by Patricia Marian Cove
Amidst the harried shoppers in the crowded malls, the short-tempered drivers on congested streets and too many parents worrying once again about how to fulfill their children’s expectations and retain a bank balance, I like to look back at the way things were.
I enjoy reading about traditions, once so simple, that have somehow evolved into what now often seems to be an “out-of-control” holiday EVENT. I like to remember a time when unique celebrations and personal rituals made the holiday season a much less hectic time, but one much more meaningfully celebrated.
Winters in the early days of our country were long and cold and dark, and families relied on a social occasions to add a bit of gaiety to the long winter nights. Some Americans, for both religious and economic reasons, did not celebrate the holiday season on Christmas Day, but regarded New Year’s Day as the principal occasion for gathering or calling to wish others well.
December 25 was observed primarily as a holy day. St. Nicholas, the jolly man in red with reindeer, sleigh and presents for good boys and girls, had not yet become a part of the folklore.
With short, dark days fading into long evenings, most of the winter season before 1850 relied on the warmth and brightness of numerous candles, which provided a bright effect. From the early 18th century in the Southern colonies, and increasingly throughout the colonies, the short days of winter became a focal point for social activity.
It was true of the most affluent Americans, who were later joined by a growing middle class. To add to the festivities, immigrant groups from Central and Northern Europe shared their traditions that been a means of comfort during the long winters.
Irish families brought with them the Irish harps for playing, were known for their bountiful tables of traditional seasonal fare such as oyster stew, smoked salmon and Irish soda bread.
As the holidays grew near, the English prepared their popular Christmas puddings, often placing a coin inside before baking. The person to get the coin on his plate when the dessert was cut, would have good luck the whole New Year. Wassail, made from the juice of apples, oranges and pineapples and seasoned with cinnamon and cloves, would be sure to warm the bones of weary travelers.
Decorations could not be bought at department stores in the 18th century, so Virginia housewives created beautiful wreaths and garlands with natural plant materials growing on the land. Fruits, greens, cones, seed pods and nuts, along with lemons, limes, pears, pomegranates and kumquats were used to form circular decorations and trimmed with holly, pyrocantha, berries, cedar, pine and boxwood. Elaborate fans were constructed with apples and pineapples, the tradition symbols of hospitality.
It wasn’t until about 1834 that German Americans shared their traditions. One of the first American Christmas trees was said to have been seen right here in Germantown. Eggshells were often gilded and used as candle cups, others were filled with sweets. Paper cornucopias were hung from branches and filled with bonbons. Dolls and other “whimsies glittered in the evergreen branches along with other special handmade ornaments
Perhaps it would be interesting to get all of our shopping done early this year, and then recreate customs that were part of the holiday season 200 years ago.
Patricia Marian Cove is Principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill and is vice president for preservation of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society.