Christmas ghosts: shadows of centuries past hang of 1990 holiday

On Maryland History

December 17, 1990|By Peter Kumpa

THE MEMORIES of those Baltimore holidays never faded. He included them in his travel book of America, Joseph Pickering's "Inquiries of an Emigrant." He had arrived here directly from England on one of those rare December days, "as beautiful a day as ever shone, with serene mild air and pleasant light breeze."

On Christmas Eve, 1824, Pickering missed the old church bells of England. Instead he found Baltimoreans welcoming the holiday with guns firing, firecrackers exploding, little squibs and bigger boomers going off sporadically for two days. On Christmas, he was given an eye-opener. "The moment I arose this morning, I was presented with a glass of 'egg-nog' as they termed it, a compound of rum, eggs, milk and sugar, also with ginger-cake and a cake with raisins in it, which is their 'Christmas Cake,' " Pickering wrote. Christmas evening meant DTC parties, young people gathered around the piano singing songs, drinking toddies and peach brandy, eating more cake, taking part in impromptu plays. "Quite a sociable party!" he concluded.

Christmas was a time for grand balls, a time for special exhibits, equestrian shows or the circus. It was also a time, at least in the early decades of the last century, for gift giving or, as an editorial in The Sun explained, "This is a season, too, for cheering the hearts of our friends by proofs of regard."

A few advertisements in the newspaper in 1838 and 1839 did push special Christmas gifts. W. N. Harrison proposed juvenile books. The Franklin Book Emporium had "half-price" books in all categories for holiday giving. A Lexington Street market offered toys, jewelry and other "fancy articles." Other stores offered tortoise shell combs, writing desks for gentlemen, albums, candlesticks, games, pictures, and everyone seemed to have "ladies work boxes" in a variety of styles. Amidst these cheerful items, there was a jarring message from Hope H. Slatter, a slave trader on Pratt Street, who offered offered immediate "Cash for Negroes" with a promise of the "highest prices" for the New Orleans market.

For girls, the rage seemed to be "English wax dolls with moving eyes." Several stores highlighted these new wonders. The only competition came from the five-jointed wooden doll covered in kid with real hair.

There were nostalgic tales of early Christmases, made special for children. A Sun editor wrote about "the anxious anticipation, the vision of roast turkey, mince pie and filled stockings bulging out, almost to bursting, with sweets." Though for naughty youngsters there was "the rod to turn our pleasure into pain."

If it was a time for the young; The Sun made it clear that it wasn't England, either. "True," said the newspaper, "we have not the Christmas carol, the mummers, the lords of misrule and his motley group, but we have, thanks to providence, an abundance of the good things of life, and may good digestion help our appetite."

In lieu of a carol, The Sun offered a bit of old England with "A Christmas Song," first published in 1695. It began:

"Now thrice welcome Christmas

"Which brings us good cheer,

"Minc'd pies and plum pudding

"Good ale, and strong beer;

"With pig, goose and capon,

"The best that may be;

"So will doth the weather

"And our stomachs agree."

The third verse ran:

"With Holly and Ivy

"So green and so gay,

"We deck up our houses

"As fresh as the day.

"With bays and rosemary,

"And laurel complete;

"And everyone now

"Is a King in conceit."

In an unpleasant envoi, the warning given to "curmudgeons, who will not be free," is a

"Wish they may die,

On a three-legged tree!"

There seemed to be considerable opposition to the celebration of Christmas. If most Americans in the 1830s observed it, plenty did not, particularly Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists, maintaining a Calvinistic tradition. In Massachusetts, Christmas did not become a legal holiday until 1856, the year of the first White House Christmas tree. Anglicans and Catholics always continued to celebrate the day dedicated to Christ's birth.

In the South, Christmas had also been a major family holiday. It was German immigrants who introduced lavish decorations and the Christmas tree. The story of St. Nicholas was a heritage of the Dutch. And the poem by Clement Moore, now known as " 'Twas The Night Before Christmas," was written for his own family in 1822 and did not circulate much outside of New York until the 1840s.

Baltimoreans may have agreed with The Sun when it backed the holiday. "We envy not," it held, "the apathetic feelings that can coldly turn aside from its joys, in the frigid calculations of the world and its affairs, which cannot enter into the spirit of innocence, that looks to it as a season of more than ordinary

rejoicing, and condemns its festive rites as superstitious, and worthy only to be abolished."

The Sun wanted "all families to assemble," put aside their feuds and follies and have "a merry Christmas."

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