Listen to the Podcast

Podcast Episode 21-Christmas in the 1850’s

In the 1850’s, the majority of people living in our area were of Irish, Scottish, English origins or had come here after living in the United States first.  Their Christmas traditions would have been heavily influenced by Britain.  Because of the Port at Tyrconnell and the road system through Wallacetown between Detroit and Buffalo, we had access to relatively up to date news of the world.  Newspapers, magazines, and literature were readily available.  Two such popular Christmas reads were Twas the Night Before Christmas poem and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.    

Clement Clarke Moore (1779 – 1863) wrote the poem Twas the night before Christmas also called “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1822. It is now the tradition in many families to read the poem every Christmas Eve. Prior to the creation of the story of ’Twas the night before Christmas’ St. Nicholas had never been associated with a sleigh or reindeers! The first publication date was the 23rd of December 1823, and it was an immediate success.  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was first published on the 19th of December 1843, in early Victorian era Britain, a period when there was both strong nostalgia for old Christmas traditions and an initiation of new practices such as Christmas trees and greeting cards. ’Merry Christmas’ was popularized following the appearance of the story, and the name “Scrooge” and exclamation “Bah! Humbug!” have entered the English language. The interest for new Christmas practices was further stimulated by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German-born husband, who popularized the German Christmas tree in Britain after their marriage in 1841, the first Christmas card in 1843, and a revival in carol singing. 

 Records suggest the earliest Christmas carol to be published in Canada was most likely by James P. Clarke. His carol “A Canadian Christmas Carol” was published in 1853 in Anglo-Canadian Magazine. In 1871, Christmas Carols Old and New was published. These songs were essentially old lyrics to new tunes. Most of the carols that are familiar to us today are these new Victorian songs.  

Christmas cards appeared a few years later than the Christmas tree. In 1843, the first Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, Henry Cole, commissioned J.C. Callcott to design a card. His design showed a cheerful group of people gathered around a table eating and drinking. Two smaller pictures on the card showed people dispensing charity to the poor. At that moment in time people weren’t quite jumping on the idea, only 1 thousand were sold. Stationary shop, ‘Goodalls’ had a go in 1862 with a plainer greeting card. With the help of coloured picture card prices dropping and cheaper postage rates, by 1878, four and a half million Christmas cards were sent.  

The current observance of Christmas is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by A Christmas Carol. In superimposing his secular vision of the holiday, Dickens influenced many aspects of Christmas that are celebrated today in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit. Both pieces of literature influenced the Christmas decorations then and now. Twas the Night Before Christmas depicted stockings hung on the chimney. Santa in a sleigh with reindeer. A sleigh full of toys in a large red sack and entering the house through the chimney. These were all new views of Christmas adopted by many and still carry over today. Santa began to be known as the plump man in the red coat trimmed in white fur with a big white beard. The present-day image of Santa Claus was definitively set during the Civil War. This depiction is credited by Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist who published a series of black-and-white, and coloured drawings to Harper’s Weekly from 1863-1886. Nast’s drawings depicted a plump man with a flowing beard, buckled shoes, a red coat with fur, a sleigh, and reindeer. Santa began to be seen in a whole new way. Many parishes frowned upon the popularity of the plump little fellow Saint Nick, as they thought it took away from the initial significance of the holiday, the birth of Jesus Christ. To the dismay of churches, Saint Nick made his way into Christmas tradition.   

Moving onto one of everyone’s favourite products Christmas has to bring…food. Goose was the most popular bird and was gradually replaced by the turkey. Pudding was wrapped in cheesecloth and boiled for hours. There never was such a goose. Eked out by applesauce, mashed potatoes, and steeped in sage and onion.   

With a great deal of steam, pudding would be taken out of the cloth. A smell that reminded of a washing-day due to the cloth. The pudding, like a speckled cannonball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top. Apples and oranges were put upon the table, and a shovel-full of chestnuts on the fire. What a sight to behold, and scent to smell.   

Let’s talk a bit about how families in the 1850s decorated their home for the Christmas Holidays. Symbolism was strongly believed in the 1800s, plants being a very commonly held example. Evergreens were thought to symbolized fertility. Holly used to treat fevers, dropsy, rheumatism, gout, and asthma.  If Holly wasn’t available, cranberries could be substituted for decorating. Mistletoe symbolizes everlasting love and as an innocent excuse for a kiss.  

Before Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, introduced the Christmas Tree to England, an enormous garland of greenery called a ‘kissing bough’ was hung in the center of the main room.  “Hoops of willow were woven with holly, ivy, mistletoe and yew and hung with rosy apples under a circle of candles.”   The first documentation of a Christmas tree in North America appeared on Christmas Eve 1781, in Sorel Quebec. Baroness Riedesel had hosted a party made up of German and English Officers. The crowd sensation of the night was a balsam fir that had been cut specifically for the occasion. It was placed in the corner of the dining room and decorated beautifully with fruits and small white candles. 

A Yule candle left in the center of the table to burn through Christmas Eve would ensure good luck in the coming year.  

Holly, ivy, and mistletoe were arranged over doors, fireplaces, and windows.  Heavy silver candlesticks were used to light the rooms. Some decorations had to wait to be put up until the 11th hour of Christmas Eve. There is an old belief that some greenery would bring misfortune to the family if brought in the house before Christmas Eve.  Ribbons, lace, and pinecones were also utilized in decorating. Ivy ribbon is a very typical Victorian form of decoration. Such ribbons were made up of stripped leaves arranged in a symmetrical fashion. These strips were then used in ordered geometric designs. The ribbon was used to spruce up things like long hanging sides of tablecloths or to cover up bare walls. Ivy ribbon was commonly combined with coloured ribbon and artificial flowers. Dyed or coloured ribbons were a cheap way to add a bit of bright, cheerful colour into the home. Scraps of old, shabby, stained fabric or cotton tape was dyed with many different natural sources to get a range of attractive colours. Berries, flowers, nuts, insects, and many more were used to transform dull pieces of fabric. When it comes to the dying process Victorians would gain the help from the good old chamber pot. That’s right! Urine was very important in textiles. More specifically the ammonia in urine, which acted as a mordant meaning substance used to set dyes on fabric. Essentially, the urine helps develop and bind the colour of dyes to cloth causing less of a fade. 

1870s Christmas had lost its religious character in English Canada. The holiday instead became a community and family festival. This is when the holiday gradually became a family tradition for gift giving and Christmas trees. More rural families went more by the old traditions which called for homemade gifts like a hair ribbon or whistle. Parents or craft makers would make toys from tin, wood, and various fabrics.  For those who could afford it, toys were bought in shops and displayed underneath or on the Christmas tree. A single toy was all that most children got at Christmas. By the  

On the evening of Christmas Eve families would commonly gather in the parlor and have a round of storytelling. After which the children would hand their stockings and head to bed dreaming of Santa’s arrival. Early morning the children would awake and discover their presents. After breakfast, there would be a mid-morning church service, after which the family would travel home and indulge in dinner. Some families would take this time to do charity work for the poor. After the great Christmas feast stomachs warm and full, everyone would gather in the parlor. Games were played and stories exchanged, one of the most popular genres being ghost stories. The great Christmas days of the 1850s were spent celebrating family, friends, and Christ.