Christmas Long Ago
by Bill Schuette
Around the turn of the last century during the Edwardian Era, many holiday traditions we take for granted today were first celebrated.
Christmas trees had been in vogue in the United States since the early 1800s, having been introduced by German immigrants. Electric lights were still in the future in the early 1900s, so to brighten the branches of the evergreen trees, families placed lighted candles on the boughs. The flickering light of dozens of flames cast a warming glow throughout the festively decorated parlor. Because of the danger of an open flame, the candles were only lit when the family was present.
Decorations were often hand made. They included paper chains, strands of popcorn and greenery laced with red ribbons. Hand-blown balls of silver or gold, completed the ensemble.
The rest of the house would be decorated with ivy and laurel from the garden. Holly, with its bright red berries, also brightened the festive occasion. Of course no home would be complete without the traditional mistletoe—a symbol of renewal and fertility.
Stockings would be hung by the chimney with care. An old sock, carefully mended, would be attached to the fireplace by young children with the hope that St. Nick would leave them a special treat. Stockings could also have been hand sewn from red cloth by the lady of the house,[SCHS1] as there were few stores which carried these kinds of decorations.
Often, “clementines,” or little tangerine oranges, would be placed at the bottom of the stocking as a special surprise. They were grown in California and matured around November. However, they were very expensive and were considered a special treat for those who could afford them.
Christmas morning found the children of the household anxiously creeping down the staircase, sneaking a peak into the parlor to see if the bearded gentleman had paid them a visit during the night. In the Edwardian Era most children received only one gift, even in well-to-do homes. Gifts were usually hand made and included embroidered handkerchiefs, samplers, home-made peppermints or sugared almonds wrapped in fancy hand-decorated paper. The children of families lucky enough to be able to afford them, dolls, doll houses and teddy bears were favorites of many children.
The Christmas dinner was always a favorite of everyone, even as it is today. However, back then there were no shopping centers or malls for one-stop shopping. The Edwardian housewife would have to visit multiple stores to accumulate the various fixings for dinner. On the list stops were butchers, spice merchants, bakers and grocers. Delicacies might include a boar’s head or sheep tongues. A Christmas goose would receive the place of honor in the center of the table. The bird—which was plucked by the kitchen staff, or the householder—would be stuffed with chestnuts, pork and apples, then sprinkled with fat and salt, and served with gooseberry and bread sauces. For dessert, there were Christmas cakes, candy cane sticks, plum pudding and molasses tarts.
After the feast, families would often gather outdoors and go caroling. During the long gloomy days of winter, the spirits of holiday celebrants could be lifted with the rendition of favorite Christmas songs.