THE HOLIDAYS – A time for religious observance, merriment, revelry, nostalgia, and magic. The customs we see today have their own history and origins, but true to classic “melting pot” traditions, those practices were blended into our current national amalgam of Christmas time. With so many ties to history and deep-rooted heritage, it’s the perfect holiday to relive the best parts of the past. This post is also an amalgam of information on timeless holiday practices, from other great resources and authors; it’s a one-stop-shop for devising your own holiday with an old-time feel.
A History of Christmas Celebrations, Traditions, and Decorations
This Old House reported that in colonial America, Christmas was mostly about religious observation if it was acknowledged at all; most people treated it as just another day, completing work and chores as usual. Tiverton Historical Society added that many religious groups – especially the Puritans – banned revelry or celebrations because they saw these practices as being Pagan. However, other religions such as Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans brought Christmas celebrations to Colonial America. At that time, Christmas and all its trappings were designed more for adults than for children. Concepts like the 12 days of Christmas (from Dec 25 – Jan 6) were represented with balls, parties, and other celebratory events. Some religions held religious services honoring Christmas and its spiritual meaning, and religious carols were sung in and out of church. Foods were similar to what we have today, including hams, roasts, turkeys, pies and other desserts. Gift giving was infrequent, and usually bestowed upon employees or dependents by superiors. Early decorations generally consisted of available vegetation, such as holly, ivy, laurel, mistletoe, and greenery. Although a few historians believe that Hessian soldiers introduced Christmas trees to the colonies during the Revolutionary War, most scholars contend that German immigrants to Eastern Pennsylvania did so. The Norfolk Towne Assembly noted that the German Moravians did introduce creches (nativity scenes) in the 1740’s; putzes (little village scenes) also appeared in the late 18th century. Colonies like Pennsylvania and Delaware in particular were a hotbed for a variety of Christmas celebrations, traditions, and decorations due to religious pluralism. As we’ve discussed before with Susan Dippre, Colonial Williamsburg’s decorations – that many associate with a Colonial Christmas – aren’t historically accurate to colonial times, but a result of tourists’ interests and an attempt by staff to pay homage to Colonial materials and art with a modern (albeit 1930s) decorative sensibility.
Penne Restad discussed the significant growth and change of Christmas traditions throughout the 19th century. By 1800, many disparate traditions for celebrating Christmas existed throughout America, but trends throughout the 19th century ensured a fusion of these into the collective we know today as Christmas. Particularly, by mid-century, exponential change via technology, industrialization, and urbanization caused greater socioeconomical inequality, unrest, and tension, even as it increased connections between people with transportation and communication innovations. The populace consequently experienced a shared desire for “old” familiar comforts and values and a greater need for solidarity. These yearnings were manifest in various Christmas traditions that transcended religious and cultural differences, and enabled Christmas to act as a unifying American holiday. German influences were more prevalent in Christmas celebrations (including things mentioned during the Colonial period), but in the 19th century this was most evident in the Christmas tree. Christmas trees exploded in popularity by the 1850s, when town squares even began selling them. Early trees were decorated with religiously symbolic items or gifts which often included fruits, nuts, and candies. Ornament materials were initially natural and homespun. By the 1870s, ornaments for trees were so popular that manufacturers – especially in Germany – created more sophisticated, ornate pieces often made of colored glass. These pieces became a big business during this decade in department stores. The Woolworth’s Store here in Lancaster would have had these wares on offer. Gift-giving became more prominent in the 1820s, but by the 1870s and 80s, it exploded – both due to increased consumerism and because it served as a means for the privileged to attempt to appease the less fortunate (as well as their own consciences a la Ebenezer Scrooge) through charitable giving. Santa Claus – the ultimate gift-giver – was a major part of Christmas tradition for early Dutch settlers, but was solidified in the American popular imagination by Clement C. Moore. He penned “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1822 to entertain his children, and this became what we now know as “The Night Before Christmas.” Several other artists and authors had already expanded on this saint prior to this piece, and continued to do so after. One of the most famous portrayals was that of Thomas Nast, posted in the January 3, 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly. The English tradition of Christmas cards also appeared more broadly in America in the 1850s, and the tradition really took off when Louis Prang began manufacturing these miniature pieces of art; they fulfilled consumers’ sentiments, but also acted as appropriate substitutes for letters, in-person visits, as well as more traditional gifts. By the end of the 19th century, Christmas was very much like we know it today – including its ironically heavy ties to consumerism and capitalism, despite its purer origins.
Many of the trends of the late 19th century continued into the 20th, with increased commercialism, as noted by Bygone Theatre. By the 1910s, Santa looked pretty much as we visualize him today, and Coca Cola solidified this in 1931 with their artistic rendering. Glass ornaments were being made in America in addition to Germany after WWI. By the 1920s, well-off consumers were popularizing use of electric lights for trees. Things were generally simpler again during the depression, although WWII afforded a bit more prosperity with practicality – shiny brites came about at this time (but gifts were focused on war efforts). In the post-war boom, styles became more “gaudy” and lots of babies meant a booming toy industry, and many toys made popular Christmas gifts. Relatedly, many child-focused TV Christmas specials were born. The 1960s continued many of the characteristics of the 1950s Christmas with more variety – think bright pastels, more tinsel, and unique décor. Hallmark yearly ornaments originated in the 1970s, and the 80s and 90s reflected the trends of the previous 20-30 years with increases in technology that allowed for more frequent viewing of classic TV Christmas specials, and more artists creating Christmas albums.
In the past 20 years, people have leaned toward family photo Christmas cards, Hallmark Christmas movies, and “ugly sweater” parties – a new nostalgia for Christmas fashion from the 80s and 90s. However, the darker side of this time has included exceptional consumerism, to the point of injury and death, with corporations capitalizing on people’s gift desires via Black Friday and other limited-time sales. As a result, the holidays have become, for many, one of the most stressful times of the year. It’s left many people longing for simpler times. Pandemic restrictions, and related economic depression and stress will likely mitigate some of these trends, hopefully encouraging people to focus on more meaningful things than what they “need” to buy. Read on for old-fashioned Christmas inspiration to soothe your modern stress.
Observing an old-fashioned Christmas
Creating your old-fashioned Christmas.
- Activities and traditions – Many of our modern activities and traditions stem from old traditions, so if you’re already doing them, keep doing them! However, if you need more inspiration, check out posts here, here, here, and here. Check out specific food traditions and ghost story-telling, too (here and here).
- Preservation and protection – Rule #1 is DON’T DAMAGE YOUR HISTORIC FABRIC!
- Consider hanging decorations without making new nail holes (use existing holes, picture rails, and try to distribute weight of items across several nails). You can also take advantage of over the door or window hangers or ribbons for items like wreaths. If there is room, a hanger over your front door is suitable if it does not scrape at the door and door frame. Double-hung windows accommodate fabric ribbons pinched between the sashes. You may even use weights to hold garlands in place. Use utility hooks like command strips with caution and at your own discretion, as these may still damage walls (or the item you’re hanging on them if they lose adhesion and fall).
- Be careful what decorative materials you use – tape, glitter, and faux snow can all be damaging to finishes, or even cut soft surfaces in the case of glitter.
- Live plants may be best relegated to the outdoors to prevent insect and moisture damage to your interiors. If you do have live decorative plants indoors, keep them distanced from artwork, carpets, and upholstery. Also keep a barrier between container plants and your furniture like a saucer. You may also use Volara Foam – archival quality material that Biltmore Estate uses for its decorations.
- DIY Decorations – Decorate based on the time-period or cultural origins of your home (or those that you would like to emulate).
- Colonial Era – remember to keep things simple. If you would like to deviate from austere historical accuracy, consider following the example of Colonial Williamsburg, or other home owners here and here. For Moravian/German ideas, look at Historic Bethlehem.
- 19th Century – as aforementioned this time period runs the gamut of style, depending on what decade you’re interpreting. Choose one specific style, or meld them together. Biltmore Estate and the Merchant’s House Museum are just two examples from which you may take inspiration in-person on virtually.
- 20th Century – Basic traditions were maintained, but the aesthetic changed significantly in the course of 100 years. The early years were similar to the late 19th century, but things really began to evolve mid-century. Old house guy talks about a 1940s Christmas tree. Mid-century Modern ideas can also be found here, here, and here.
- General – find inspiration for more primary resources from This Old House, at the bottom of the post.
For further resources and reading:
- Refer to the resources linked throughout this post for time-period-specific information. You can also find more history here, here and here.
- More sites to visit in-person and virtually can be found here and here.