195th Century Christmas

The 19th Century Christmas

Historians tell us that Christmas in the United States and even the world was not celebrated much prior to Charles Dickens. They claim that the Puritans of Boston banned it and that it was “quite dead” in England of the 18th century.

That is all false.

While some evidence suggests Christmas was quite different it was not the fragmentary thing they made it out to be in America.

In fact, if anything was out of the usual when it came to Christmas it was the Puritan attitude about it. But the Puritans honestly never had a chance with their ban of Christmas.

Christmas was just too big even before they started.

The history of Christmas in the Americas dates back at least to the 14th century French explorers who first came to Canada. They did not record much of their activities however they did make a record of their Christmas celebrations in a strange land.

Columbus, too, made Christmas an event, even going so far as to name his first settlement in what we now call Cuba, La Navidad.

Of course, Columbus didn’t share his sacred Christmas with the natives and he allowed his own men to run wild. When Columbus returned the following year he found all his men dead and La Navidad burned beyond recognition. Columbus later took a more humble approach to teaching Christmas to later natives he discovered.

When the pilgrims of Jamestown arrived it was none other than John Smith who went on record as the first to drink eggnog at Christmas in the New World in 1607. The Jamestown record of Christmas celebration clearly pre-dates the Puritan ban.

Even in New England, outside of Puritan Boston, Christmas was widely observed. Newsprint clippings from the 1600s and 1700s shows Christmas recipes shared, poetry published and goods sold in association with Christmas.

In fact, old newspapers and family journals clearly show a culture where Christmas in one form or another was already a tradition that was passed for generations long before our ancestors of the 19th century came along.

What transpired culturally with Christmas in America only made it bigger as the 19th century advanced.

In New York City, by the late 1790s already a melting pot of nationalities, the secular Christmas in all of its raucous tradition was wildly celebrated.

The cultured and educated of the city fought to do something about it.

For years, spurred through the writings of Washington Irving, a man named John Pintard took up the challenge of taming the Christmas chaos in New York.

He did it by appealing to a common figure among all the immigrant groups of the city – St. Nicholas.

The true story of St. Nicholas (this historical figure, not the legendary Santa Claus he later became) is another that historians tend to gloss over.

Nicholas was a real person. He was a spiritual man, a bishop and a legendary figure in his time. He was one of those in attendance at the Council of Nicea and was a fervent backer of the Divinity of Christ.

In fact, it was there that Nicholas came to blows with a critic and was thrown into prison, only to be freed, it is said, by Jesus Christ, who returned to him his red priestly robes.

By the close of his life Nicholas was famous in many areas of the world, second only to Christ in terms of his fame. Within a few hundred years of his lifetime more than 2000 churches of the Old World would bear his name.

How did this happen in a world without Internet or media?

Nicholas’ exploits and some say miracles were carried by word of mouth. They were taught, as part of the Christmas season, in many lands.

Nicholas, long after he died, became known in many cultures and, due to his charity and his December 6th feast day, became associated with Christmas.

For Pintard in New York around the turn of the 19th century, Nicholas became the focal point of a more tame Christmas celebration.

He opened a museum of Nicholas history, drawing upon the Nicholas-themed traditions of every culture he could find.

He also used the literary market to great advantage by convincing popular writers such as Washington Irving to create works featuring St. Nicholas and Christmas. One of Washington
Irving’s associates was a wealthy professor of theology and religion named Clement Clark Moore.

Moore and his wife had a large family and, as the story goes, as he was delivering Christmas turkeys to the poor on a snowy Christmas Eve he penned a fun little poem about St. Nicholas based on the jolly demeanor of his white bearded sleigh driver.

Moore later shared his “Visit from St. Nicholas” with his many children, who were delighted.

The poem first became a family tradition of Christmas and later Moore had it published, anonymously in a New York newspaper, in 1823.

As was the tradition in those days, the poem passed from one paper to the next and was shared over time around the country. It became a media tradition of Christmas to share it every year.

Combine the image of Moore’s Santa Claus with Dicken’s resurgent embrace of Christmas with A Christmas Carol and you have the cultural fuel that made Christmas what it has become in America.

By the time our pioneer ancestors crossed the plains in the late 1840s they had, regardless of their land of origin, established traditions of Christmas celebrations.

They would continue those traditions of Christmas where they settled.

Christmas of 1847, the first in Salt Lake City, did not feature much of the usual trappings of Christmas. The 1500 or so of the first Saints in Zion did however gather at the flagpole that had been erected in the settlement and observed the day with song, talks and fellowship.

Christmas of 1848, just months after the Westovers had arrived, likely wasn’t much different in Salt Lake.

But by 1852 much progress had been made in building up the community, including a “social hall” where a Christmas day party was noted in one of the first editions of the Deseret News.

With the Westovers still living at that time within 3 blocks of the social hall there is little doubt that they were there.

It is quite likely that most there witnessed their first Christmas tree, which they then called a Santa Claus tree because it was decorated, as many trees then were, with gifts for the children.

Children really were the focus of the 19th century Christmas.

Thanks to the crafted images of Santa Claus in popular media it was common for children to commandeer the largest sock in the home – usually Fathers’ – to hang for Santa Claus to fill.

Christmas was almost always handmade.

Stockings were filled with handmade rag dolls, knitted items, candy and nuts. If fruit was available, which it often was not, that too might find its way into a stocking as a treat.

Albert Smith noted the passing of Christmas in his journal a couple of times, without much detail.

But with his home filled with children, especially in the 1860s and 1870s, you can be sure a special family meal was held and that inclusion in Manti’s Christmas activities, whatever they were included the Smiths.

It was the Smith home, after all, that served as the community theater for many years after Manti was first settled and Albert, known locally as “Father Smith”, due to his age and long-time Church member status, was certain to speak on any given occasion when folks gathered.

The Westovers of Southern Utah likely participated in the dedication of the St. George Tabernacle, which featured the first ever performance of Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains.

We will never know if any of our family participated as choir members but we do know that both Charles and Edwin worked on the construction of that building, which took many years to construct and it is likely many of the family were present when it was dedicated.

While details of our pioneer family Christmases are scarce we can be assured their Christmas celebrations always meant a family gathering of some type mixed with church and community celebration.

They changed as the times changed in the 19th century.

It wasn’t until 1870 that Christmas, along with Thanksgiving, became an “official” holiday. It did not come as grand announcement, but rather as a measure designed to give federal workers the day off with pay like most of their private sector counterparts already received.

What did this mean? It meant that Christmas had already been long observed in a special way as a common observance.

Our 19th century ancestors were not strangers to Christmas. As followers of Christ they marked the day, if even in their more unique way.


What Christmas Was Like for Them

In my world there are three seasons: baseball, Christmas and family history. These three things are a backdrop to my life as a husband, father, son, and grandfather.

It might be a bit unfair to call them seasons because for me none of them really begin and end. I always seem to be engaged in something connected to each of them. But rarely do those worlds ever collide.

Today they do in that I want to address Christmas of our forefathers and just what it was like for them.

My interest in Christmas is purely accidental. I was raised in a home where Christmas was grandly celebrated but it wasn’t until I became an instant father to the only 5 year old in the world who didn’t know of Santa Claus that I became something of a Christmas historian.

Knowing we wanted to have a large family, one of my first parental challenges was convincing Aubree that Christmas Eve did not mean opening presents. To me the future Christmas Eves of our family would be wrongfully spent if I didn’t straighten this out.

It took a letter to Santa, a response from an elf, and the daily magic of a dispatch from the North Pole via a fax machine to make that happen. Aubree ended up taking these faxes with her to school, spreading them around as kind of a jolly missionary and getting other kids to bug parents to call me so they could get the faxes for their children too.

Before long we were faxing all over town, then across the country, and later to different parts of the world every Christmas.

It was getting expensive until I discovered the Internet and put the effort online through a network of websites. Today is one of the largest Christmas websites online and is the oldest Santa tracking venue on the Internet.

Christmas brings people together. I was amazed in the early 1990s that people would fax Santa back sometimes to things that were mentioned in his updates.

They just wanted to share and they wanted to ask their own questions about Christmas. I learned long before social media ever came around how powerful the Internet could be in connecting people. I learned it through the backdrop of Christmas as we built our websites and developed our online skills.

As it has expanded I have had to continually study the history of the season. This did not begin as a joy to me but it became such when I saw that the work of being able to explain Christmas and share its history, traditions, legends and celebration would give me friends around the world.

This accidental endeavor has also given voice to my testimony of the Savior and an outlet to share the gospel of Christ in a different way.

It has given me as well a number of skills relative to research that has served other parts of my life, especially my work in family history. The ability to find facts, discover stories and present more in-depth information is vital to the work of sharing anything online.

Christmas, like most things, is different than people suppose because they are exposed to limited histories in school courses or agenda-driven history through modern media and movies.

For example, historians tell us that Christmas was dead in England before Charles Dickens produced A Christmas Carol. We know that is false.

Christmas was at the epicenter of debate for our Puritan Westover ancestors in Taunton, England in the 1500s and 1600s.

The dark ages has so corrupted the Church of England – and Christmas – that the season literally became a dangerous time to be on the streets.

Christmas was a free-for-all celebration by this point. It was a time where roving gangs had hijacked the quaint and neighborly tradition of wassailing and turned it into an opportunity to rob and plunder.

In many areas the priests of the church contributed to the misrule by allowing the pagan elements of winter solstice celebrations to continue. Role reversal was common as the “boy bishop” would take over the church and the priests would join the masses in the excess of partying.

These were seasons of riotous parties, widespread gambling and drinking, excesses in feasting, decorating and violence in the streets against non-participants, the aged and handicapped. There was widespread destruction of property and even sexual dalliances that would later be excused by the very priests who engaged in them.

The pre-Dickens Christmas was one of the many reasons for the Puritan uprising in England – and it had a profound effect on our family history.

When Jonah Westover began his family in Simsbury, Connecticut it is doubtful that he even celebrated Christmas. The Puritans of Boston very clearly banned Christmas for more than 50 years as the colonies of New England were established.

That is not to suggest, however, that Christmas was not celebrated at all.

While Governor Bradford himself recorded the story of chastising Puritan citizens found on the street on Christmas Day up to no good by playing games the fact of the matter was that while he could suppress the celebration of Christmas he could not entirely extinguish it.

Within the early American journals and media of the time there are evidences of family gatherings and private worship that occurred at Christmas even in Simsbury during the 1600s.

In fact, the idea of a “holiday season” was born of New England tradition. While Christmas may not have been a headline event Thanksgiving surely was.

It was our Puritan ancestors who developed the all American tradition of “pumpkin pye” and going over-the-river and through the woods to Grandfather’s house.

Thanksgiving then was a time declared by the governor or other royal authority. It usually came after a victory at war or some other great event that affected everyone. Thanksgiving could come at any time of the year and it was declared a time of public prayer and acknowledgement of God.

During these times there was no such thing as a “holiday” – or a day off.

That is why when the declaration of Thanksgiving went out by royal decree it became a big deal. Working for that day was out, worship was commanded and normal activity ceased to focus on whatever the reason.

Often the reason was a bounteous harvest.

The “first Thanksgiving”, as taught in grade school and on television in Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving, was definitely the real deal. It happened. Maybe it didn’t happen exactly as we have been taught with turkey and all but it definitely happened.

And it repeated itself as a societal tradition year after year.

The reason is quite plain. The end of the harvest meant the onset of winter. And winter brought a change in routine and a great increase of disposable time. It was the one time of the year when family could finally gather at all. It is no wonder that it became celebratory in nature.

Our New England ancestors of the Westover family surely engaged in the reveling of the pumpkin pie. Newspaper clippings from the 1700s suggest that it was common to bake and consume at least 10 pumpkin pies per household at Thanksgiving.

That’s a lot of love for pumpkin – and an indication of how large their gatherings were.

In 1630, a writer wrote:

For pottage and puddings and custards and pies,
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies:
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins, we would be undoon.

Nearly a century later, the now-established American tradition of gathering family and celebrating with pumpkin pie was written of in this way:

Ah! On Thanksgiving Day, when from East and from West,
From the North and from South come the pilgrim and guest,
When the grey-haired New Englander sees round his board,
The old broken link of affection restored.
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before,
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye?
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin Pie?

Over time, as New England populated away from the busy centers of Boston, diversity fractured the Christian church landscape.

Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists and Universalists all celebrated Christmas but did so in different ways. Almost all were very different from the Christmases of their grandfathers in merry old England.

But their religion melded with their lifestyle of survival. It was a life of farming and hunting, of building, gathering and forging with steel, copper and other metal.

Caught up in it all were the principles of liberty and the fierce American spirit of Independence. Jonathan Westover, brother to grandfather Jonah Westover, Jr, moved the Westover clan to Sheffield, Massachusetts.

As a founder of the community he played a part in the establishment of a church there. He took a dim view of a forced fee proposed for all town citizens in order to pay the priest of the Church. That was the tradition and he wanted no part of it. He would not do it by force, he claimed he would do it “in a gospel way”.

The early churches of New England varied widely from the churches known from the past. Even when John Westover, the son of Jonah, Jr, became the clerk of the Church of England in Sheffield what that church was in 1750 was far different than the Church of England his great-grandfather, Gabriel Westover, fought against three generations before.

The Church of England in Sheffield celebrated Christmas and the Westovers of the mid-18th century were big participants.

Religion was a contentious subject because the growing farming communities of western Massachusetts were continually infused with more people from different countries. It was the German farmers who brought the traditions of the Christmas tree to America in the early 1700s and this tradition was happily adopted by nearly all New Englanders over the next 100 years.

George Washington saw the first Christmas trees in his life when fighting Hessian mercenaries on Christmas of 1776.

Washington was a Southerner who very famously celebrated Christmas. As the heir of a large landowner Washington was land rich and as such was basically American aristocracy. His Christmas traditions included sending away to Europe for the latest in fashions for gifts and large holiday parties at Mount Vernon.

He saw a very different Christmas leading the American Revolution in areas north of his Virginia plantation. Amongst his many troops were the Westover brothers of Massachusetts.

It was Washington’s Christmas at Valley Forge that taught him the mindset of the Northern Christmas. It was clearly a tradition of his New England troops, one held in the highest esteem.

But if we’re looking for the details of our ancestral Christmas in abundance we need look no further than our family of the 19th century.

That will be discussed in our next post to come out later this week.

Westover Family Christmas

The History of Family Christmas Past

Westover Family ChristmasAs the holiday season approaches I cannot help but think with great appreciation how much more significant Christmas and Thanksgiving are to me thanks what I have learned of our family history.

I am especially grateful for those who left behind little memories of what these special days meant to them.

The image above was taken from the war letters of my Grandpa Carl, whose letters came home full of holes, much as the illustration shows. It was reflective of the times and his situation. But it was clearly important to him that he send his love though greetings home – and he sent lots of them.

I’m so grateful they survive to read now.

I have as well in my possession a few Christmas cards sent to me by my grandparents. I have many Christmas letters with poetry from Aunt Evie (treasures!). I cherish the Christmas video of my grandmother, and I really love this conversation between Grandma and Aunt Aldyth…

I am also so much more interested in the real meaning of Thanksgiving. I know now of our Puritan ancestors and how their frequent Thanksgivings were a call to family prayer.

I cannot say for certain what Christmas was like for our 19th century pioneer families. But I’m fairly certain that Grandma Electa Beal Westover was in the choir in St. George when Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plain was first performed in the then-new St. George Tabernacle. (You do know that story, don’t you?)

Wouldn’t it be neat to leave our grandchildren and great, great, great grandchildren something of the holidays from our generation?

That is the great hope in establishing the Westover Family Christmas Card Exchange.

Since announcing this last summer we have garnered a total of seven Westover family members who have signed up. But I’m hoping this little nudge will encourage more of you to sign-up and participate.

You see, I’m going to save every Christmas card from family this year and I’m going to call it historic. These were the brave souls – this Christmas card class of 2018 – that
started an enduring and great tradition.

Who are those seven brave souls? You’ll have to sign up to find out.

The list goes out on National Family History Day – ironically known as Thanksgiving Day – and those who sign up make history (and have a little fun).