Just My Thoughts: Christmas with the Presidents

(Pensacola, Florida – Dec. 16, 2021) – Christmastime at Mount Vernon in the late 18th century was a far cry from the lights, trees, tinsel, and frenetic pace of parties we know today in the 21st century. 

Christmas trees were largely unknown to the American public.  The Christmas tree was brought to the U.S. in the late 18th century, but they were only used by their German originators.  The Christmas tree wouldn’t begin to spread into the population at large until the late 19th century.  Christmas gifts were also an unknown custom to George and Martha Washington’s society.  Christmas celebrations were based around attending church to celebrate the birth of Jesus before a holiday meal with family and visiting friends.  Hymns were sung together, small games played, and long conversations would ensue among the men and women after each retired to their respective parlors.

The most decorating Mount Vernon would see was the Washingtons’ dining room table being relocated to the New Room and laden with festive holiday foods such as puddings, a savory pastry made with meats and spiced with nutmeg and cloves, and Mrs. Washington’s signature hedgehog-shaped cake.

Yep.  A hedgehog-shaped cake.

Holiday decorating in the late 18th century was a far more subdued affair than in the 21st century. Christmas trees were introduced into North American in 1781, but didn’t catch on outside their German originators until the early 19th century. The table in the New Room, which dominates the whole of the north wing, is set for Christmas dinner, complete with Martha Washington’s signature hedgehog-shaped cake. Mount Vernon, Virginia. (Nathanael Miller, 29 November 2021)

An 18th century American Christmas might sound boring as all get out to a 21st century American, but 18th century America was a pre-industrial agricultural society.  Time off in mid-winter from manual labor was itself a great form of celebration.  Visiting friends and family, especially those not geographically close, were prized in a time when muddy roads and walking, or horses, marked the state-of-the-art in transportation infrastructure.

In a way, the accounts of Christmas celebrations in the 18th and 19th centuries seem to demonstrate people were far happier overall during the holidays than we are today.  Perhaps the slower pace of life and emphasis on simply enjoying personal interactions with family and friends provided a more festively joyful time than our Twitter-fueled sprint as we race through life, trying to ‘have it all’ and create the ‘perfect Christmas’ every year.

In other words, don’t arrogantly judge the past by insisting on viewing it only through the lens of our modern world and sensibilities.

The 1860s home of Abraham and Mary Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, was a step closer to the decorations we know today.  Although Christmas trees were commonly known in America by the mid-19th century, they were still confined to the homes of German-Americans.  The Lincoln boys certainly saw the Christmas trees in the houses of their German friends, but the Lincoln home itself, like most Americans, was decked out with evergreen boughs and the occasional red bow.  Otherwise, like General and Mrs. Washington in the 18th century, the great mark of the holiday was the lavish spread of food on the dining room table, not tinsel titillating the optical senses.

The home of Abraham and Mary Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois. Much of the furniture was owned by the Lincolns, and the holiday decorations are typical for the early-to-mid 19th century (Christmas trees had not yet spread widely outside of German households). Springfield, Illinois (Nathanael Miller, 09 December 2021)

A modern American would finally recognize a ‘modern’ Christmas celebration in the way our 23rd president, Benjamin Harrison, decorated his home in Indiana as the 19th century began to close out.  Christmas trees had forested the family rooms of most Americans by this point.  Shiny ornaments and lights were liberally sprinkled about, and the growing national affluence allowed gift-giving to become a more prominent part of the celebration.

Still, by modern standards, this turn-of-the-century scene can seem boring, staid, and utterly dull.  No TV, movies, radio, or Itunes!  How utterly unsophisticated!

We modern homo sapiens must be careful about cavalierly judging the past solely by our modern standards.  Flashy doesn’t necessarily mean good, nor does simple necessarily mean a hopelessly backward culture.  We modern humans are often caught up equating technology with substance.  Technology is a tool (and a great one, in my opinion), but technology can’t replace relationships, be they relationships with other humans or relationships with God (whomever you believe your God to be).

The home of Benjamin Harrison, 23rd presdient of the United States (in office from 1889 – 1893). Christmas trees had entered firmly into mainstream American culture by the end of the 19th century. Indianapolis, Indiana. (Nathanael Miller, 20 Dec. 2017)

Our predecessors in this two-century-old nation weren’t irredeemably backward simply because their technology was less advanced, or their values not quite ours.  They were products of their time just as we are of ours.  They were people whose hopes and dreams were often drowned in the daily reality of trying to make a living—just like us today.  Humans are still human, no matter the age and era.

Christmas is one of the two key religious holy days of the year for Christians such as myself.  Christmas marks the birth of our Savior, and Easter marks his resurrection from the dead.  Those two events, the Incarnation and the Resurrection, are the foundations of our faith.  However, the Christmas season has taken on a secular meaning for non-Christians as well.  To quote Bill Murray from 1988’s Scrooged, “…it’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we… we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be!”

Judging the past harshly and without context diminishes our own humanity because we are part of that very story.   Recognizing the limitations of the past does not mean ignoring the good.  Just as many of us labor to create a joyful holiday experience for ourselves and others, our predecessors a century ago did the same thing.  The modern world we inhabit offers us many wonderful things, from unprecedented levels of human freedom to unprecedented access to inexpensive material goods.  Digital communication makes it possible for family and friends to connect across thousands of miles in an instant, instead of across dozens of miles once a year.

Sadly, though, everything has a price.  The ease of our lives is inextricably linked with the frenetic, can’t-catch-a-breath pace of our lives.  Modern technological and social advancements make it easy to look backward and think our ancestors were nothing but, at best, hopelessly uncool rubes or, at worst, evil oppressors redeemable only by being erased.

Our ancestors were neither of those things.  They landed squarely in the middle—just like we do today.  They were people who strove to do great things, but fell short of even their own goals—just like we do today.  They were people who, as a society, valued family and love and friends and their own freedom, but often put things first in practice—just like we do today.

Be careful how you judge the past.  The modern world takes on a deeper meaning, especially during the holidays like Christmas, when you practice a bit of humility for our ancestor’s shortcomings and appreciation for their triumphs…such as a hand-made hedgehog cake adorning a holiday table!

…Just my thoughts.

Check out my video on this subject at: https://youtu.be/FP2xJbmeB0w

-Mount Vernon’s website: https://www.mountvernon.org/

– The Lincoln Home National Historic Site:  https://www.nps.gov/liho/index.htm

– Benjamin Harrison home: https://bhpsite.org/

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