The following is a description of a church service that took place on December 24, 1801, near Anderson Indiana: "Not having a church, we met in Indian Br. Joshua's house. Br. Kluge read the story of the Savior's birth, which Br. Joshua translated into Indian. There was a feeling of joy throughout the whole service which increased when the little wax tapers were distributed. The children were delighted over the little lights. After the service, the children with lighted tapers in their hands, led the way home through the darkness. It was a pretty sight."
Another Christmas story was recorded near New Albany Indiana: "To some of the pioneers the first decade of the 19th century Christmas Eve and Christmas Day must have come with great solemnity. In all the great distance from the Miami to the Wabash, there was during 1805-1807 only one church, a log building, a few miles east of Charleston. On the Wabash at Vincennes, a priest celebrated the Nativity with the impressive rites of his faith, and his French and few American parishioners knelt in adoration."
Christmas in the wilderness was celebrated by some settlers. The head of the pioneer family would read the gospel story of the Nativity, which was followed by the giving of home-made presents, articles that were useful and practical, for there were few frivolities in a cabin in the woods: "Father had tanned a hide in a trough cut out of a trunk of a tree, had taken the leather and made shoes, patterned and pegged by himself, for the boys and girls. Perhaps mother had been able to make some preserves and candy out of last year's maple sugar. They sometimes had wild turkey for dinner. The girls got new linsey-woolsey gowns or sunbonnets. Mother fashioned a doll out of buckskin and stuffed it with hay. . The candle-lit Christmas tree was not known then in Indiana. Some little girls were fortunate to get some cabinet maker's little samples or some tiny china pieces. For the boys, homemade sleds, wagons, bows and arrows, slings, and whistles made of paw paw. Or a pair of ice skates or a gun made at the forge of the local blacksmith. For the Christmas goodies, there were home-made candies, -- taffy or 'lasses,' popcorn strings and balls, and fancy cookies."
Though some residents of the wilderness towns spent Christmas with business as usual, many families celebrated as a religious holiday only, with little or no celebration and no presents. The children went to school if Christmas fell on a weekday, though a custom called "Turning out the Master" was common in many country schools. The Master would give his students a treat and a day off, but some times when the teacher refused, the students would go inside the school before he arrived and locked him out until he agreed to bring treats after negotiations through a window.
One early story Santa Claus is actually mentioned as an annual visitor along with other customs feeding and clothing the poor, sleigh riding and the yearly Christmas feast: "Christmas was the supreme holiday for children. The poor were remembered with substantial gifts to eat and wear. The young folks often arraigned for a sleigh ride. Except among the Quakers, Santa Claus was a universal visitor on Christmas Eve. The Christmas dinner was the principal attraction for the married folks."
Few early pioneer logs or diaries mentioned the Christmas tree, a German or Pennsylvania Dutch custom that gained nationwide popularity by the 1850's. Some trees were trimmed with homemade ornaments, while wealthier families could afford expensive glass ornaments. Dates, figs, nuts, popcorn, cranberries, candy, dolls, jewelry, and sachets were hung on the tree, and "Eating the Tree" became a custom. A tree was described in 1859: "A Christmas tree of more than ordinary dimensions was brilliantly lighted, bending with the weight of the fruit, which it certainly never wore in the native forest, was also loaded down with candies and popcorn."
In 1869 a newspaper reported on some of the "more worldlier" townsfolk observing Christmas in the following way: "The great festival day was ushered in Friday evening with the whizzing of fire works, cracking of Chinese crackers and popping of small arms, which was kept up until a late hour at night, and all day Christmas." Another story of 1873 said that the noisy celebrations were still going on as they wrote: "The religious part of our community [New Albany, Indiana] spent the day in devotional exercises. The worldly portion of our people burnt powder and engaged in other worldly amusements. Some drank that which intoxicated and have terrible headaches in consequence. However, there was less drunkenness exhibited on the streets yesterday than is usual during the Christmas season."
Winter pastimes during the Victorian period included candy pulls, charades, sleighing, roller skating and ice skating parties. Mrs. David Bowman of New Albany remembered: "The first Christmas tree I ever saw was in St.Paul's Episcopal church. I have a vivid memory of our Christmas tree at home when I was six years old. The guests came early for a supper, after which all lined up on the side porch to watch a display of fireworks. That surely indicates a 'green Christmas' with mild temperature, and also hints at the influence of our neighbors across the river. After the fireworks we gathered in the back parlor where the melodeon stood in front of the closed folding doors where we sang Christmas songs like 'Merry Christmas' and 'Goodnight,' a sweet German melody. We heard a distant sound of sleigh bells growing louder as Santa Claus approached. The folding doors were thrown open and there burst upon us in all its beauty, the Christmas tree, so large that the chandelier had been taken down. Then the sound of bells came nearer and old Santa appeared. Poor two-year-old Eddie and baby Lucy set up a duet in their fright. There were presents for all the happy crowd. One earlier Christmas also stands out in my memory, when I received my biggest doll that my sister bought for me by saving her pennies."
Many of the outward signs of Christmas have changed, a few have remained, though the spirit of Christmas will live forever, and we will always dream of peace on earth. Many Blessings to you and yours this Christmas.
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