By: Lloyd Clark
“Historic continuity with the past is not a duty, it is only a necessity” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
As we approach the holiday season, it is enjoyable to take a few minutes out of our hectic shopping and decorating schedules to reflect on how Beaver Dam residents during Victorian times celebrated the holidays. Would the Swan House have an enormous tree in the front window of the home atop Yankee Hill? Would Judge Rose lead a parade down Spring Street to downtown to encourage shoppers to patronize the stores and businesses of the day? If they held a parade, would Santa Claus bring up the end in his sleigh pulled by eight reindeer? Exactly how did Beaver Dam celebrate the holidays in its first 50 years of existence?
To start, large-scale celebrations of Christmas and the New Year were a relatively new occurrence in the late 1800s. Would you be surprised to learn that the “traditional” Christmas holiday that we celebrate today owes much of its existence to Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, Prince Albert of England and Victorian-era sensibilities? Or that the great “melting pot” of cultures that is our country brought together pieces of celebrations from across the globe to create a uniquely American Christmas?
To the Puritan Pilgrims of New England, the observance of Christmas in any way other than attendance at a church service constituted blasphemy, with offenders fined five shillings for the seemingly small infraction of hanging decorations. The General Court of Massachusetts in 1659 passed a law outlawing “pagan mockery” of the solemn day, making a penal offense of any celebration on December 25. In Jamestown, further down the coast, Captain John Smith is quoted as saying that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.
After the American Revolution, Christmas was considered to be an “English” holiday. King George had reinstated the holiday that had been banned by the Cromwell-led government when he returned to the throne, and all things “English” were in definite disfavor. Following the Revolution, the Winter Holidays were celebrated very differently from today. In religiously heterogeneous communities like the Monrovians, the celebration was more sedate and serious, lacking the joviality that infects the holiday now. While traditions dating back to the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, with wild parties, music, drinking and eating, were the norm in some areas, other communities did not celebrate the day at all. During this era, Christmas was a catch-as-catch-can holiday.
It was not until June 26, 1870, that President Ulysses S. Grant actually signed an act making Christmas a national holiday. At that time, America was much more a land of immigrants than it is today. Christmas celebrations varied widely across 19th century America, depending upon the religious tradition your community followed.
In 1819, Washington Irving wrote “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon” a series of 34 fictional stories, including his two most famous works Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It also contained a story about life in an English country manor. Squire Bracebridge, master of Bracebridge Hall and lands, invited the peasants that lived on and near his land into his home to celebrate the Christmas holiday. Upper crust and lower caste got along swimmingly and descriptions of “traditional” Christmas customs graced the story. The traditions, according to modern historians, seemed to have originated in the mind and imagination of Irving.
At this time, the classless United States was undergoing a serious period of class conflict. Unemployment was high and would remain so for more than a decade, which led to gang riots in some major cities. In New York, following the Christmas season riots of 1827, the inaugural New York City police force came into being. Historians surmise that Irving, with his story about the classes mixing without dispute and enjoying the holiday season together, was commenting on the current state of society in the United States of America and encouraging the resurgence of Christmas in America. The upper classes in America took notice and the way Christmas was celebrated began to change.
Victorian-era thought and practices, first in England and then later taken up by the upper classes on the East Coast, created the customs and traditions of the holiday season that we enjoy today. During the Victorian-era, there was a decided movement toward family that had been somewhat absent in previous generations, and the need for a “family holiday” was filled by Christmas.
Prior to, and even during, this time, parents rarely showered their children with gifts as most do today. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was a motto recounted daily across America from the coast to the frontier. This sentiment was suddenly at odds with the greater emphasis on family, and Christmas was a day that parents could give gifts in abundance without being seen as spoiling their children.
German and Irish immigrants came to America, and with both countries having long non-interrupted traditions of celebrating Christmas, they brought their traditions with them. As their numbers increased dramatically during the 19th century, so did the celebration of Christmas.
In 1846, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s Prussian husband, brought a symbol of the season from his native land, now called Germany, into the royal palace – a Christmas tree. News spread like wildfire and soon all of the fashionable homes in England and the United States had to have one. Unlike the towering trees of today, the Victorian Christmas tree was usually no taller than four feet and displayed upon a table. Trees would be brought into the house only a few days or the day before Christmas, trimmed by the parents in a room closed to view from either inside or outside the home, and with the decorating complete, the parents would open wide the doors and shades to reveal their tree to their children and the world. It was a custom at the time for the entire family to hold hands and circle around the tree, drinking in the sight and smell of the evergreen. The tree, decorated with strands of popcorn and cranberries, small candles, and some with glass ornaments much later in the century, would be a joy for the children to behold. A number of paintings from the period show a father lifting a child up to light the candles on the tree, and ironically enough, one of which was actually sent out as a “holiday card” by a New England insurance company.
Christmas cards of the period were very different than those we use today. Most cards, obtained in packages of flour or coffee or from local retailers ensuring that the name of their business was prominently displayed, seemed to have very little to do with either a religious or secular Christmas. The vast majority had images of robins on them or pictures of flowers and fruit. Advertising from the era shows a Santa, dressed in white fur, handing gifts to children with the reminder that you can get a “Handsome Christmas Card in Every Package of Lion Coffee November 5th to Christmas Day.”
But what about Santa, you ask? Most “Santa scholars” agree that the origin of Santa Claus began with a third century Turkish monk known as a protector of children, Saint Nicholas. One particular story states that Saint Nicholas provided a dowry to three sisters whose father was preparing to sell them into slavery. By providing the dowry, Saint Nicholas not only prevented their slavery but allowed the girls to marry well due to their dowries. By the Renaissance, Saint Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. In the late 18th century, newspapers in America ran stories about the custom of Dutch families gathering together on December 6th to honor the memory of Saint Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in their language). Sinter Klaas would later transform into the English Santa Claus.
Washington Irving again steps into the picture as he named Saint Nicholas the patron saint of New York in his 1809 book “The History of New York,” and he rewrote the book, some say satirically, in 1812 that portrays the saint flying over trees in New York in his horse-drawn wagon. The rewrite popularizes the character even more to the citizens of that state.
Clement Clarke Moore described him in his 1822 story “An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas,” which is known to most children today as “The Night Before Christmas,” as a “jolly old elf” with magic powers and a rotund belly! The Santa Claus we know today was evolving.
Credit must also be given to renowned American political cartoonist Thomas Nast for bringing the modern vision of Santa to life. In 1862, Nast published his first drawing of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly, in which he pictures Santa as a sad but kindly man bereaved over the Civil War and the separation of the troops from their families. Nast continued to draw portraits of Santa, and his 1890 book “Christmas Drawings for All Mankind” featured images of Santa working in his toy shop, walking on roofs, descending down chimneys, and most of all, wearing red. Drawing on Moore’s words and his own German ancestry for inspiration, Nast created a joyful white-bearded man riding in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer with a bag full of toys to give to children around the world.
“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful” – Norman Vincent Peale
With this knowledge in hand, we can now imagine ourselves in a Christmastime Beaver Dam of the late 1800s.
We would, of course, travel the town in a horse-drawn sleigh, a bearskin and wool blanket over our laps with our finest holiday fashions cladding our bodies. The snow is softly falling as dusk approaches; the warm glow of oil lamps and candles lights the magnificent homes from within, and the rhythmic sound of our horse’s hooves lulls us into a sense of contentment as we pass by the Great Hall of Wayland.
Traveling to the top of Yankee Hill on Park Avenue, we do indeed see that the Swans have erected a beautiful Christmas tree and display, visible through the windows of their home, the lace curtains pulled aside and tied to allow an exterior view. Looking down the street, we see the downtown area resplendent in the soft light of the gas-powered street lamps that line the curb, garlands of evergreens and holly surrounding the poles, draping above and across the wooden sidewalks to the businesses beyond.
As we descend the hill, the muffled sound of our horse’s hooves and the metallic whine of the skids on the snow interlaces with the sound of carolers singing and children laughing in the downtown area, creating a music all its own. The street is draped in the finest period decorations; holly garlands, Christmas trees and evergreen wreaths abound, setting the scene for a very special Christmas we will long remember.
Santa Claus, well represented in the posters and artwork that line the streets, seems to have come to town early. There is a full-size Santa model in the window of the Carl Koch and Company clothing store and another on the balcony of the Clark House Hotel on the corner of Front and Center Streets. Santa must be a big business draw as there are many of our neighbors shopping in the clothing store and the Clark House has not a single vacant room for the entirety of the Christmas holidays.
In the store windows, dolls and toys from across Europe catch the eye of the children as their parents marvel at the steam-powered figures depicting scenes right out of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The smell of popcorn and warm chestnuts tickles our noses as we pass wagons parked against the curb selling these treats to happy families. We wave and bid “Merry Christmas” to friends and neighbors we see on the street, as the sound of a symphony warming up drifts down from the Concert Hall. Everyone is in a joyous mood, and laughter escalates as an impromptu snowball fight erupts across the street.
Pulling our sleigh aside, we visit the butcher’s shop to pick up our Christmas goose and some sausages for our breakfast, before crossing the bridge over the Beaver Dam River and winding our way back home. The snowfall gets heavier as we travel back up Yankee Hill, and we notice at the Chandler Home an unusual sight, a huge Christmas tree standing proudly in the window. No simple table tree such as the Swans have, this tree is easily eight feet tall. No doubt this is another new tradition from Europe that will soon sweep our town.
Of course, this is all imagination, but it is a fancy based upon facts. In Beaver Dam, we have a wealth of history that is literally down each and every street. As a community, we should take great pride in the architectural treasures that still exist here. The recent Architectural Tour of Homes, a fundraising event for the Beaver Dam Area Community Theatre, demonstrated there is a significant interest in our architectural history. Would it not be something to be able to see the downtown area as it was, the very literal heart of our great town.