In celebration of the holiday season, we look back on how Christmas traditions developed in the United States during the 19th century.
The Western Hotel Museum with newly installed Christmas decorations
Prior to 1874, and the Southern Pacific Railroad, Lancaster did not exist beyond a train stop from Bakersfield to the metropolis of Los Angeles (MOAH Collections). Like the first American migrants, settlers from many diverse countries would make their way to the city, hoping to establish their own businesses and lives. In approximately 1888, the Western hotel came into existence, at that time known as the Antelope Valley Hotel. The property was sold to Englishman George Webber in 1908 who had come to the United States in 1885. Myrtie Eveline Gibson Sullivan would also move to the Antelope Valley in 1908. Myrtie would marry George and come to own the Western hotel from the 1930s –1960s (MOAH Collections). During the 19th century, American Christmas time looked a bit different from what we know today.
The Western Hotel in 1914 (MOAH Collections, 2023.FIC.351)
George and Myrtie Webber on a Snow Day in Lancaster in 1914 (MOAH Collections, 2023.FIC.352)
According to Penne Restad from History Today, in the early 1800s, Americans didn’t think of Christmas as a national holiday. Many colonial settlers came from diverse European cultures and religious traditions. The New England Puritans for example, did not practice having decorations or a tree for Christmas. If Christmas was celebrated, it was done very modestly, with no emphasis on décor (Khederlan and Restad). Whereas Southerners, who were influenced by the royalist culture of Victorian England, would celebrate for multiple days, holding feasts (Mackinac State Park).
By the middle of the 19th century, communication and transportation increased in America. The economy became more fast-paced, and the population and country’s size itself increased. Tensions between Americans would grow, and the Union became increasingly more unstable. Restad suggests that this fast-paced and overwhelming change caused Americans “to long for an earlier time, one in which they imagined that old and good values held sway in cohesive and peaceful communities”. People wanted a unified national tradition (Mackinac State Park). It was during this time that Americans took to Christmas, and it grew into a more widely celebrated holiday event, with old themes and new ideas ascribed to the holiday.
By the 1850s, most Americans adopted the German custom of the Christmas tree. Early Christmas trees had more simple decorations such as strings of popcorn, oranges, lemons, and candies. Small gifts of were hung and given to children. In 1848, the Illustrated London News published a drawing of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert having a Christmas tree on their table. The tree tradition was brought to England by Prince Albert from Germany, which spurred the tradition in England and the image was widely produced in the United States, helping spread the popularity of the Christmas tree (Starmans).
Illustrated London News’ 1848 drawing of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s Christmas tree (Khederlan, Courtesy of Creative Commons)
Published in the English Stonehaven Journal on January 9, 1849 is a description of a Victorian Christmas tree, which held many delights (Starmans):
THE CHRISTMAS TREE AT WINDSOR CASTLE. A Christmas tree is annually prepared, her Majesty’s command, for the royal children. The tree employed for this festive purpose is a young fir, about eight feet high, and has six tiers of branches. On each tier or branch are arranged dozen wax tapers. Pendant from the branches are elegant trays, baskets, bonbonnie’es and other receptacles for sweetmeats, of the most varied and expensive kind, and of all forms, colours, and degrees of beauty. Fancy cakes, gilt gingerbread, and eggs filled with sweetmeats, are also suspended try variously, coloured ribbons from the branches. The tree, which stands upon table covered with white damask, is supported at the root by piles of sweets a larger kind, and by toys and dolls of all descriptions, suited to the youthful fancy, and to the several ages of the scions of royalty for whose gratifications they are displayed. The name of each recipient is affixed to the doll, bonbon, other present intended for it, so that no difference of opinion in the choice of dainties may arise to disturb the equanimity the illustrious juveniles. On the summit of the tree stands the small figure of an angel, with outstretched wings, holding in each hand wreath.”
The tradition of Christmas cards, the singing of carols in public, and cooking large meals for your friends and family emerged (Khederlan). The first mention of Santa Claus appears in an 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” by Celement Moore and the first documented Santa impersonator in America was in Philadelphia in 1849. Christmas would become a legal holiday in Massachusetts in 1856 (Mackinac State Park). Shortly after, the Civil War began in 1861 and ran until 1865. The Civil war intensified the celebration of Christmas in that the holiday was a time to celebrate peace and family, and soldiers would be leaving theirs behind at war (Restad).
By the 1870s, with the reconstruction of the US underway, the marketing of Christmas would take off. Newspapers and women’s magazines would suggest a greater sophistication of Christmas trees, with value placed on the uniformity and style of the tree. Christmas trees became the centerpiece of Christmas décor, as a place for the display of beautiful balls, stars, and more. Department stores would sell all kinds of goods, with ornaments imported from Germany sold in stores (Restad). Instead of making homemade ornaments, there was a pressure to buy them. At this point, the commercialization of Christmas looked more like it does today.
It was during the 1870s and 1880s that gift giving would also take off. Restad suggests that gift giving was a sign of the bustling economy, but also a means of Americans promoting relationships with each other. Prior, giving small hand-made presents was common, but the need for wrapping and purchasing presents was promoted later during this time. These practices demonstrated not only materialism, but kinship and community. It was around this time that Lancaster was established. In 1900, it was estimated that one in five Americans had a Christmas tree (Redstad). Below is a glass negative plate of the Wright brothers’ Christmas tree in their Ohio home in December of 1900, three years before their famous flight. Many gifts can be seen below the tree.
Christmas tree in the home of Wilbur and Orville Wright at 7 Hawthorn Street in Dayton, Ohio in 1990 (Shorpy The American Historical Photo Archive)
With Myrtie and George running the Western hotel around this time in the early 1900s, it is likely that their halls were fully decked. These practices are reflective of what many Americans and Lancaster inhabitants do today, indicating that our holiday traditions are deeply rooted in the past. For the rest of this month, the Western Hotel Museum will be decorated for Christmas.
Khederlan, Robert. “How Christmas decorations evolved through the 1800s It’s time to deck the halls”, Curbed, December 9, 2016. How Christmas decorations evolved through the 1800s - Curbed
Mackinac State Historic Parks. “America’s 19th Century Christmas Traditions: A Connection Between the Past and Present”, December 20, 2019. America's 19th Century Christmas Traditions: A Connection Between the Past and Present - Mackinac State Historic Parks | Mackinac State Historic Parks (mackinacparks.com)
MOAH Collections. “The Western Hotel Museum Self-Guided Tour”and 2023.FIC.351-353 images. e60af9_b024f49c353d4f74af2eb165975c6b8d.pdf (lancastermoah.org)
Restad, Penne. “Christmas in 19th Century America”, History Today Volume 45 Issue 12, December 1995. Christmas in 19th Century America | History Today
Shorpy The American Historical Photo Archive, Image of Wright brother’s Christmas tree from December 1900. Christmas With Wilbur and Orville: 1900 | Shorpy Old Photos | Framed Prints).
Starmans, Barbara J. “Old Time Christmas”, The Social Historian. Old Time Christmas - The Social Historian