Friday, December 9, 2016

Christmas Food & Drink - 1852 Minnesota Christmas doughnuts fried in raccoon grease

"Desolate Wabasha Prairie" served to describe, for early St. Paul, Minnesota residents, the handful of houses on the edge of the Mississippi that later grew into the substantial city we know as Winona. Perhaps the St. Paulites of the early 1850's had a right--in their metropolitan center of a couple of thousand of hopeful pioneers--to look down upon the scant downriver settlement because Wabasha Prairie, soon to be renamed Winona, boasted then a mere handful of wooden homes and unprepossessing business houses. But what the embryonic Winona lacked in numbers was made up in old-fashioned hospitality. Winona's first community Christmas dinner was recalled in later years by an early settler, Catherine Smith, who leads us to believe that doughnuts fried in coon's grease can be a tasty holiday delicacy. This account is among the Orrin F. Smith Papers in the Minnesota Historical Society.

In the early Winter of 1852, a sleighing party which had for its object the taking to ride in one sleigh, of every lady then a resident in Winona, was gotten up by two young settlers, Irwin Johnson and Edwin Hamilton. The former drove the team while Mr. Hamilton looked after the welfare of the ladies. Every lady resident of the prairie, as it was then called, except two, who did not care to go, but for whom there was ample room, participated in this sleigh ride. Mr. Hamilton, remarked, in delivering the invitations, that the time was not far distant when one sled would not carry all the female residents of this growing town. Stops were made at all the "shanties" then on the prairie and where occupants were found at home calls were made, while at the vacant ones the names of the callers were written in lead pencil upon the door thereof by Mrs. "Elder" Hamilton.

The visits aroused considerable curiosity among the shanty dwellers, as lady visitors were quite unusual. The ride was much enjoyed and on its completion it was decided to give a public dinner on Christmas at which every resident should be present.

The Christmas dinner was given in the upper story of the Winona House on Water street, in which Edwin Hamilton was keeping what was called Bachelor's Hall. The young men set up stoves and Mrs. "Elder" Hamilton and myself looked after the culinary part of the dinner. In the absence of the bird that usually graces the Christmas dinner we were obliged to use coon, or rather several coons, with entrees of venison and wild goose. At the request of the young men, who said it would not be a Christmas feast without them, we fried doughnuts in coon's fat, and they were much relished.

By 11:00 o'clock every resident of Winona, old and young, big and little, except Mr. and Mrs. Henry Gere and Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, some thirty in all were present. In addition to these were several from Minnesota City, besides some St. Paul men who were hauling goods on the ice from La Crosse to St. Paul and who shortly before noon broke through the ice on the river opposite the business part of the town. These men were assisted in rescuing their teams and goods by our townsmen and invited to share the hospitalities of our Christmas.

It is needless to say that our guests were surprised at their reception. One of them in a short speech said that their knowledge of Winona was obtained from the St. Paul paper which usually referred to our little town as desolate. Wabasha Prairie. He also expressed his intention of seeing hereafter the town at which they partook of a public Christmas dinner and which included in its menu five kinds of cake, three kinds of pies and plenty of coon and venison.

The remnants of this dinner furnished us with a bountiful supper, of which all partook except one man who had gone over the lake in search of fish. While we were at supper this man came back and excitedly asked for a team and sled with which to haul his catch.

It turned out that this man found an air hole in the ice on the lake and he had but to dip into the water to get all the fish he wanted. This find proved to be of nearly as much benefit to the "Wabashaites" as it did the quails to the children of Israel when in the wilderness--and was the beginning of many fishing trips. I remember one trip on which my husband, accompanied by Edwin Hamilton, caught a great many fish. Mr. Goddard took for a net a woolen shirt that had been tied up at the neck and sleeves and taking a position where the stream was narrow held the improvised net in the creek, while Mr. Hamilton, who had entered the stream further up, drove the fish into the net held by Mr. Goddard.

1870s Christmas Tree in a Minnesota Schoolhouse

Here is the chronicle of a community Christmas celebration of the early 1870's in a schoolhouse near Silver Lake in Martin County in Minnesota. This is the essence of Childhood's Christmas in its purest form. This narrative is reprinted from a series of memoirs by Britania J. Livingston, edited by Nora Livingston Heermance, and appeared in the June 6, 1925, issue of the Fairmont Daily Sentinel.

It was a very commonplace neighborhood. It was composed of the families of hard working farmers, and had hardly emerged from the chrysalis "frontier." Going to the school house on Sabbath afternoons to hear some minister from town preach upon the sins of Free Masonry or the evils of too luxurious living, was about their only recreation. As Christmas drew near, the little ones would canvass the prospect of getting their stockings filled by Santa Claus, and thrifty papas would remind the eager darlings that it had been a bad year for Santa Claus's business; that they had heard that he was near stopping his business and closing out at auction, and other nonsense of this same kind.

How it ever come about I am sure I cannot tell. It was arranged to have a Christmas tree at the school house.

The most of the children had never seen a real Christmas tree. The idea started between the teacher and two or three ladies--perhaps it was evolved by some sort of mental spontaneous combustion. It was spoken of only a week before Christmas. The weather was so bad--snowy and blustering--that no committees could get their heads together for consultation; but during that week after school hours, the fine floury snow of Minnesota was melted off the trim overcoat of "our teacher" beside nearly every hot stove in his school district.

The snow was melted off thetrim overcoat of "our teacher"beside nearly every hot stovein his school district.
And here I must explain who "our teacher" was, and then you will better understand his interest in the matter. He belonged to the neighborhood. He had grown up with the young people--had received his education at the school house where he was now teaching--barring a few terms away at college. He was much a favorite with the parents that he could have had the school whenever he wished it, at the highest price going. He petted the little boys as though every little cub was his brother, and he was the idol of the sweetest bevy of maidens under ten years of age, that ever graced a country neighborhood. Said he, in a general summing up of the undertaking: "We are all in the same boat, there will be no costly presents to disturb the harmony. If we can give the little ones a good time, the rest of us will certainly be happy. The large boys have chipped in to get a barrel of apples, and I think we are sure of pleasant evening." When they struck that barrel of apples they were sure of one element of success--a crowd. A "barrel of apples" is an inducement beyond the power of the average Minnesotan to resist.

So it was a settled thing about the tree. Then every mother laid her plans to help Santa Claus. As I said before, consultation was impossible, so Mrs. H. counted up the little children who sure to be there, and found than they numbered twenty. So that every child should certainly have something, she cut twenty stockings out of blue mosquito netting, made them neatly and wrote each child's name and fastened it to the stocking, and then made a few extra ones for any extra children that might happen to come.

Mrs. S., with the same thoughtful purpose, counted also, and made twenty little stockings and a few extra ones, and pinned on the names with only this different--the mosquito bar was pink. Mrs. P., not knowing the counting and planning going on at the snow-bound neighbors, counted also, and made neat little white bags with fancy strings for twenty. Mrs. L. did the same thing. So you can see for yourself that the thing was a success from the start. But wait, the teacher has not done all of his part yet. Fearing that some might be slighted or overlooked by the saint, in a crowded house, he went to town counting as he rode along, up to twenty, and he invested in twenty toys.

How many mothers set the children to popping corn, each one fancying she was the only one who possessed any, or the knowledge necessary to make it into balls. There were certainly bushels of it piled up under the tree in pans and baskets, in the shape of balls. When every available use had been made of the dry corn, even to filling new boots with it, the remainder was tied up in a cloth flour sack, the name of a very good natured man written on it, and hung up to the stovepipe.

Christmas evening was clear and beautiful. All day long the teacher and his aids were at the schoolhouse arranging the tree, the evergreen decorations, and receiving those who came on business.

Did you ever witness the delight of a lot of children on their view of a Christmas tree? If not, I am sorry for you.

At "early candle light" the sleigh bells began to ring up their merry loads. The schoolhouse was crowded to an overflow. Of course the tree committee had its heaviest work at the last minute. Then while the teacher ran home to wash off the perspiration and get on a clean collar, we had time to look around.

A brighter, prettier tree we never saw, although we have looked on thos of ten times the value. It was a graceful red cedar well lighted with candles and well loaded with presents, as was also a table nearby, and the floor at its roots.

On every suitable place upon the walls were pictures and sentiments suitable to the occasion, while over all were green branches of the fragrant red cedar, and clusters of the pretty bittersweet berries in lieu of the sacred holly. We could not help but notice little Robbie W. His mama tried to keep him down, but up on the seat he would pop, like a Jack-in-the-box when the cover is off.

Who will be Santa Claus? was the all important query. No one thought of the teacher, for, have I said so? he was the most bashful man you ever knew. Why, when he was a great boy of 18 years, if you stopped to speak to him, his arms and legs would try to get out of sight, and he had every appearance of man trying to hide behind himself. Of course, he has gotten over all that, and stands straight as a liberty pole, and looks squarely at you with a firm blue eye. Yet he still prefers to do his good works in private--always pushing someone to the front, with half his brains and three times his brass, when a public stand is to be taken. But he has forgotten himself tonight--you can see that as he carefully picks his way through the crowd of little ones that clutch at his hands and his coattails as he passes, each one of them with some private word to whisper in his ear.

When near the tree, he faced around and said: "I suppose you all know why we have gathered here," pointing to the beautiful tree. "The first exercise will be a little vocal music, after which some of the little ones will give recitations suitable to the evening."

That sweet hymn,"Peace Upon Earth, The Angels Sang," never sounded sweeter than in that little old schoolhouse Christmas night. The little ones spoke like the angels whose messengers they are. Then two little girls were chosen to carry the present to their recipients, and two young men took them from the tree and handed them to the teacher who read out the name and gave them to the little messenger for the owners.

The "twenty" soon had received their pairs of pink and blue stockings which Santa Clause had filled with candies, nuts, maple sugar, etc., and the children that were unexpected had their names called and were served just as well as the others. Then if the tree had been emptied, I think those little ones would always have blessed it. But it was still loaded, such sights of pretty mittens, suspenders, leggings, neckties, slippers,Jumping Jack
dolls, drums, dolls' clothing, books, pictures, and several pair of small boots and hoods. O, I cannot begin to mention the things. Nothing costly, nearly everything useful, but so bright and handsome. Suspended by threads to the tree in such a manner as to keep quivering and dancing were two or three jumping jacks whose gesticulations attracted all eyes. As one of these was handed to the teacher, he pulled the string and made it dance worse than ever. "That is what I want," shouted four year old Robbie. "No, Robbie, you can't have this," said the teacher, "this is for our postmaster." The shouts of laughter didn't quite drown Robbie's disgusted "pshaw."

Pans of popcorn balls passed around and refreshments became the order of the evening. All this time the tree was being stripped of its precious fruit as fast as circumstances would permit. Robbie's happiness was complete when one of the committee on talking down a jumping jack, found his own name on it, slyly snipped it off and put Robbie's in its place. "Now let us go home," he said. "I'm all ready, I've got all I want."

Christmas in Minnesota in 1872

1872 American Progress by John Gast  (1842-1896) an allegory with Columbia leading civilization westward with American settlers, stringing telegraph wire as she sweeps west; & holding s a school book

It must have been a thrill when that young people many snow-drifted miles beyond Litchfield opened their primitive half-ground house to Hugo Nisbeth, a visitor from home, who brought to them news from the old country and the sound of the old familiar tongue. Nisbeth was a visitor from Sweden who travelled widely across America, and in 1874 his impressions were published in Stockholm. Entitled Tva Ari Amerika, (1872-1874); Reseskildringar (Two Years in America (1872-1874); Accounts of Travel), his book presents a vivid picture of life here in the booming seventies.

The following account of the Swedish family which observed reverently and joyously the birth of Christ is from a translation of part of Nisbeth's book by Roy W. Swanson and is reprinted from the December, 1927, number of Minnesota History, quarterly magazine of the Minnesota Historical Society.

"After about a four month's absence from Minnesota--during which time I traveled through Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and visited the larger cities' on the eastern coast of North America, as well as crossed Canada in different directions--I returned to "the land of ten thousand lakes" in the middle of December, 1872. When last I was there waving fields of grain greeted my eye, and green pastures, and a happy, industrious people who joyfully turned to account the rich harvest with which the state had been blessed. Now all was changed. Winter had spread it white blanket over the fields, the trees had discarded their green dress and taken on their hoarfrost attire, sparkling in the sun. No more could the sailing clouds mirror themselves in the sky-blue waters; even the proud "father of waters," the mighty Mississippi, had been forced to let himself be imprisoned by the conqueror who now wielded the scepter. That the winters are severe here cannot be denied, and the winter of 1872 could reasonably be counted as one of the coldest in the memory of man. But the air here is thin and clear, and when one sees the blue smoke rising in coquettish rings from the log cabins at the edge of some huge pine forest, and at the same time sees the bond out in the wood lot busy with the chopping, one thinks one is seeing again the fresh, charming picture that so often meets the eye of the traveler in our northland provinces in the winter. It is not the winter itself that the settler out on the thinly populated prairie looks forward to with dread, for the harvest has been lavishly supplied with fodder for the period during which they cannot go out. No, it is winter's companion, the terrible blizzard, that he fears. And, in truth, he has reason to. Death is the inevitable lot of him who is foolhardy enough to intrust himself to it. The blizzards here, as in other parts of America, are not to be compared with even the worst of our snowstorms at home, for they spring up more suddenly, and the howling storm, which with terrifying speed races across the endless plains, drives before it a whirling mass of fine snow particles that take away the breath, quickly cover up every track, and make it impossible to see even a distance of a few ells. He who permits himself to be surprised out on the prairies by such a storm is truly in a pitiable situation.

Much activity prevailed in St. Paul when I got there. The handsome stores were filled with newly arrived articles, which were tasteful and often rather costly, intended as gifts for the coming holidays. There was a brisk sale of Christmas trees in the markets, and those streets along which the retailers had their shops were crowded with conveyances belonging to nearby farmers who were in town to buy gifts or delicacies for the Christmas table. It is not only Scandinavians who celebrate Christmas here in America in a true ancient northern fashion, but even the Americans themselves have a late years begun to give more and more attention to this festival of the children and have as nearly as possible taken our method of celebration as a pattern. For example, most of them use fir trees with candles, confections, and other decorations, and so far as the number and costliness of the present are concerned they often display a liberality that would amaze us Swedes. These Christmas presents are given in various ways. In the public schools, especially for younger children, the school officials usually arrange a huge fir, which stands for about eight days. On this tree the children's parents and friends hang small presents, which are distributed by the school-teacher. In the home the presents are sent with a message if the giver is someone outside of the family, or they are distributed by a dressed-up Christmas mummer, who here goes under the name of "Santa Claus." Still another custom exists, although it is not used so commonly perhaps as the first two. If there is reason to expect presents, a stocking is hung up at bedtime in some convenient and well-known place and in it in the morning will be found the expected presents. Not a trace of our traditional lutfisk and rice porridge is found. There is no special menu for Christmas Eve. On the other hand there are few American homes in which the customary turkey is not served on the following, or Christmas, day.

As I had planned to spend my Christmas Eve with some of my countrymen out on the prairie, I left St. Paul a few days before Christmas and went by the St. Paul and Pacific one hundred English miles northwest to the Litchfield station. Here, after some trouble, I was fortunate enough to secure a sled in which I set out over the prairie to the west. There was no road, of course. The level country which I entered first lay like an enormous white cloth spread out before my eyes, and the only guide I had for the direction I was to take was a small pocket compass and the blue smoke columns that here and there at a considerable distance arose from the log cabins.

The way was not particularly difficult to traverse, for on the flat prairie the snow distributes itself comparatively evenly. But when, after twenty or thirty miles, I came out on the rolling prairie, I met with greater difficulties. In some places the snow had drifted in considerable quantities between the hillocks, and had it not been for the hardy horses and the extraordinary strong conveyances that they have in the West, I should have had extreme difficulty in making headway.

Toward nightfall on the day before Christmas Eve I perceived far off the smoke from a human habitation, which, from what I could make out at a distance, should be a sod house. I was soon there and found that this, in truth, was the case, although it was one of the very best kind. That is to say, in this case, the owner had only dug himself into the ground. Three tiers of thick timbers were laid above ground and over these there was placed a roof with a slight pitch. One lived, so to speak, half under and half above ground, and thus it became possible for the occupant to get daylight through a small window, which was sawed out of the south wall formed by the three timbers mentioned above. About twenty paces from the dwelling house was the granary and, annexed to it, the stable, also a half sod house, which was occupied by two oxen and a cow. Only a little grain was on hand; that which was not necessary for winter use had been sold, as usual, during an Indian summer. The sod hay barn, on the other hand, seemed to be well filled with cattle fodder. I had not steered wrong, for I had reached the house of the man I sought, Jan Erikson from Wermland, who had been in America for three years and for the last two years had been living on his large eighty-acre homestead. I was received by him and his friendly wife with that cordiality which I have been accustomed to find among my countrymen on the prairie. Nor did I need to put forth an request that I might stay over Christmas Eve, for I was anticipated in this by my friendly hosts, who simply but heartily bade me remain and help myself to whatever they had to offer. To the two children, a girl of seven named Anna and a boy of three, Erie, the visit of a strange gentleman seemed particularly surprising, but the sight of some packages I had brought along, which the dwelling's smallness made it impossible for me to hide, soon made us the best of friends.

Early in the morning of the day before Christmas my hosts were at work, and when I arose I found a huge ham already sputtering over the fire, while outside I heard my host's great ax blows, for he was busy sitting the necessary Christmas wood ready. I hurried out and was met with a picture that was for me entirely new and particularly striking. The sun was about twenty degrees above the wavy horizon of snow and from the snow-clad tops of countless hillocks the sun-beams were thrown in a dazzling bewilderment all around. Yet, except for this tiny world in which I now found myself, I could not discern another sign of human presence than two columns of smoke, which arose, nearly perpendicularly, from the horizon, one in the northwest and one in the southwest. The first, explained my host, came from a sod house that was occupied the previous spring by the family of a German farmer who came from Illinois, where he had paid too much for his land and after two years of fruitless toil had been forced to leave everything with empty hands. In the other lived a Swedish family, a man and his wife and one child, who had lived there for a year and a half. After the wood was chopped and carried in, a task in which the two children took part with a will, the cattle were fed and watered, and a small sheaf of unthreshed wheat was set out for the few birds that at times circled around the house, in accordance with the lovely old Swedish custom.

With these and other chores the morning passed, and right after twelve o'clock we were invited in by the housewife for the midday meal. The cloth that covered the plain homemade table was certainly not of the finest, but it was whole and clean, and the defects of arrangement that a fault-finding observer would have been able to point out were plentifully outweighed in my eyes by the unfeigned, cordial friendliness with which I was bade to help myself to what the house had to offer. For the rest, one should have felt ashamed not to be satisfied. The bread that we dipped in the kettle was freshly baked and tasty, and the fat chicken was later served in a in a sort of stewed pie form, which awakened especially the children's delight, had clearly not fared ill during the short time allotted him to live. And so came the afternoon with its small arrangements for the evening meal and the Christmas table, for this could not be omitted. There was no Christmas tree, for fir trees are not yet planted in this part of Minnesota, but two candles stood on the white covered table and round these were placed a multitude of Christmas cakes in various shapes.

The meal was eaten in the happiest of moods and afterward the few presents were distributed to the children. The gifts were neither costly nor tasteful, but they were gifts and that was all that was necessary. On the wooden horse I had brought, the little three-year-old galloped over the hardpacked dirt floor of the sod house with as much joy and happiness undoubtedly as the pampered child upon one polished and upholstered. All was joy and thankfulness, and when later the head of the family read a chapter from the Bible about the Christ child I am certain that from the hearts of these poor people there rose many warm thanksgivings to Him who smoothed their path and gave then courage and strength to conquer the hardships of the New World.

Outside the snow fell slowly and spread its white Christmas mantle over the endless prairie. Now and then a snowflake fastened itself on the single window of the sod house, its curtains faded by the summer suns, and quickly dissolved and disappeared as if is icy heart had melted with joy at sight of the peace that reigned within. And later, from the corner of the room where the housewife's kind hands had made my bed, I heard the small voice of he youngest child, still clutching his wooden horse, repeating after his mother, "Good night, kind Jesus." Then it was I realized in full God's infinite wisdom when He willed to apportion "the palace for the rich, but joy for the poor."

Artificial Christmas Tree Image from US Patent Drawings

Artificial Christmas Tree Image from RG 241, Utility Patent Drawings, No. 255,902 US National Archives

19C US - Christmas Trees & Cards

The Christmas that Americans celebrate today seems like a timeless weaving of custom and feeling beyond the reach of history. Yet the familiar mix of carols, cards, presents, trees, multiplicities of Santas and holiday neuroses that have come to define December 25th in the United States is little more than a hundred years old.

The Christmas Tree...

1836 The Christmas tree as the frontispiece to The Stranger's Gift by Herman Bokum.

In colonial times, Americans of different sects and different national origins kept the holiday (or did not) in ways they carried over from the Old World, Puritans, for instance, attempted to ignore Christmas because the Bible was silent on the topic. Virginia planters took the occasion to feast, dance, gamble, hunt and visit, perpetuating what they believed to be the old Christmas customs in English manors. Even as late as the early nineteenth century, many Americans, churched or unchurched, northerners or southerners, hardly took notice of the holiday at all.

Godey's Lady's Book, in 1850. Americanized version of Queen Victoria and her family from the Illustrated London News.

The Civil War intensified Christmas' appeal. Its sentimental celebration of family matched the yearnings of soldiers and those they left behind. Its message of peace and goodwill spoke to the most immediate prayers of all Americans. Yet northern victory in 1865 as much as the war situation itself determined the popularity and shape of the America's Christmas. Now unchallenged in the sphere of national myth-making and in control of the publishing trade, customs and symbols of Yankee origin and preference came to stand for the American Christmas.

F.A. Chapman, The Christmas Tree, 1866 edition of Christmas Poems and Pictures.

As the tree gained prominence in front parlours, it also assumed a place in the market. During the 1850s, town squares began to bristle with trees cut for seasonable profits. Seamlessly, the 'German-ness' of the tree receded as it became an icon of an American festival and, to some, an index of acculturation. Even in the homes of 'the Hebrew brethren', 'Christmas trees bloomed', noted a Philadelphia newspaper in 18'77. '[T]he little ones of Israel were as happy over them as Christian children'. By 1900, one American in five was estimated to have a Christmas tree.

At first, the decoration of these fragrant evergreens reflected the whim of folk tradition. Celebrants added nuts, strings of popcorn or beads, oranges, lemons, candies and home-made trinkets. However, widely-read newspapers and ladies' magazines raised the standards for ornamentation. (One suggestion: cotton batting dipped in thin gum arabic then diamond dust made a 'beautiful frosting' for tree branches.) Homely affectations gave way to more uniform and sophisticated ones, the old style overtaken by the urge to make the tree a showpiece for the artistic arrangement of 'glittering baubles, the stars, angels, etc'.

Winslow Homer, The Christmas-Tree. Harper's Weekly, December 25, 1858.

Tree decoration soon became big business. As early as 1870, American businessmen began to import large quantities of ornaments from Germany to be sold on street corners and, later, in toy shops and variety stores. Vendors hawked glass ornaments and balls in bright colours, tin cut in all imaginable shapes and wax angels with spun glass wings. 'So many charming little ornaments can now be bought ready to decorate Christmas trees that it seems almost a waste of time to make them at home', one advertisement declared.

The Christmas Card...

The rise of Christmas cards revealed other aspects of the new holiday's profile. R.H. Pease, a printer and variety store owner who lived in Albany, New York, distributed the first American-made Christmas card in the early 1850s. A family scene dominated the small card's centre, but unlike its English forerunner (itself only a decade older), the images on each of its four corners made no allusion to poverty, cold, or hunger. Instead, pictures of Santa, reindeer, dancers and an array of Christmas presents and Christmas foods suggested the bounty and joys of the season.

It took Louis Prang, a recent German immigrant and astute reader of public taste, to expand the sending of cards to a grand scale. Prang arrived in America in 1850 and soon made a name as a printer. By 1870, he owned perhaps two-thirds of the steam presses in America and had perfected the color printing process of chromolithography. After distributing his trade cards by the thousands at an international exposition in 1873, the wife of his London agent suggested he add a Christmas greeting to them. When Prang introduced these new cards into the United States in 1.8?5, they proved such a hit that he could not meet demand.

Behind Prang's delight in profits lay a certain idealism. He saw his cards as small, affordable works of art. Through them he hoped to stimulate popular interest in original decorative art and to educate public taste. In 1880, Prang began to sponsor annual competitions for Christmas card designs to promote these ends. These contests made Christmas cards so popular that other card manufacturers entered the market. By 1890, cheap imitations from his native Germany drove Prang from the Christmas card market entirely.

Whatever Prang's plans for democratising art in his accepted land, the advent of Christmas cards in the marketplace soon served functions in keeping with the increasing pace and essential nature of American society. In a hurried and mobile nation, more and more Americans resorted to cards instead of honouring the older custom of writing Christmas letters or making personal holiday visits. The cards' ready-made sentiments drew together friends and families spread across a rapidly expanding national geography, making them a staple of December’s mail. 'I thought last year would be the end of the Christmas card mania, but I don't think so now', one postal official complained in 1882. 'Why four years ago a Christmas card was a rare thing. The public then got the mania and the business seems to be getting larger every year'.

Christmas cards also made modest but suitable presents. '[W]orn out from choosing gifts' for old friends and school mates, one writer noted, 'we usually fall back on Christmas cards, which constitute one of the most precious and at the same time inexpensive contributions of these latter days to the neglected cause of sentiment'.

Written portions of this blog posting in italics are from "Christmas in 19th Century America" - By Penne Restad in History Today Volume: 45 Issue: 12 1995

19C England - Christmas celebrations: the old versus the new

George Goodwin Kilburne (English artist, 1839-1924) Yuletide 1800s  Towards the end of the 19C, Kilburne designed & executed a great number of greetings & Christmas cards for the firm of Raphael Tuck & Sons and De La Rue.

Christmas celebrations: the old versus the new
BBC History Magazine, Tuesday 17th December 2013

"Professor Arthur Purdue takes a look our fascination with 'Christmas past' and how the celebration has evolved since Victorian times

"Christmas is, notoriously, a time for nostalgia and for many ‘Christmas present’ is considered never to be quite the same as ‘Christmas past’. This is partly due to our getting older, but is also because there are layers of tradition in our celebrations, some of them pre-Christian, which draw us inevitably to the ‘Old Christmas’. As Charles Dickens wrote, ‘How many old recollections and sympathies does Christmas time awaken’?

"Christmas is still essentially that which was remodelled in the 19th century to suit the tastes and ideals of the time. Victorian festivities were centred on the home, the family and the indulgence of children and if, in many homes, the hearth or fireside has disappeared and computer games have replaced the railway set as presents, this is still the Christmas we attempt to recapture and regard as traditional.

"The trappings of this festival reflect Victorian innovations: the cards, the tree, the crackers, the family meal with a turkey and, of course, Father Christmas or Santa Claus. Yet an older Christmas hovers behind it and its image is fixed on numerous cards and illustrations depicting a world of stagecoaches, ruddy-faced landlords, thatched cottages, manor houses and hospitable squires. The Victorians built into their new Christmas nostalgia for an ideal Christmas located forever in the 18th-century countryside.

"Those very architects of the Victorian Christmas, Charles Dickens and Washington Irving looked back to an idealised Christmas of their recent past. To Dickens, Christmas epitomised not only conviviality and humanity, but an affection for the past. In Pickwick Papers he describes a merry old Christmas, a “good humoured Christmas” in which, after blind-man’s buff, “there was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisons were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail”.

"Dickens may well have helped create a new Christmas but at the heart of his vision was an idealised old Christmas; one he hoped to revive. This Christmas was a merry, lengthy and mainly adult affair with some relaxation of the normal rules of propriety.

"Whether the occasion was generally observed has been doubted by some, as there is evidence that Christmas was in decline during the late 18th century. The puritans of the Commonwealth, who considered it a Popish survival, attempted to abolish the festival, but the Restoration saw it reinstated amidst popular acclaim. However, forms of celebration based on the open-handed hospitality of the aristocrat or squire in the big house and the often drunken and bawdy customs of the country people, were coming to seem quaint and old-fashioned to many.

"Such celebrations had little appeal for the well-to-do in towns and, in the countryside, the gentry no longer automatically kept open house for their dependents, while up-and-coming farmers, distanced themselves from their workers and the mumming and licence of the ‘world-turned-upside-down’ that was the ‘Old Christmas’. Only in more backward areas was Christmas celebrated in the old style and The Times reflected in 1790 on the time of festivity having “lost much of its original mirth and hospitality”.

"It was the very decay of Christmas traditions and a consciousness of their passing that appealed to romantics and antiquarians. The American writer, Washington Irving, visiting England in the early 19th century, saw the ‘Old Christmas’ as resembling “those picturesque morsels of Gothic architecture which we see crumbling in various parts of the country, partly dilapidated by the waste of ages, and partly lost in the additions and alterations of later days”. His account of the ‘Old Christmas’ presided over by the antiquarian Squire Bracebridge at Bracebridge Hall was an imaginative reconstruction of old customs and traditions, rather than a description of a contemporary Christmas.

"It wasn’t, however, solely the antique and antic customs of the decaying ‘Old Christmas’ that appealed to Dickens and Irving, but the underlying social harmony that they perceived in it. The ‘New Christmas’ that Dickens helped to create was essentially a private and family affair, even if Victorian families were large, and one that centred on children. The ‘Old Christmas’, whose passing he regretted, had been more of a community festival; an expression in the idle period of the agricultural year of charity in its older sense of fellowship.

"Much has been made of the contrast between Christmas at Dingley Dell in Pickwick Papers, a gregarious and merry festival lasting twelve days, and A Christmas Carol where the emphasis is upon Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as well as the notion of the family, represented by the Cratchits. This difference can be exaggerated for, if Dickens was Victorian enough to put home and hearth at the centre of things, his main aim was to stress fellowship, empathy between different sections of society, the responsibility of employers and good cheer. Mr Fessiwig’s Ball, held by the employer for all who worked for him, looks back to the festivities in the manor or farm house in which villagers or retainers, as well as family, participated and forward to the office party. Social harmony was the vision he saw Christmas representing and, if the half-imaginary 18th-century Christmas he drew on was a rosy image of pre-industrial society, it was ever-present in his works.

"The third ghost to visit Scrooge is the Ghost of Christmas Present who in fact bears a strong resemblance to some of the more jovial depictions of the spirit of the ‘Old Christmas’ – “a jolly Giant, glorious to see” who, “in a green robe, or mantle bordered with white fur”, is surrounded by a display of plenty in the shape of turkeys, geese and ‘seething bowls of punch’. This spirit, a prototype Father Christmas and a kindly if rather pagan figure, continued to hover over the Christmas that Dickens helped refashion.

"The Dickensian Christmas is, therefore, a bridge between the old and the new Christmas, the Anglo-American Christmas, which we inherit. The latter is, no doubt, better suited to an urban and mobile society; it is centred upon the family and children and is essentially private and home-based amidst eerily empty streets. It is also rather tamed for, if we eat and drink enough, it lacks the boisterousness and wider conviviality of the older, more adult, Christmas. Yet, that ‘Old Christmas’ is annually invoked today, as it was in the 19th century, by Christmas cards and festive illustrations in which jovial squires forever entertain friends by roaring fires while stout coachmen swathed in greatcoats, urge horses down snow covered lanes as they bring anticipatory guests and homesick relations to their welcoming destinations in a dream of merry England.

"Professor Arthur Purdue is visiting senior lecturer in history at the Open University and co-author with J.M. Golby of The Making of the Modern Christmas, Batsford (1986)"

Christmas Greenery - A brief history with images

A brief history of greenery during the Christmas holidays

Long before the advent of Christianity, plants & trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. In many countries folks believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, & illness.

Collecting Holly Sprigs in December pub by Robert Sayer in London in 1767

In the Northern hemisphere, many ancient people believed that the sun was a god & that winter came every year because the sun god had grown weak. They celebrated the solstice, because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong & summer would return.

Springs of holly or ivy at the windows & mistletoe above.  1770s Christmas gambolls, mid-18th century, etching published by P. Griffin

The ancient Egyptians worshipped a god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk & wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from his weakness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes symbolizing the triumph of life over death.

Greens decorate the room with mistletoe hanging from above.  The Young Sweep giving Betty her Christmas Box, 1770-1780

Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes & temples with evergreen boughs.

Holly on the mantel Published by  Carrington Bowles in 1780.

In Northern Europe the Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder.

Sprigs of ivy in the windows & mistletoe above.  Settling the Affairs of the Nation, pub by London's Bowles & Carver c 1775.

Decorating one’s house with natural boughs has been a Christmas tradition since Celtic times in England. Boughs of holly with their bright red berries were especially coveted.

Sprigs of holly over the mantle. Christmas Gambols The Wit’s Magazine, London, December 1784

"Heigh ho! sing heigh ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.”

- William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Mistletoe hanging from ceiling.  1790s Christmas Gambols or a Kiss Under the mistletoe Published 22d. Octr. 1794 by Laurie & Whittle, N°.53, Fleet Street, London.

Mistletoe hangs above & sprigs of holly or ivy decorate the lower window panes.  1791 Christmas in the Country, from drawing by Samuel Collings and pub Bentley & Co. in London, January 1, 1791.

1796 The Misteltoe, or, Christmas Gables, London  Pub 1 May 1796 by G.T. Stubbs

Mistletoe hangs above1800 Unknown British artist, The mistletoe - A Christmas Tale 1800. Published by Laurie and Whittle, London

Greenery hangs over the table.  1800 Farmer Giles's establishment.  Christmas day 1800 Published London

Rope of Greens in the Pastry Shop Window - George Cruikshanks Comic Almanac Excitement outside the pastry cook & confectioners shop window as people view the 12th night cakes

1825 High life below stairs Robert Cruikshank London Pub by G. Tregear 136 Drury Lane

Swags of Greenery decorate the windows of the Pastry Shop for 12th night.  The Every-day Book, 1827, Naughty Boys

1837 Bringing home Christmas from The book of Christmas Illustrated by Robert Seymour

Greenery decorates the old family portraits and hangs from the chandelier.  1847 Christmas at home with family & cats  Illustrated London News

Greens decorate the archway, the cake, and the boar's head!  The Illustrated Times 1857 - The Boar’s Head and Christmas Pie for the  Royal Banquet at Windsor  Castle

Selling greenery

 Preparing for Christmas

 Gathering Miustletoe in Normandy

 Kissing under the Mistletoe

Gathering Mistletoe

19C England's First Christmas Trees

Queen Charlotte's 1800 Christmas Tree

"Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, is usually credited with having introduced the Christmas tree into England in 1840. However, the honour of establishing this tradition in the United Kingdom rightfully belongs to ‘good Queen Charlotte,’ the German wife of George III, who set up the first known English tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December, 1800.

Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Queen Charlotte, Princess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, 1744 - 1818. Queen of George III About 1763

"Legend has it that Queen Charlotte’s fellow countryman, Martin Luther, the religious reformer, invented the Christmas tree.  One winter’s night in 1536, so the story goes, Luther was walking through a pine forest near his home in Wittenberg when he suddenly looked up and saw thousands of stars glinting jewel-like among the branches of the trees. This wondrous sight inspired him to set up a candle-lit fir tree in his house that Christmas to remind his children of the starry heavens from whence their Saviour came.

"Certainly by 1605 decorated Christmas trees had made their appearance in Southern Germany. For in that year an anonymous writer recorded how at Yuletide the inhabitants of Strasburg "set up fir trees in the parlours ... and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc."  In other parts of Germany box trees or yews were brought indoors at Christmas instead of firs.

"The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) visited Mecklenburg-Strelitz in December, 1798, and was much struck by the yew-branch ceremony that he witnessed there, the following account of which he wrote in a letter to his wife dated April 23rd, 1799:  "On the evening before Christmas Day, one of the parlours is lighted up by the children, into which the parents must not go; a great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fixed in the bough ... and coloured paper etc. hangs and flutters from the twigs. Under this bough the children lay out the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then the parents are introduced, and each presents his little gift; they then bring out the remainder one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces."

"When young Charlotte left Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1761, and came over to England to marry King George, she brought with her many of the customs that she had practised as a child, including the setting up of a yew branch in the house at Christmas. But at the English Court the Queen transformed the essentially private yew-branch ritual of her homeland into a more public celebration that could be enjoyed by her family, their friends and all the members of the Royal Household.

"Queen Charlotte placed her yew bough not in some poky little parlour, but in one of the largest rooms at Kew Palace or Windsor Castle. Assisted by her ladies-in-waiting, she herself dressed the bough. And when all the wax tapers had been lit, the whole Court gathered round and sang carols. The festivity ended with a distribution of gifts from the branch, which included such items as clothes, jewels, plate, toys and sweets.

"These royal yew boughs caused quite a stir among the nobility, who had never seen anything like them before. But it was nothing to the sensation created in 1800, when the first real English Christmas tree appeared at court.

"That year Queen Charlotte planned to hold a large Christmas party for the children of all the principal families in Windsor. And casting about in her mind for a special treat to give the youngsters, she suddenly decided that instead of the customary yew bough, she would pot up an entire yew tree, cover it with baubles and fruit, load it with presents and stand it in the middle of the drawing-room floor at Queen’s Lodge. Such a tree, she considered, would make an enchanting spectacle for the little ones to gaze upon. It certainly did. When the children arrived at the house on the evening of Christmas Day and beheld that magical tree, all aglitter with tinsel and glass, they believed themselves transported straight to fairyland and their happiness knew no bounds.

"Dr John Watkins, one of Queen Charlotte’s biographers, who attended the party, provides us with a vivid description of this captivating tree "from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles." He adds that "after the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted."

"Christmas trees now became all the rage in English upper-class circles, where they formed the focal point at countless children’s gatherings. As in Germany, any handy evergreen tree might be uprooted for the purpose; yews, box trees, pines or firs. But they were invariably candle-lit, adorned with trinkets and surrounded by piles of presents. Trees placed on table tops usually also had either a Noah’s Ark or a model farm and numerous gaily-painted wooden animals set out among the presents beneath the branches to add extra allurement to the scene. From family archives we learn, for example, that in December 1802, George, 2nd Lord Kenyon, was buying "candles for the tree" that he placed in his drawing room at No. 35 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. That in 1804 Frederick, fifth Earl of Bristol, had "a Christmas tree" for his children at Ickworth Lodge, Suffolk. And that in 1807 William Cavendish-Bentinck, Duke of Portland, the then prime minister, set up a Christmas tree at Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, "for a juvenile party."

"By the time Queen Charlotte died in 1818, the Christmas-tree tradition was firmly established in society, and it continued to flourish throughout the 1820s and 30s. The fullest description of these early English Yuletide trees is to be found in the diary of Charles Greville, the witty, cultured Clerk of the Privy Council, who in 1829 spent his Christmas holidays at Panshanger, Hertfordshire, home to Peter, 5th Earl Cowper, and his wife Lady Emily.

"Greville’s fellow house guests were Princess Dorothea von Lieven, wife of the German Ambassador, Lord John Russell, Frederick Lamb, M. de la Rochefoucauld and M. de Montrond, all of whom were brilliant conversationalists. Greville makes no mention of any of the bons mots that he must have heard at every meal, however, or of the indoor games and the riding, skating and shooting that always took place at Panshanger at Christmas. No. The only things that really seem to have impressed him were the exquisite little spruce firs that Princess Lieven set up on Christmas Day to amuse the Cowpers’ youngest children William, Charles and Frances. "Three trees in great pots," he tells us, "were put upon a long table covered with pink linen; each tree was illuminated with three circular tiers of coloured wax candles – blue, green, red and white. Before each tree was displayed a quantity of toys, gloves, pocket handkerchiefs, workboxes, books and various other articles – presents made to the owner of the tree. It was very pretty."

"When in December, 1840, Prince Albert imported several spruce firs from his native Coburg, they were no novelty to the aristocracy, therefore. But it was not until periodicals such as the Illustrated London News, Cassell’s Magazine and The Graphic began to depict and minutely to describe the royal Christmas trees every year from 1845 until the late 1850s, that the custom of setting up such trees in their own homes caught on with the masses in England.

See Alison Barnes' in History Today, Volume 56, Issue 12, December, 2006

Morning Madonna

Taddeo di Bartolo (c. 1363 – 1422), also known as Taddeo Bartoli, Madonna and Child - Taddeo di Bartolo abt 1390s-1400

In this blog, I try to begin each day with a painting of the Madonna & Child. It centers me; connects me to the past; & encourages me to post some of the religious paintings which were a large part of the core of early Western art.  In the 4C, as the Christian population was rapidly growing & was now supported by the state, Christian art evolved & became grander to suit new, enlarged public spaces & the changing contemporary tastes of elite private clients.

1660 England - The Merry Boys of Christmas - A little romance & a lot of Christmas Beer

Merry Boys of Christmas OR, 
The Milk-Maids New-Years-Gift.

When Lads and Lasses take delight,
       together for to be;
They pass away the Winter Night,
    and live most Merrily.
To the Tune of, Hey Boys up go we.

Come, come my roaring ranting Boys,
      lets never be cast down,
 Wel never mind the Female Toys,
      but Loyal be to the Crown:
 Wel never break our hearts with Care,
      nor be cast down with fear,
 Our bellys then let us prepare,
      to drink some Christmas Beer.

Then heres a Health to Charles our King,
      throughout the world admird,
 [L]et us his great applauses sing,
      that we so much desird,
And wisht amongst us for to Reign,
      when Oliver ruld here,
 But since hes home returnd again,
      come fill some Christmas Beer.

These Holidays wel briskly drink,
      all mirth we will devise,
 No Treason we will speak or think,
      then bring us brave mincd Pies:
 Roast Beef and brave Plum-Porridge
      our Loyal hearts to chear,
 Then prithee make no more ado,
      but bring us Christmas Beer.