December 20, 2008

Christmas Traditions

by DiAnn Mills

Whether you read or write about a Christmas celebration in the 19th century, discovering some of the traditions of that era adds sparkle to how we celebrate Christmas today.

Christmas Eve became known as the night to sing carols as people gathered together and went from house to house. Families and friends attended church to hear the familiar Christmas story from Luke and watch children in homemade costumes act out the first Christmas. Candy and fruit were the treats, and most gifts were needed items rather than wanted ones.

The use of popcorn intrigued me so I did a little research about how it was used to celebrate Christmas. Popcorn balls were quite popular. Some cooks added orange and lemon juice, rose, peppermint, honey, vanilla, molasses, or sugar to give their popcorn an added taste treat. In the 1800s you could expect to attend a “Popcorn Frolic,” in which the decorations and the food were popcorn. Even the games included corn drop, popcorn races and popcorn hunt. Imagine playing that around the tree!

I wondered when the custom of Christmas cards began so I made a trip to the library. The early Christmas card tradition has strong German influence. In the 15th century, the Germans presented others with a Christmas card of sorts that had a devotional picture with a message that expressed the holiday season. For the next two centuries, the practice faded until early in the 18th century when English grade school students took pieces of paper with engraved borders and wrote sweet sentiments to their parents or loved ones. It was initially designed to show parents how well their children could write, but then the custom spread by adding color to the borders and creative messages. But the first designed Christmas card was designed by John Callcott Horsley – 1817 to 1903 in England. He was a well known painter, and in 1843 the first Christmas card appeared. This was also the year that Charles Dickens penned The Christmas Carol.

The traditional Christmas tree in our country also has German roots. Back in the 1800s, homemade and handcrafted ornaments decorated most Christmas trees. Apples, walnuts, cranberries, cookies, various fruits, and even presents nestled in the branches. Depending on where you lived in the country determined how your tree looked. Some people pushed whole cloves into oranges for not only a pretty but fragrant tree. I tried stringing cranberries and what a mess. I think laying fruit on the tree branches made much more sense.

It is interesting to note how Christmas expanded to what we know today. In 1820, Germans quietly dressed their Christmas tree and by 1840 it had begun to rise in popularity. Few people had trees and chose to decorate them as a community usually for the youth. There were no candle holders, so each candle was wired onto a tree branch. Although the first glass ornaments were made in 1848 Germany, our country did not have them to sell until thirty years later.

In 1850, amidst the tension of pre Civil War days, churches and businesses began to observe Christmas. The commercial tree trade is said to have begun in this era. Edible decorations were the most common, with the addition from previous years to Marzipan molded into all types of shapes and fastened to the tree with ribbon. The candles had to be attached to the tree very carefully, and all trees had a bucket of water sitting nearby.

Christmas during the Civil War years helped the people of both the North and the South escape the realities of a war-torn country. Remember the book Little Women and how the characters in that book labored to have a Christmas? Huge Christmas trees became a status symbol and neighborhood tree trimming parties became fashionable. Some private homes charged an admission for others to view their trees. It was during this time that Santa was drawn as a plump jolly man in a red suit after the popular The Night before Christmas. Although better candle holders and inexpensive glass replaced food type of ornaments, the trees were still fire hazards.

In 1870, the US Congress declared Christmas a national holiday. Tinsel was first used then. It was made from thin strips of wire and foil – and reflected light. Glass ornaments were added, but most people still used ornaments that were wood, paper, metal or edible. Tree stands emerged. Up until this time, crocks and wooden boxes were used – and a good many trees fell.

In 1880 Electric lights began to light the trees for the wealthier families. The flocked tree came onto the scene. I had to laugh at how this was accomplished: the tree was lightly sprayed all over with water, and the tree sprinkled with flour. Directions stated that too much flour and the tree would cake. Commercially made stockings appeared, but many still used their own.

Here is a bit of trivia: The custom of hanging a stocking can be traced to a Saint Nicholas legend. It was said that in order to help an impoverished nobleman provide dowries for his daughters, the generous Saint Nicholas threw gold coins down the chimney. The coins magically landed in stockings hung by the fire to dry. Hence, hanging of a stocking over the fireplace.

By 1900 one out of five families had Christmas Trees. President Theodore Roosevelt, a conservationist at heart, initiated the nation to conserve evergreens by planting the trees as a cash crop.

Different parts of the country adopted different traditions. The south often began the holiday with firecrackers and noise makers. Sometimes bands would parade the streets. Decorations were primarily greens, mistletoe and stockings. In the north, community trees often served the whole town. Parents decorated the trees with gifts. Once the children were given their presents, the tree was bare again. I always wondered about the song “I’ll be Home for Christmas” and the lyrics which said “Presents on the tree.”

Our Christmas celebrations now include IPods, IPhones, and Apples that aren’t edible, but many of the traditions from days gone by excite us still!

If you’d like to win a copy of A Texas Legacy Christmas, head to my website at and find the answer to this question. What is the name of the heroine in my new March release?

Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year!


Molly Noble Bull said...

Nice info, Diann.

Cheri2628 said...

Paige Rogers in Breach of Trust

Maureen said...

I enjoyed your post about Christmas traditions. The heroine is Paige Rogers.

Pamela J said...

Paige Rogers is in the only upcoming book I found but the date I found it was to be released 02/02/09 instead of March. Hope this is what you are looking for and then I can be entered in your drawing.
Pam Williams
cepjwms at wb4me dot com

Barbara said...

Always useful and interesting info.

The name is Paige Rodgers.


Cheri2628 said...

forgot to leave email!