Aspects of the Antebellum Christmas
Author: Tim Crumrin, Conner Prairie Historian
By 1860 many of the elements of our modern "traditional" Christmas were easily discernible. Although some customs found during the antebellum era have long since vanished, many more may be recognized instantly. Some, such as the use of a christmas tree, were in their nascent stages, while others, like the concepts of gift-bringers, were in mid-passage. No matter what stage of development, the modern reveler transported to antebellum America would be able to look upon familiar scenes. For, as one source contends, Santa Claus and ornamented trees were becoming more common "to the whole country."1
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 Perhaps 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
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
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.
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. Children 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. 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 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 (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.
- Time-Life Book of Christmas, (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1987) p.7.
- James Barnett, The American Christmas: A Study in National Culture, (New York: Arno Press, 1976), p.7; see also Katharine Rockwell, How Christmas Came to the Sunday-schools, (New York: Dood, Mead, 1934).
- Barnett, p.4.
- Barnett, p.11.
- F.X. Weiser, The Christmas Book, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953), pp.120-121.
- Ken Brooks, "How Christmas Traditions Began," Friends (Dec., 1979).
- Barnett, p.11; Philip Snyder, December 25th, (New York: Dood, Mead, 1985), pp.121-132.
- Irene Chalmers, The Great American Christmas (New York: Viking Press, 1988), p.22.
- Alfred Shoemaker, Christmas in Pennsylvania, A Folk-Cultural Study, (Kurtztown, PA: Pennsylvania Folklore Society, 1959), pp.43,56.
- Karen Cure, An Old Fashioned Christmas, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979), p.127.
- WPA, Ohio Guide, p.161.
- Snyder, pp.172-181; Rockwell, p.143; William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity, (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868).
- Barnett, pp.19-20.
- Barnett, pp.11.
- Barnett, pp.19-20.
- Snyder, p 256.
- Lynne Cheney, "You can thank Louis Prang for all those cards," Smithsonian, (December, 1977), pp.120-126.
- Barnett, pp.187-189.
- See, for example, Indiana Journal, (December 3, 20, 1841).
- Shoemaker, p.46.
- Wabash Express, (December 26, 1855).
- Snyder, pp. 210-211.
- Brian McGinty, "Santa Claus," Early American Life (December, 1979), p.50.
- E. Willis Jones, The Santa Claus Book, (New York: Walker & Co., 1976), p.6.
- Snyder, p.212.
- McGinty, p.51.
- Snyder, pp.211-212; McGinty, pp.51-52.
- McGinty, p.53; Charles W. Jones, "Knickerbocker Santa Claus," The New York Historical Society Quarterly, (October, 1954), 370-371.
- Shoemaker, pp.43-47.
- Jones, P.366.
- Shoemaker, 43.
- Shoemaker, 213.
- Snyder, p.213; Gerard and Patricia Del Re, Christmas Almanack, (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1979), pp.69-70.
- Harriet Kane, The Southern Cristmas Book, (New York: Bonanza Books, 1968), pp.222-229.
- William Sanson, A Book of Christmas, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), 105.
- Shoemaker, p.43; Barnett, p.11.