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A Very Victorian Christmas Exploring the histories of our favorite holiday traditions

Presented by the Camron-Stanford House

"Many a merry Christmas, friend, Health, contentment, joy and bliss; More delights in thought I send, Than I can convey in this. With the now departing year May your cares and sorrows cease; May the new one, drawing near, Bring you happiness and peace."

(from "A Christmas Wish" a poem by S. Conant Foster, 1883.)

From writing to Santa Claus to reading A Christmas Carol and making gingerbread men, there are many holiday traditions that have become integral to celebrating the winter holidays for many of us. Some of these traditions were popularized in the 19th century. The Camron-Stanford House is pleased to present A Very Victorian Christmas, an opportunity to explore the origins of a few favorite holiday traditions celebrated in the 19th century and today.

Christmas Banned in Boston

Example of posters seen in Massachusetts Bay Colony announcing the ban of Christmas celebrations.

Christmas faced very hard times in the early history of the United States. In fact, Christmas was banned by the Puritans in Massachusetts in 1648. For many years, Christmas was a quietly honored holiday, and looked quite different from the Christmas celebrations many of us know today.

"For preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction, by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God and offence of others, it is therefore ordered by this Court and the authority thereof, that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon such accounts as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shillings as a fine to the country."

(Above text: Records of the Governor and Company of Massachusetts Bay in New England, Printed by order of the Legislature, 1650-1660)

Writing over 200 years later on December 25, 1856, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow detected a state of transition about the way New Englanders thought about Christmas:

". . . The old puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful, hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so."

By 1860, fourteen states had adopted Christmas as a legal holiday. A newspaper remarked in 1861,

"Even our presbyterian friends who have hitherto steadfastly ignored Christmas—threw open their church doors and assembled in force to celebrate the anniversary of the Savior’s birth."

In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant formally declared Christmas a federal holiday in the United States.

(image: Puritain govenor interrupting Christmas celebrations in New England. Illustration by Howard Pyle, 1883)

The Business of Season’s Greetings

In 1843 Henry Cole commissioned an artist to design a greeting card for Christmas. The illustration (shown here) featured a group of people around a dinner table and a simple Christmas message. By the 1880s the sending of cards had become hugely popular, creating a lucrative industry that produced 11.5 million cards in 1880.

Selection of 19th Century Christmas greeting cards.

Victoria's Tree

The popularization of the modern Christmas tree is a gift from Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their nine children who celebrated with a plethora of small fir trees at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Prince Albert brought the custom with him from his native Bavaria, where the tradition of having evergreen trees in the home for winter celebrations had been done for centuries..

Eleanor Stanley, maid of honor to Queen Victoria from 1842 to 1862, wrote to her mother on Christmas Day in 1848 to describe how the royals observed the day.

“. . . the Queen and Prince already were standing by a large table covered with a white cloth, in the middle of which was a little fir-tree, in the German fashion, covered with bonbons, gilt walnuts, and little coloured tapers. I sent a bonbon as a Christmas box to little Blanche, which I took off the tree. . . . The children had each a little table with their new toys, and were running about in great glee showing them off; Prince Alfred, in a glorious tinsel helmet that almost covered his face, was shooting us all with a new gun, and Princess Alice was making us admire her dolls, etc. They had one Christmas tree among them, like us, but the Queen, Prince, and Duchess had each one, and altogether I never saw anything prettier than the whole arrangement.”

The true origin of the Christmas tree, though, is thought to be much older. The use of evergreen trees and boughs during symbolic winter traditions have been documented in Ancient Egypt, Rome, Scandanavia, and elsewhere.

(image: Queen Victoria's Christmas Tree, Via Hulton Archive, Getty Images.)

image 1- Osborne House, 1896., image 2- Christas at Windsor Castle, image 3- 19th century Christmas tree.
William Letts Oliver's Christmas Tree 1886. (Image courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.)

Here Comes Santa Claus

Clement Clark Moore, a Professor of "Oriental and Greek Literature" at a theological seminary, was fascinated with the idea of faeries and elves, as were many Victorians. He had no idea, however, that a short poem he created for his nine children would give such life to the most famous elf of all-- Santa Claus.

The Night Before Christmas was first published annonymously in 1823, long after Reverend Moore had penned A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language (1809) and a translation from the French of A Complete Treatise on Merinos and Other Sheep (1811). A serious scholar and poet, he only admitted his authorship of the poem in 1844 when it appeared in an anthology of his poetry, twenty-one years after its first publication.

The Jolly Old Elf

Prior to the 1860s, what Santa looked like would have varied wildly depending on who you asked. Based on the lore surrounding Christianity's Saint Nicholas, the generous gift-delivering figure was widely celebrated around Christmastime throughout much of Western Europe as far back as the 16th century. Known as St. Nick, Father Christmas, or Kris Kringle, his look and known traits would have depended largely on where you lived and with whom you were celebrating the holiday.

13th Century depiction of Saint Nicholas, Saint Catherine's Monestary, Sinai.

In 1863 during the Civil War, the first iconic image of Santa Claus was drawn by Thomas Nast and appeared in Harper’s Weekly as part of a two-page illustration. Nast drew Santa as a jolly old elf who could fit down a chimney, just as Clement Moore described him in The Night Before Christmas. Nast’s 1873 drawing (below) put the elf-like figure of Moore's creation in perspective for the Victorians.

Other illustrators such as Frank L. Baum, Arthur Rackham and Jesse Wilcox Smith drew the famous personage as well. Most, like Wilcox’s image (below) continued the elfin tradition.

The modern vision of Santa is attributed to Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom who created the famous drawing for Coca Cola in 1931. His human-scaled Santa had undergone a growth spurt which would be copied by other 20th century artists like Norman Rockwell. Sundbloom’s illustrations for Coke continued for more than 30 years and became iconic for the modern era, just as Nast’s elf was for Victorians.

William Letts Oliver Family - Christmas in Oakland 1901 (image courtesy the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley).

Humbug! Charles Dickens’ Gift

A morality tale that propounds the concept that the more fortunate should care for the less fortunate, A Christmas Carol was a short novella written in 1843 by Charles Dickens. Sayings like "Humbug!" "He’s such a Scrooge!" and "Merry Christmas!" are all derived from the story.

Although Dickens intended to rouse public protest for the plight of poor children by writing his book, it’s popularity and longevity had the unintended consequence of actually changing the way Christmas was viewed in Western culture. Rather than a religious observance lasting for 12 days, Christmas became a one or two-day public holiday. Following its publication, Christmas became seen as a time to be generous to the less fortunate and to gather with family and close friends to make merry.

Dickens began to write A Christmas Carol in September and finished the book in six weeks. Released on December 19th, the first run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve.

Since then, it has never been out of print.

(image: Engraving featuring a scene of Scrooge's Third visitor, from Charles Dickens: "A Christmas Carol". Illustration by John Leech, 1843.)

Visions of Sugarplums

Initially Christmas gifts for children were rather modest – fruit, nuts, sweets, and small handmade trinkets hung on the Christmas tree. At the start of Queen Victoria’s reign, children’s toys tended to be handmade, and hence, expensive. During the 19th century the factories that rose from the Industrial Revolution began to mass-produce toys, games, dolls, and books at more affordable prices, making them accessible to many middle class families. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the winter holidays contributed to a large portion of retails sales across the country.

Images via Library of Congress.

Christmas Fashions of the Victorian Age from Godey’s Lady’s Book

Godey’s Lady’s Book was published from 1830 to 1898 and was the first and most popular 19th century American magazine for women.

Although published by Louis Godey, the magazine was informed by the tastes of its long-time editor, Sarah Hale. When Hale started at Godey’s, the magazine had a circulation of ten thousand subscribers. Two years later it jumped to 40,000, and by 1860 had 150,000 subscribers. In her 40 years as editor, Hale focused on the literary creations of American women and popularized British royal watching in the 19th century.

The December color fashion plates shown here trace the evolution of fashion from the hoop skirts of the antebellum age to the bustles of the 1880s. One thing remained constant, the 18 inch wasp waist which would not disappear until the 20th century.

Fashion plates from December editions of Godey's Lady's Book

The Nutcracker

German author, composer, and artist E. T. A. Hoffman wrote The Nutcracker and the Mouse King in 1816, before the advent of the Victorian age. In 1840 Alexander Dumas Sr. wrote a French adaptation of the story, Histoire d’un Casse-noisette. The story was published in the United States in 1854 with the illustration below on the frontispiece.

The story reached Russian audiences in December of 1892 when Marius Petipa choreographed a ballet based on the Dumas’ tale with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Although the debut at the Mariinsky Theater pleased Tsar Nicholas, the public was only lukewarm to the new ballet.

Following World War II, the ballet made its way to the West Coast of the United States where it had its debut with the San Francisco Ballet in 1944. Ten years later George Ballenchine and the New York City Ballet staged their own version. Since that time, Hoffman’s story of a spellbound prince, a mouse king and a dreaming little girl has become a staple of the holiday season throughout the United States.

(image: Varvara Nikitina as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Pavel Gerdt as the Cavalier, in a performance in the original run of The Nutcracker, 1892.)

Early German illustration of E.T.A. Hoffman’s Nutcracker and Mouse King story.

Gingerbread Men

Although ginger biscuits were used in medieval times as a remedy for upset stomachs, shaped gingerbread was popularized in Germany. Records show that bakers giilds in both Ulm and Nuremberg produced lebkuchen, a honey-sweetened cake bread, in the 13th century. Lebkuchen contains a high percentage of ground nuts and a low percentage of flour, and may contain a variety of spices including aniseed, coriander, cloves, ginger, cardamom, and allspice. Traditionally, lebkuchen is round, rectangular or heart shaped.

Queen Elizabeth I is credited with the creation of the first gingerbread men. To celebrate the arrival of a foreign delegation, Elizabeth ordered the royal bakers to create an image of her guests made from gingerbread and covered in gold leaf. The molds below are from the early 17th century and would be similar to those used in an Elizabethan kitchen.

17th Century cookie board, or cookie mould.
"An I had but one penny in the world, thou shoudst have it to buy ginger-bread!" - William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour Lost

(Image: Portrait of Queen Elizabeth, known as the Armada Portrait, circa 1588. National Portrait Gallery, London, England.)

You Can’t Catch Me!

In 1875 the children’s publication St. Nicholas Magazine printed “The Gin-ger-bread Boy,” a story for very young children with hyphenated text to help them phonetically sound out the words. It told the story about a living gingerbread man who runs away from various pursuers—a little old woman, a little old man, a cow, etc.—before he is eaten by the crafty old fox. The illustration below is from the original story.

I’ve run away from a little old woman, A little old man, A barn full of threshers, A field full of mowers, A cow and a pig, And I can run away from you, I can, I can!

(image: Illustration from a 1918 version of the story published in "What Happened Then Stories" by Ruth O'Young and Florence Liley. New York Public Library).

Hansel and Gretel

The gingerbread building boom began in 1812 when Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published an old German folk tale about a brother and sister who find a house in the forest “built entirely from bread with a roof made of cake, and the windows were made of clear sugar.” They outwit the evil witch who wants to eat them, steal her treasure and return home to live happily ever after. German bakers began to create the lebkuchenhaus that is a fixture of German holiday celebrations and the custom spread throughout Europe and the United States.

For 25 years, Bergen, Norway has laid claim to the largest gingerbread village (Pepperkakebyen) in the world with over 2,000 structures. But Texas always does things bigger, and the town of Bryan, Texas holds the record for the world’s largest gingerbread house. Created with 1,800 pounds of butter, 2,925 pounds of brown sugar, 7,200 eggs, 7,200 pounds of all-purpose flour, 1,080 ounces ground ginger and a few other ingredients, the house is a whopping 2,420 square feet of sweets or about the size of a tennis court.

(Image from "Grimms' Goblins, 1861. Via the National Library of Scotland.)

A New Celebration of Faith

While Christmas was almost certainly the most widely-celebrated holiday in the United States in the 19th century, Hanukkah was gaining traction in the Western world.

Hanukkah, a Jewish tradition observed over eight days, commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C.E. This site was believed to be the location where Jews had risen up against their oppressors during the Maccabean Revolt. Hanukkah, which means '"dedication" in Hebrew, is typically celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, and falls in November or December on the Gregorian calendar.

In the 1860s, Hanukkah was just starting to get its foot off the ground as a major holiday in the United States. Inspired by the way Christmas activities drew people to Christian churches, American Rabbis began introducing winter celebrations of their own at their synagogues, largely to give Jewish children an opportunity to honor and celebrate their own heritage. In synagogues across the country, the story of Hanukkah was told, symbolic candles were lit, and hymns were sung. The traditions gained traction towards the end of the 19th century. In the early 20th century, following the commercialization of Christmas, holiday traditions such as gift giving became normalized during Hanukkah celebrations.

(image: Hanukkah celebration by the Young Men’s Hebrew Association at the Academy of Music in New York City, 1880. Illustration in "Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper", 3 January 1880.)

Christmas at the Camron-Stanford House

Every year the Camron-Stanford House looks forward to welcoming visitors for the holiday season, especially during our annual Holiday Open House. When visiting, you will see how we have decked our halls with a classic 19th century spirit in mind. Our Christmas tree glows warmly in the window of the Family Parlor, decorated with 19th century ornaments and candles, and holiday trinkets and gifts are available to explore throughout the house. While we cannot celebrate together in 2020, we look forward to hosting you for the holidays in 2021.

The Camron-Stanford House is the last of the beautiful 19th century mansions that once surrounded Lake Merritt and was the home to five influential families before becoming the first museum in the City of Oakland. The restored home helps visitors time travel to the 1880s and enter meticulously recreated living spaces. In addition, the house presents various exhibits throughout the year that focus on aspects of Victorian life and culture.

The work of the Camron-Stanford House, including public programs, exhibits, and upkeep of the historic landmark home are funded through the generous support of our community. Please consider making a donation or becoming a member, and help us continue our mission of providing educational and joyful programs while caring for this landmark home.