Christmas Past

Most everyone is in the midst of the Christmas rush — buy those gifts – send out those Christmas cards — bake those cookies — decorate that tree. And, if there is any time or energy left, try to think about the real meaning of Christmas.

Christmas was celebrated quite differently before the 1850s. Dec. 25th was more reminiscent of Puritan observances. According to the winter 1968 issue of “Minnesota History,” there was an 1893 publication titled, “Yuletide of Yore” in which Charles A. Pillsbury remembered the holiday as “not half as much of a day as Thanksgiving,” while Mrs. Thomas Walker recalled that her father was “of the sturdy Puritan stock” who had “a quarter of a notion it (Christmas) was a half-heathen, half-Catholic institution,” and that, therefore, her childhood lacked “all pictures of Christmas time as a holiday.”

Marie Sanford, a once-renowned Minnesota educator noted, “We had never heard of Christmas trees; the idea of Christmas service or decoration or presents in the meeting house or for the Sabbath-school would have shocked the good people of our church and Christmas dinners would have been censured…mother taught us to say, ‘I wish you a pleasant Christmas,’ we were too near to the Puritans to wish a ‘merry’ one.” Miss Sanford remembered, “filling Father’s stocking” with an apple and “a huge potato, full 7-inches long.” Sanford’s mother made little mince pies and quince tarts on the day before Christmas that were given to playmates of the children who were in some way unfortunate.

The Puritan traditions were lessened with the waves of immigration from Germany and the Scandinavian countries.

During the territorial days of Minnesota more worldly celebrations were held, as in 1854 when the St. Paul Daily Democrat reported on Dec. 26 about a party to which “a number of children were invited with their parents, and at 7 o’clock, the door of the parlor was thrown open, presenting to the astonished gaze of the children, a Cristmas [sic] Tree, most brilliantly lighted and adorned with all sorts of presents…This custom we believe peculiar to some countries in Europe, and one we would hope to see more generally adopted in this country.”

In 1865 the Dec. 24 issue of the St. Paul Pioneer read: “Ho! Every One — James Davis, at the ‘Merchant’s Exchange,’ will continue his ‘time-honored custom’ of setting a Christmas Dinner, and having a barrel of Egg-Nogg & c., for his customers. The fattest turkeys and venison will be served up for lunch, and choice liquor cheer the hearts of all who wish to celebrate Christmas in the ‘old-time style.'”

This “old-time style” of celebrating may have resulted in a story reported on Christmas Day 1886 in the Minneapolis Evening Journal: “The ‘holiday toot’ led ‘drunks and disorderlies’ to be very saucy in the municipal court this morning. They attempted to bully the court… It was a holiday drunk they had last night, they said, and by right of custom the law should not have stepped in and stopped their fun. Two of the celebrators got ‘exceedingly wrathy’ and were dragged to the station by the officers in a way that will have a tendency to give them a headache when they sober up.”

In contrast, the St. Paul Dispatch reported on Christmas Eve in 1879 that the “county jail is festooned in grand style, getting ready for tomorrow’s festivities. A sign in the hall corridor reads ‘A Merry Christmas,’ and on the other side, ‘A Happy New Year.’ The boys are to have a sumptuous repast.”

Hugo Nisbeth, a Swedish visitor to Minnesota in the 1870s, noting the European traditions had been incorporated into Yuletide observance, commented on an American “liberality that would amaze us.” Possibly the most American tradition to evolve from the melding of many cultures and customs is the freedom to “keep Christmas in your own way.”

Sources: “Minnesota History,” Winter 1968; St. Paul Daily Democrat, Dec. 26, 1854; St. Paul Pioneer, Dec. 24, 1865; Minneapolis Evening Journal, Dec. 25, 1886; St. Paul Daily Dispatch, Dec. 24, 1879.