  introit was sung by a beautiful young society woman and  the
    angels  might have joyfully listened.  Our chef did wonders  with
    the  turkey and roast beef, and drove the children quite  out  of
    their propriety by a spun sugar hen, life-size, on a nest full of
    blanc mange eggs.  The mince pie and plum pudding made them feel,
    as one of the gentlemen laughingly remarked, "like their  jackets
    were  buttoned," a strong description of repletion which  I  have
    never  forgotten.  They waited with great impatience and  evident
    dyspeptic  symptoms for the crowning amusement of the  day,  "the
    children's  tree."   My  eldest boy, a chubby  little  fellow  of
    seven, came to me several times to whisper: "Do you think I ought
    to give the orphans my I.D. studs?"  When told no, he beamed with
    the  delight  of  an approving conscience.   All  throughout  the
    afternoon first one little head and then another popped in at the
    door  to ask: "Isn't it 8 o'clock yet?," burning with  impatience
    to see the "children's tree."


          When  at last we reached the basement of St. Paul's  Church
    the tree burst upon their view like the realization of  Aladdin's
    subterranean orchard, and they were awed by its grandeur.
           The  orphans sat mute with astonishment until  the  opening
    hymn and prayer and the last amen had been said, and then they at
    a  signal warily and slowly gathered around the tree  to  receive
    from  a lovely young girl their allotted present.  The  different
    gradations from joy to ecstasy which illuminated their faces  was
    "worth two years of peaceful life" to see.  The President  became
    so  enthusiastic that he undertook to help in  the  distribution,

    but  worked such wild confusion giving everything asked for  into
    their outstretched hands, that we called a halt, so he  contented
    himself  with unwinding one or two tots from a network of  strung
    popcorn  in  which they had become entangled and taking  off  all
    apples  he  could  when unobserved, and presenting  them  to  the
    smaller children.  When at last the house was given to the "honor
    girl"  she moved her lips without emitting a sound, but  held  it
    close to her breast and went off in a corner to look and be  glad
    without witnesses.

          "When the lights were fled, the garlands dead, and all  but
    we  departed" we also went home to find that Gen. Lee had  called
    in  our absence, and many other people.  Gen. Lee had  left  word
    that he had received a barrel of sweet potatoes for us, which had
    been  sent  to him by mistake.  He did not discover  the  mistake
    until  he had taken his share (a dishful) and given the  rest  to
    the soldiers!  We wished it had been much more for them and him.


          The  night  closed with a "starvation" party,  where  there
    were no refreshments, at a neighboring house.  The rooms  lighted
    as  well as practicable, some one willing to play dance music  on
    the  piano  and  plenty  of young men  and  girls  comprised  the
    entertainment.   Sam  Weller's soiry[sic], consisting  of  boiled
    mutton  and  capers,  would  have  been  a  royal  feast  in  the
    Confederacy.   The officers, who rode into town with  their  long
    cavalry  boots pulled well up over their knees, but  splashed  up
    their waists, put up their horses and rushed to the places  where
    their  dress uniform suits had been left for  safekeeping.   They
    very soon emerged, however, in full toggery and entered into  the
    pleasures of their dance with the bright-eyed girls, who many  of
    them were fragile as fairies, but worked like peasants for  their
    home  and country.  These young people are gray-haired  now,  but
    the lessons of self-denial, industry and frugality in which  they
    became  past  mistresses  then,  have  made  of  them  the   most
    dignified, self-reliant and tender women I have ever known -- all
    honor to them.

          So,  in the interchange of the courtesies and charities  of
    life,  to  which  we could not add its  comforts  and  pleasures,
    passed the last Christmas in the Confederate mansion.


This newspaper clipping is included among the Jefferson Davis Papers at Rice University.

This appeared as an article in the November/December 1995 issue of the Camp Chase Gazette. Excerpts of the above appear in an excellent book called “We Were Marching on Christmas Day” by Kevin Rawlings (ISBN 0-9612670-4-6 $24.95 Toomey Press; P.O. Box 122; Linthicum, MD 21090 410-850-0831). If you have any comments about the web page, drop me a line.


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At the turn of the 18th century the citizens of the new America saw a growing movement toward the celebration of Christ’s birth as Christmas.  The holiday was initially banned in the colonies, as the Puritans settlers of Massachusetts did not view Christmas as a holy day for several reasons.  At the forefront of Puritanical rejection of the holiday was the fact December 25th was not chosen as the Messiah’s birthday until several centuries after his death and resurrection, the latter coupled with the unholy celebrations that accompanied the holiday, which included drinking, playing games,  feasting, and “wassailing” – a tradition with pagan roots that involved singing to the crops to ensure a good harvest, which evolved into the tradition of door-to-door singing during Christmas that sometimes turned violent as poorer classes descended on the wealthy demanding drink, toasts and money.  The celebration was deemed dishonorable to Christ. “For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”

    I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me.  May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it. Their faithful Friend and Servant,
    C. D.
    December, 1843.

Charles Dickens is credited with resurrecting the popularity and celebration of Christmas with his novel, “A Christmas Carol.”

Christmas Dinner at Mount Vernon, 1790

December 9, 2009

by Cynthia Bertelsen

Bertelsen provides the menu from George Washington’s menu at Mount Vernon.  There’s other interesting information at her website cited below.

An Onion Soup Call’d the King’s Soup

Oysters on the Half Shell

Broiled Salt Roe Hering

Boiled Rockfish

Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding

Mutton Chops

Roast Suckling Pig

Roast Turkey with Chestnut Stuffing

Round of Cold Boiled Beef with Horse-radish Sauce

Cold Baked Virginia Ham

Lima Beans

Baked Acorn Squash

Baked Celery with Slivered Almonds

Hominy Pudding

Candied Sweet Potatoes

Cantaloupe Pickle

Spiced Peaches in Brandy

Spiced Cranberries

Mincemeat Pie

Apple Pie

Cherry Pie

Chess Tarts


Plums in Wine Jelly


Indian Pudding

Great Cake

Ice Cream

Plum Pudding

Fruits, Nuts, Raisins

Port, Madeira from:



Many of the things we most love at Christmas started in the Victorian age, such as sending cards, and the invention of the Christmas cracker. The picture of a fat, jolly Father Christmas or Santa Claus, dates from Victorian times. The Christmas tree became popular, as did gift shopping in big stores. In England, the Boxing Day holiday also started in the nineteenth century.
Christmas Crackers – The first illustration of a Christmas cracker appeared in The Illustrated London News in 1847, but there is some argument as to who invented them. Two London sweet makers, Tom Smith, and James Hovell, both claim to have invented the cracker. In 1840s Paris, sweets called “bon-bons” were wrapped in twists of brightly colored paper. Tom Smith (or James Hovell) brought back the idea but added a little slip of paper with a message on it, called “kiss mottoes.” Later, other attractions were added, such as little paper hats, tokens and small toys, plus the “crack.” It is said that Tom (or James) was sitting in front of his Christmas fire where the yule logs were crackling, which gave him the idea of putting a cracker strip inside his bon-bons. The crackers were also made to look like tiny yule logs, as they still do today.
Christmas Cards – Children in Victorian England had the task of writing greetings to their parents in their very best handwriting. Sometimes adults wrote Christmas letters to each other, but this could take up a great deal of time. The printed Christmas card solved the problem. The custom of sending printed cards was started in England by Henry Cole, who did not have time to write letters to each of his relatives. He asked an artist, John Calcott Horsley, to design a card for him. About 1,000 of these cards were printed, and those not used by Sir Henry were sold by the printer for one shilling. This was not cheap, which may be why they did not sell very well. With the introduction of the “penny post” in 1840, it became cheaper to send mail, and as a result of color printing and the invention of printing machines, cards could be printed faster and cheaper. The first company to print and sell Christmas cards on a large scale was Charles Goodall & Sons of London in 1862. The first charity card was produced in 1949 by UNICEF. Richard H. Pease, a printer from Albany, New York, is credited with sending the first specially printed Christmas card in America, in 1851. It managed to make the first mistake in Christmas card history. The card showed a building on which was hung a banner proclaiming “Pease’s Great Variety Store.”
Christmas Mail – In America in 1822, the postmaster of Washington, DC, complained that he had to add 16 mailmen at Christmas to deal with cards alone. He wanted the number of cards a person could send limited by law. “I don’t know what we’ll do if this keeps on,” he wrote.
Letters to Santa – The following was printed in the New York Exchange in December 1893 – “Dear Mr. Santa Claus, I only want a pare of skates for Christmas and if it ain’t cold a sled will do. My old ones bust. If they Anita no snow I would like anything you think of. My mamma says you are poor this year…”
Charles Dickens – By the early part of the nineteenth century Christmas had almost died out. The Times newspaper, for example, did not once mention Christmas between 1790 and 1835. Charles Dickens with his story A Christmas Carol did more than anyone to change all that. His tale of Scrooge, the Cratchit’s, and Tiny Tim was a smash hit from the start. He wrote the story in just two months, beginning in October 1843 and finishing at the end of November. The book was published on 17 December 1843 and immediately sold out.

The following information is taken from the information signs at the Geffrye Museum.

“Dined at my House on rost Beef and Plumb Pudding”

It is Christmas Day and the family are about to have their dinner of roast beef and plum pudding. Although turkey was introduced into this country by the 1530s, it did not replace beef as the main dish of Christmas dinner until the late nineteenth century. Plum pudding, a boiled pudding of suet, eggs, flour and dried fruit, the forerunner of Christmas Pudding, was served with the beef rather than a dessert.

By the late eighteenth century, Christmas was a pale shadow of the feast celebrated 150 years before. Even in rural areas the ‘keeping’ of Christmas, whereby landlords provided a large feast and charitable gifts for their tenants, appears to have been less common and was a cause for concern among those that felt the wealthy were not honoring their obligations to the poor. On a smaller scale, however, Christmas was still about eating, drinking and giving alms.

Aspects of the Antebellum Christmas

Author: Tim Crumrin, Conner Prairie Historian,

Perhaps the most important of the changing elements was the country’s attitude toward Christmas. By the coming of the Civil War the antipathy shown toward the celebration by some religious groups and like-minded individuals was rapidly softening. Indeed, “by 1859, the general attitude towards Christmas had changed sufficiently for the Sunday School Union” to accept the holiday to such a degree that it published hymns and accounts of celebrations.2 This was emblematic of a general acceptance of Christmas by many denominations. This changing of views combined with another ongoing force to further shape and help define the American Christmas.

The continuing popularity of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and its “carol” philosophy added yet another element by synthesizing “certain religious and secular attitudes… into a humanitarian pattern.” Its assertion that brotherhood, kindness, and charity should be a part of life– especially at Christmas– was quickly accepted and added to American tradition.3

It was within such an atmosphere that Christmas as we know it began to manifest itself. This essay will look at various aspects of Christmas celebrations during the 1830-1860 period, both those that reach down to us today and those which are but memories.

The Christmas Tree

The Godey’s Magazine publication, in 1850, of an article and illustrations depicting the British royal family’s celebrating around the christmas tree is generally seen as a seminal event in the ultimate American adoption of this German (Prince Albert, of course, was German) custom. Although the article did much to popularize the use of trees, it must be said that it was a custom that had already begun to take root across the United States. In fact, some historians argue that American adoption of the Christmas tree predated that of the British.4 There would seem to be support for this assertion. Successive waves of German immigrants probably packed in their cultural baggage the custom of adorning their homes with a small tree. As they spread through the nation, so too did the decorated tree.5

Some sources credit Hessian mercenaries with the introduction of the tree during the Revolutionary War.6 However, as there is no direct, extant evidence to prove this oft-told tale, it may be apocryphal. The likely source was probably a now forgotten German immigrant seeking to recreate a bit of his homeland in his new surroundings. No matter the originator, the christmas tree graced more than a few homes prior to 1850 and nearly every area was witness to its use.7 St. NicholasPerhaps the first American illustration of this was seen in an 1810 Krimmel painting executed in Pennsylvania.8 The Dictionary of Americanisms’ (1828) inclusion of a definition of “christmas tree” and the publication of Kris Kringle’s Christmas Tree in 1845 are indicative that the custom was more widespread than previously thought.9

With this background it is not surprising that the tree had become established by 1860. So established, in fact, that a “German tree” was placed at the White House by President Franklin Pierce in 1856.10 Whether the tree was placed upon a table as German customs prescribed or on the floor as Americans were wont to do is uncertain. Trees of the period were decorated with various edibles and home-crafted ornaments, but by 1860 glass trinkets made in Germany were becoming available to adorn the branches. Most, however, were decorated with fruits, strands, and candles. Although, some people were more creative, like the German immigrant in 1847 Ohio who had the local blacksmith pound out a metal star for his spruce, where it was placed alongside paper decorations.11


Music exclusively associated with Christmas was added to songbooks during this period. Caroling became increasingly practiced. The type of music, however, belied the burgeoning secularization of the season, as most of it was of a “sacred” nature or rampant with allusions to Christ’s birth. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” 1851), “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” (also 1851), “There Came A Little Child to Earth ” (1856), and “We Three Kings of Orient Are” (1859) all were composed before the Civil War.12

Legal Recognition

Governments recognized the growing importance of Christmas by dealing with it as they knew best: by passing a law. The first state to make Christmas a legal holiday was Alabama in 1836. Between 1850 and 1861, fifteen states (including Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) followed suit.13 A significant result of this “legislation” was the states’ recognition of December 25th as Christmas Day. This helped standardize the date for celebration. Previously, celebrations took place at varying times during the month (particularly December 6th, St. Nicholas’s day), or on January 6th, Epiphany. Thus, events during the period helped cement the date used today.14

The original impetus for legal recognition seems to have come from the business community. The initial legislation forbade the collection of promissory notes on Christmas day and some judicial activities were suspended. Provisions for the closing of schools, banks, and government offices generally did not appear until after the Civil War.15

Christmas Cards

One modern element all but unknown during this period was the christmas card. They were relatively well-known in England by 1860, but the custom had yet to make inroads on this side of the Atlantic. The first such Christmas greetings in the United States are thought to be those issued by a New York engraver in 1851. Richard Pease printed cards, showing a family dinner scene, that read “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year, to: From: .”16 However, it was not until Louis Prang of Boston introduced a line of cards in 1875 that they became widely used. 17


Another “tradition” rapidly coalescing during the period–and decried still– was the commercialization of the holiday. As early as the 1830s newspapers were filled with blandishments designed with “Christmas shoppers” in mind.18 Every thing from raisins for baked goods to pianofortes for the parlor to uplifting books for the mind and soul were pushed via the papers.19 Merchants were quick to realize the potential of the gift-giving season and capitalize on the growing importance of Christmas. Santa Clauses had begun to appear on street corners and in stores by 1850. Philadelphia storeowners were among the first to offer seasonal employment to those willing to impersonate Santa.20

The trend did not go unnoticed. A Terre Haute (Ind) newspaper editor commented on the frivolity associated with the 1855 season. He was bemused by the “gambol,” gift exchanges, and the person of “Santa Clause” that seemed to dominate the holiday. He wondered if such behavior was the proper way of celebrating the birth of Christ. In a telling comment, he noted that it was probably already too late to change things, as the trend was already well established. 21

Bearers of Gifts

A major difference between the antebellum celebration and that of today was the variety of gift-bringers dotting the landscape. Of varying ethnic or national backgrounds, they scurried across the land on their mission to reward or punish. Already by 1860, though, one was beginning to overshadow the others. With the coming of the war and the enlistment of Thomas Nast to his side he would come to dominate, but in pre-Civil war America he had competition.

Santa Claus

The greatest of all modern Christmas icons, Santa Claus, was evolving during the period. Although it was to be several years before Nast was to give the jolly, round one his most enduring form, “Santa Claus” of 1860 would be easily recognizable to the modern child. “Santa,” of course did not spring full-blown upon America, but was born of legend and centuries of permutation. He was the amalgamation of the traditions of gift-givers of many cultures, a bishop legendary for his kindness, and the pens of several early 19th-century American writers.

His most likely ancestor was St. Nicholas, a 4th-century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. Hard facts about Nicholas are difficult to come by (not even a Papal Council could burn away much of time’s fog), but over the centuries the legend of this kindly, charitable man grew apace.22 By 1,000 c.e. Nicholas was arguably one of the most important and beloved saints in Christendom, having become the patron saint of people as diverse as pawnbrokers and spinsters in search of husbands. Most of all, he became identified as the patron of children.23

Nicholas first became associated with Christmas during the Middle Ages. An agent of this transformation may have been a 13th-century French nun who left gifts for the poor on the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6th). Thus he became linked to gift-giving.24

Not even the Reformation’s hostility toward Catholic saints could dim Nicholas’ luster in the eyes of his followers. History of Antebellum ChristmasChildren still looked forward to his gifts, or dreaded the switches he might leave behind to punish transgressors. As the latter indicates, the Nicholas legend also had its darker side. As an arbiter of behavior he could reward or punish. It is likely he was used a weapon by parents in the age-old struggle of wills. Eventually, these disciplinary duties fell to a companion, known variously Knecht Ruprecht, Schwarze Peter (Black Peter), Krampus, or Belznichol. This bearer of punishment was usually portrayed as a shaggy, dark-visaged bogeyman.25

St. Nicholas’ first appearance in the New World was in 1492, when Columbus named a bay after him.26 Times became rather lean for the saint after that, partly because America’s mainly Protestant settlers disdained saints and the rituals associated with them. Doubtless, private celebrations based upon the Nicholas legend occurred, usually among Moravians or Dutch settlers. The fact that laws were passed prohibiting is evidence enough. the above notwithstanding, St. Nicholas entered a quiescent period that was to last until the 19th century.27

The Nicholas who reemerged in the early 19th century was soon transformed into a secular saint who was to play a central role in what was to become a folk festival instead of a purely religious occasion. This revitalization came through the confluence of American literary efforts and the increased immigration of Germans and others wont to celebrate Christmas.

John Pintard, his brother-in-law Washington Irving, Clement Moore, and the anonymous author of Kriss Kringle’s Book were the literary pioneers who helped establish Santa Claus. Pintard, an early light in the in the New York Historical Society, was among the first to resurrect Nicholas, who was to become the patron saint of the society. At a society dinner in 1810 Pintard unveiled a broadside showing Nicholas, two children, and stockings hung from a fireplace. Beneath those now familiar elements of the Christmas story was the phrase “Sancta Claus, Goed Heylig Man” (Saint Nicholas, Good Holy Man).28

Irving was the next to take up Nicholas’ cause and his inclusion (twenty-three times) of him in Knickerbocker History did much to bring the old saint before the public. Clement Moore’s now universal “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (“The Night before Christmas”) was published in 1823. Its synthesis of many elements of the legend was a boon to the Christmas celebration and the exaltation of Nicholas.St. Nicholas - The Night Before Christmas Another major influence was Kriss Kringle’s Book, offered in 1842. The book told of St. Nicholas, or Kris Kringle, a “nice, fat, good humored man” who brought gifts for good children.29 The descriptions of Santa Claus in these and other books and the illustrations of Robert Weir, brought about the change in image from a thin ascetic to a robust character.

As is clear from the above, St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle, and Santa Claus had all become synonymous by mid-century. As such, it is appropriate to discuss the evolution of terms. Santa Claus is, of course, a corruption of St. Nicholas. Popular thinking has it that the Dutch were responsible for this alteration, but this appears to be untrue. Linguists view it as having originated in Switzerland where such phonetic changes were consistent with normal usage. The analogue Dutch term “Sinterklaes” postdates the original corruption.30 Kriss Kringle was a corruption of Krist -Kindl, or Christ-Child (see below), that came to be associated with the jolly, fat man instead of a cherubic child.31 Exactly when these variations occurred is impossible to pinpoint, but they were well in place by 1860.

Santa Claus, then, was well with us by 1860. A thin, ascetic saint had added much poundage, undergone a secularization process, and a name change. In the process he was becoming the center of a folk festival that was to overawe all others.


But there were still other contenders about. The Weinachtsmann was a German secular version of St. Nicholas who had made his appearance by 1800. He, too, travelled about on Christmas Eve, walking from place to place with a sack or basket of gifts. Though usually viewed as of kindly disposition, he also carried in one hand sticks meant for bad children. He was normally portrayed as a thin, stooped old man. He made a minor appearance in America among the Pennsylvania Dutch.32

Father Christmas

Father Christmas was the English equivalent of Santa, with some differences. He was not descended from the Nicholas tradition, but filtered from the pagan mists as the descendant of a character from a medieval mummers’ play. Initially, he was more concerned with wassail and mistletoe than gifts for well behaved children. However, he grew into the role of kindly gift-giver. He was transplanted to America by British immigrants. By this period he had come to more closely resemble Santa Claus in attitude and bulk.33

Pere Noel

Pere (Papa) Noel was a French gift-giver who showed up in America, mainly in Louisiana, during the period. He was a version of Santa Claus with a Gallic twist– especially among the Creole. Often he had the same fat stomach, but with the addition of a twinkling wit and an eye for the ladies. He would arrive at celebrations, joke with all present, and hand out small gifts (New Years was the time for major gifts).34

Krist-Kindl, or Christ-Child

The concept of the Christ-Child as a gift-giver evolved in Germany. The Krist- Kindl appeared as a substitute for St. Nicholas partially because, some historians argue, the old gent was too redolent of Rome for some Protestant reformers.35 At any rate, the Krist-Kindl was portrayed as a cherubic child (boy or girl) who travelled by mule carrying gifts. Children set out a basket, filled with hay for the mule, to receive their gifts. The Krist-kindl concept was adopted by some Pennsylvania Germans.36 By 1860, however, he/she was rarely a part of Christmas; the role having been overtaken by the jolly elf who had appropriated the name.


In 1805 Thomas Jefferson had 100 guests visit the White House to celebrate Christmas and he entertained the guests after dinner by playing the fiddle. President Andrew Jackson was known for hosting Christmas parties for a local orphanage and engaging in an annual snowball fight on the grounds of the White House.

One day, a nephew asked him “Did you ever hear of a Christmas without presents, Uncle Andrew?”

“Yes,” the President replied, ” once there was a little boy who never had a toy, and when his mother died he was all alone in the world. I was that boy”. This sad experience lead President Jackson to insist that there were plenty of presents under the tree for those children who shared Christmas with him in the White House.

The Christmas Tree has been a tradition in the White House since 1835 when Andrew Jackson?s French chef make him a sugar-frosted pine tree, surrounded with toy animals made out of flavored ices.

President Franklin Pierce, our 14th President erected a Christmas tree to the White House in 1856 for a group of Washington Sunday School children, while caroler’s sang “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

One of the most unusual Christmas parties held at the White House occurred in 1857 under the Bucanan Administration. James Bucanan was without a First Lady and was widely considered to be a “lonely man”. He put out invites to his Christmas party to thirty American Indians from the tribes of the Poncas, Pawnees and Pottowatomies. According to news reports the Pottowatomies arrived in “citizens dress” but the others “‘were in their grandest attire, and more than profuse of paint and feathers”.


In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the family join in, in hanging decorations in the home. Red and green are the traditional colours of Christmas. Green represents the continuance of life through Jesus. Red symbolises the blood that Jesus shed at his Crucifixion. We hang greenery around the house such as evergreen boughs, holly and mistletoe. Wrapped around the tree as garland is a long string of popcorn, and candies and cakes, hung with ribbon. On the branches are candles and imitation and real fruits. For more great information on Victorian Christmas traditions, please visit

Washington Irving and St. Nicholas in Early New York

Early Dutch settlers of New York considered St. Nicholas to be their patron saint and practiced a yearly ritual of hanging stockings to receive presents on St. Nicholas Eve, in early December. Washington Irving, in his fanciful History of New York, mentioned that St. Nicholas had a wagon he could ride “over the tops of trees” when he brought “his yearly presents to children.”

The Dutch word “Sinterklaas” for St. Nicholas evolved into the English “Santa Claus,” thanks in part to a New York City printer, William Gilley, who published an anonymous poem referring to “Santeclaus” in a children’s book in 1821. The poem was also the first mention of a character based on St. Nicholas having a sleigh, in this case pulled by a single reindeer.

More Antebellum Christmas information from:

Clement Clarke Moore and The Night Before Christmas

Perhaps the best known poem in the English language is “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” or as it’s often called, “The Night Before Christmas.” Its author, Clement Clarke Moore, a professor who owned an estate on the west side of Manhattan, would have been quite familiar with the St. Nicholas traditions followed in early 19th century New York. The poem was first published, anonymously, in a newspaper in Troy, New York, on December 23, 1823.

Reading the poem today, one might assume that Moore simply portrayed the common traditions. Yet he actually did something quite radical by changing some of the traditions while also describing features that were entirely new.

For instance, the St. Nicholas gift giving would have taken place on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day. Moore moved the events he describes to Christmas Eve. He also came up with the concept of “St. Nick” having eight reindeer, each of them with a distinctive name.

Santa Claus Drawn by Thomas Nast

The famed American cartoonist Thomas Nast is generally credited as having invented the modern depiction of Santa Claus. Nast, who had worked as a magazine illustrator and created campaign posters for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, was hired by Harper’s Weekly in 1862. For the Christmas season he was assigned to draw the magazine’s cover, and legend has it that Lincoln himself requested a depiction of Santa Claus visiting Union troops.

The resulting cover, from the Harper’s Weekly dated January 3, 1863, was a hit. It shows Santa Claus on his sleigh, which has arrived at a U.S. Army camp festooned with a “Welcome Santa Claus” sign.

Santa’s suit features the stars and stripes of the American flag, and he’s distributing Christmas packages to the soldiers. One soldier is holding up a new pair of socks, which might be a boring present today, but would have been a highly prized item in the Army of the Potomac.

Beneath Nast’s illustration was the caption, “Santa Claus In Camp.” Appearing not long after the carnage at Antietam and Fredericksburg, the magazine cover is an apparent attempt to boost morale in a dark time.

The Santa Claus illustrations proved so popular that Thomas Nast kept drawing them every year for decades. He is also credited with creating the notion that Santa lived at the North Pole and kept a workshop manned by elves.

Prince Albert and Queen Victoria Made Christmas Trees Fashionable

The tradition of the Christmas tree came from Germany, and there are accounts of German settlers, as well as Hessian mercenaries, having them in early America. But the custom wasn’t widespread outside German communities.

The Christmas tree first gained popularity in British and American society thanks to Queen Victoria’s husband, the German-born Prince Albert. He installed a decorated Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1841, and woodcuts of the Royal Family’s tree appeared in London magazines in 1848. Such illustrations, published in America a year later, created the fashionable impression of the Christmas tree in upper class homes.

The first electric Christmas tree lights appeared in the 1880s, thanks to an associate of Thomas Edison, but were too costly for most households. Most people in the 1800s lit their Christmas trees with small candles.

Christmas Tree timeline from

  • 1510 – The first written record of a decorated Christmas Tree comes from Riga, Latvia. Men of the local merchants’ guild decorated a tree with artificial roses, danced around it in the marketplace and then set fire to it. The rose was used for many year and is considered to be a symbol for the Virgin Mary.
  • 1530 – There is record from Alsace, France (then Germany territory) that trees were sold in the marketplace and brought home and set up undecorated. Laws limited the size to “8 shoe lengths” (slightly over 4 feet).
  • 1600s – By the 17th century, it was common in Germany to decorate Christmas Trees with apples. This practice was a holdover from the 14th and 15th centuries when evergreen boughs hung with apples were the only prop used in the “miracle plays” that were performed at the churches on December 24. December 24 was Adam & Eve’s Day in the early Christian calendar, and the plays were used as ways of teaching the Bible to a largely illiterate population.
  • 1700s – In parts of Austria and Germany, evergreen tips were brought into the home and hung top down from the ceiling. They were often decorated with apples, gilded nuts and red paper strips. Edible ornaments became so popular on Christmas Trees that they were often called “sugartrees.” The first accounts of using lighted candles as decorations on Christmas Trees come from France in the 18th century.
  • 1800s – The Christmas Tree was introduced in the United States by German settlers. It rapidly grew from tabletop size to floor-to-ceiling.
  • 1851 – Christmas Trees began to be sold commercially in the United States. They were taken at random from the forests.
  • 1853 – Franklin Pierce is credited with bringing the first Christmas Tree to the White House.
  • Late 1800s – The first glass ornaments were introduced into the United States, again from Germany. The first ones were mostly balls, but later chains of balls, toys and figures became more common.
  • Around 1883 – Sears, Roebuck & Company began offering the first artificial Christmas trees – 33 limbs for $.50 and 55 limbs for $1.00.


    The earliest in the early 1800’s, as we’ve mentioned in passing,were fruit (particularly apples) and nuts. These, along with the evergreen trees themselves, represented the certainty that life would return in the spring.

    Other fruits began to be added, along with paper streamers and bits of shiny metal foil. Whether a tree was lighted or not, the idea of reflecting the light in the room where the tree stood grew in popularity.

    Another concept, too, began to take hold with the German families in whose homes the first “popular” trees resided. Food, often gingerbread or other hard cookies, would be baked in the shape of fruits, stars, hearts, angels and – yes – bells.

    As the idea of decorated Christmas trees spread, various countries added their own variations. Americans, for instance, would string long strands of cranberries or popcorn to circle their trees. Small gifts began to be used to decorate the tree, sometimes contained in little intricately woven baskets, sometimes nestled in the crook of a bough, sometimes just hanging by a thread or piece of yarn. In the UK, creative ornaments of lace, paper or other materials showed the variety of interests and talents of their makers. Small “scraps” cut out of newspaper or magazine illustrations also found their way to the family’s tree and after a few years it became harder and harder to actually see the tree beneath the ornaments.

    Angels in a Tree

    German Class Ornaments In the mid -1800S

    Up to now trees had been decorated with the creative efforts of the loving hands of family and friends. In the latter part of the Nineteenth century various German entrepreneurs began to make ornaments that were mass produced and sold strictly as Christmas ornaments.

    The area around Lauscha, long known for its glass making, was the hub of the glass ornament trade in Germany. Firms which had been making glass barometers, canes, ointment bottles, goblets, bulls-eye glass window panes, eyes for stuffed animals and brilliantly colored marbles discovered that they could diversify into making molded glass ornaments. Initially replicating fruits, nuts and other food items, they soon branched out and began to manufacture hearts, stars and other shapes that had been created out of cookies but now had the added dimension of a wide color palette enhanced by the luminosity of the glass itself.

    Blown GlassSoon the glass blowers of Lauscha were creating molds of children, saints, famous people, animals and other forms – and discovering that there was no apparent end to the market for this new type of Christmas ornament. Nearly everyone in the town was involved in some way in the creation of Christmas ornaments with whole families working either in a factory or in a home-based foundry.

    Exporting Ornaments to the world – Late 1800’s

    One of the first American mass merchandisers, F.W.Woolworth, began importing German glass ornaments into this country in the 1880s and by 1890, according to one source; he was selling $25 million worth of them. Need we remind you that the name of his stores was Woolworth’s Five and Dime Stores? That’s a lot of ornaments. We’ll find Mr.Woolworth’s name appearing again a few decades later.

    We’ve mentioned before about how legends play an important role in the way we celebrate Christmas today. One of the most popular concerns

    The Pickle Ornament.

    For generations people have been hiding a glass ornament – most likely from Lauscha – in the shape of a green pickle (gherkin or dill not specified). The rationale for the pickle is that German parents started doing it to reward the most observant child in the family. The first one to spot the pickle got an extra present from St. Nicholas on Christmas morning.

    It’s a lovely story. Except for some small details: St. Nicholas traditionally comes to visit German children on the Fifth or Sixth of December, German children traditionally open their presents on Christmas Eve, and most Germans had never heard of the pickle ornament.

    According to a recent highly reputable online review, the story gaining currency these days involves a Bavarian who came to America and fought in the Civil War. Captured by the Confederates and confined to the notorious Andersonville prison, the Bavarian, John Lower (Hans Lauer, perhaps), starving and near death, convinced a jailer to get him a pickle to eat. Buoyed both mentally and physically by eating the pickle, Lower survived and began his own tradition of hiding a small glass pickle ornament in the family Christmas tree. Its finder on Christmas morning would benefit from a year of good luck.

    Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the main source of pickle ornaments was Lauscha. It does make a good story in either case.

    In our next installment, we’ll look at other types of ornaments and see how they evolved through the early part of the Twentieth Century.

    German Non-glass ornaments – Dresdens and Tinware

    Not far from Lauscha is the German city of Dresden. As their fellow craftsmen in Lauscha were blowing glass, artisans in Dresden were making ornaments out of pressed and embossed paper. Often highlighted with bright, even garish, colors, these ornaments were not just Christmas-themed but included fish, birds and other animals that, while consistent with Christmas ornament traditions, were also suitable for other occasions such as birthday parties.

    Other ornaments from the late-Nineteenth, early-Twentieth century were made of pressed tin (much like many of the mechanical toys coming out of Germany at the time and those of Louis Marx later in America) with brightly colored lithographed surfaces. This was the time, too, when the thin foil strips we know as “icicles” or tinsel made their appearance. To their German creators they were known as “angels’ hair”.


    The Victorians

    Christmas LampDuring the nearly seventy years of her reign, Queen Victoria presided over a resurgence of the Christmas celebration. The illustration of her family around their Christmas tree that appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book in December, 1860, inspired Americans as well as their British cousins to follow her example with a decorated tree of their own. Many customs of Christmastime past had faded during the early part of the Nineteenth century, but her adoption of the season (if not the actual day of present-giving – she continued to follow an older tradition of giving gifts on January One) encouraged the rediscovery of Christmas carols, charitable giving at the season, and, of course, hearty meals of roast beef, goose or turkey followed by plum pudding.

    Many of the ornaments decorating the trees of Victorian households were of the handmade craft variety and instructions for their construction were included in popular magazines. One example includes an early light bulb, encased in a tatted net, with an observer’s woven basket suspended from the bottom: a perfect hot-air balloon.

    The ornaments that were commercially available tended to be a bit on the gaudy, well, colorful, and side. They might include brightly illustrated figures of cute angels, cute children, cute animals, and cute elves – well, you can see the trend here. They would also include fanciful creations of airships and other imaginative craft captained by Father Christmas or even Santa Claus – depending on which side of the Atlantic you resided.

    There was an abundance of lace, delicate curly wire decoration, beadwork, tinsel and other materials… often on the same ornament.

    The Increasing Popularity of Christmas

    As the Twentieth century began, Christmas and its celebration was, for most Europeans and Americans, a time to focus on the visible aspects of the season with an emphasis on the delights of children. Gift-giving to the younger members of the family was encouraged not only by the youngsters themselves, but by enterprising merchants as well.

    The number, variety and complexity of glass ornaments coming out of Germany was now augmented by competitors in Czechoslovakia and other countries. These ornaments, however, retained their handcrafted originality, even when produced in the vast numbers demanded by an ever-growing consumer base. Because they were all handmade, by people who often followed in the glassmaking traditions of generations of their families before them, each ornament had a touch of individual craftsmanship.