Christmases Past: what happens next?

With the close of the 18th century, we run into a sort of black hole of information about how people celebrated Christmas. The next big era everyone looks at is the Victorian era, when Christmas trees come into vogue and many of the “Christmas Traditions” we take for granted are first introduced. None of this kicks in until the 1840s, at the earliest. What happened in the interim?

There are new Christmas ideas afoot in the first 40 years of the 19th century. A small group of historian/writer types in New York (city) make a big deal out of Saint Nicholas and ‘traditional’ Christmases. Everyone’s favourite Christmas poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (aka “The Night Before Christmas”), was published anonymously in 1823. The poem is generally attributed to Clement Clark Moore, although there’s also an argument to be made for it having orginally been penned by Henry Livingston Jr.; either way, both of these men had probably been exposed to the works for fellow New Yorker Washington Irving. In 1809, Irving had published A History of New York, which included mentions of Saint Nicholas bringing gifts to the early inhabitants of New York (described in a way which resembles that of “Visit from Saint Nicholas.”) Moreover, Irving described an ideal Christmas, to him, in his 1819/20 Sketch-book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Among the short stories in the Sketch-book are a series on ‘old Christmas’ as celebrated in England. Although these are technically fiction, Irving had spent time in England and may have based his descriptions on observations.

So we have a handful of publications out of New York in the early part of the 19th century which talk about Christmas celebrations. They aren’t wildly divergent from the Christmases of the 18th century, although I feel that they are more vibrant. There is also a strong German/Dutch influence, due to the history of New York. What I have not been able to discover is how widely read these works were. By the end of the 19th century Irving’s “Old Christmas” essays were being published independently of the rest of the Sketch-book; when did they catch the public eye? Before or after the “Visit from Saint Nicholas” and the popularisation of that other Germanic tradition, the Christmas tree? Did the story of a Saint Nicholas with tiny reindeer become popular in the Southern states immediately after the poem was published, or did it take decades?

Somehow the celebration of Christmas in America shifted from a non-holiday in the Northeast and a time for church and visiting in the South to something more standardized (as much as anything could or can be standardized here). How long did the transition take, and how did it manifest? I have not yet been able to uncover answers to my questions. I can only hope that there were some very descriptive diarists and letter-writers in the mid-Atlantic and Southern states who recorded their memories of Christmas.

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