Christmas Past...Christmas Present
By Carole Hornsby Haynes, Ph.D. December 20, 2019
Adapted with permission from the “The Tapestry” (the Family Tree of Reuben and Sarah Morrison Hornsby) authored by Dorothy Landoll
As I saw the Christmas traditions to which I was accustomed being purposely ripped from our nation, I began to wonder about how our ancestors had observed Christmas. What was it like in the American colonies and then the new nation? Was Christmas ever like the Victorian cards that we send or the heart warming stories we read over and over each season?
That’s when I found a highly interesting and surprising history of “Christmas Past” in “The Tapestry,” a book about the Texas branch of my Hornsby family. Reuben and Sarah Morrison Hornsby were early settlers in Travis County with a land grant on which they established the first school in the county, Hornsby School (now called Hornsby-Dunlap School), and the town of Hornsby Bend. They are buried in Hornsby Cemetery. “The Tapestry” includes many family stories from the 19th century including the ritual of families greeting each other up and down the hollow on Christmas day. Undoubtedly, liberals would be in a mad frenzy if we greeted each other this way today.
I hope you will enjoy this story as much as I did.
Christmas Past(adapted from “The Tapestry”)
Americans celebrated very few holidays before Independence from Great Britain and even fewer afterward. The Fourth of July and Thanksgiving were observed but Christmas and New Year were ignored. Immigrants continued to celebrate the holidays of their homelands.
After the American Revolution, the new nation shunned British ways, including their many holidays, and began celebrations that were American. The Fourth of July was first recognized in 1781 in Massachusetts. Other states soon followed, although it was celebrated more in the North than the South. Thanksgiving had been considered a New England religious feast but by the mid-1700s, civil governments began to declare a Thursday in late fall as a day to give thanks. The New Year was celebrated as a social festival.
Christmas was a religious day that was celebrated according to traditions brought with immigrants from their homelands. Christmas was not an official holiday and weddings, funerals, and even meetings of Congress were held on that day.
Christmas observance varied from region to region. On the frontier, December 25 provided an opportunity for get-togethers and food. In the trading centers and stores, December 25 was business as usual. Legislatures were in session as were courts. In the east, there were more celebrations than in the more sparsely settled regions.
As the network of roads grew, mail became more frequent including magazines that began reporting Christmas traditions around the new nation. By 1830, the week between Christmas and New Year was a week of merriment in the New York area.
“In New York and surrounding areas, German immigrants brought the tradition of their Christmas tree. The New York Tribune carried advertisements for “Christmas trees” and decorations as early as 1841. In 1851, the first tree concession was set up in the city, paying one dollar to rent sidewalk space in Washington Market. Philadelphia and other large cities began selling trees. By 1852 the Christmas tree had become a tradition. In 1856 President Franklin Pierce put up the first tree in the White House in 1856 and by the 1880s a Christmas tree had become White House tradition.”
By 1930 Christmas trees were universally seen throughout the nation.
“The first images of Santa Claus were very unlike anything we see today. It was Washington Irving’s image of St. Nicholas that was “worked over” to give the Dutch image a more American look. Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem in 1822 for his children. In this poem, he described a “right jolly old elf” and had a sleigh with eight tiny reindeer. We still read “An account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” but know it better as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It was several years before the poem appeared in print. It was over a century before Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was added to Santa’s herd of reindeer in 1939.”
In 1852 Kris Kringle’s “Book for All Good Boys and Girls,” children were warned that toys would not be brought to those who misbehaved. Instead, Kris Kringle would leave “a rattan rod, brought for that special purpose all the way from the East Indies.”
In the early part of the 19th century books and money were frequent gifts with brooches for women and Bibles and coins for children.
I received a Bible from my parents at Christmas and my aunt received a tiny Bible with a handwritten message from her mother, my grandmother (a treasured possession).
Christmas celebrations were simple and sometimes quite raucous in sparsely settled regions, as you can see from this report of one in 1844.
“Different regions of the country established strong, albeit informal, traditions of Christmas revelry. The concussion of guns filled the void of silence on the open frontier on Christmas morning and in sparsely settled areas it signaled a holiday greeting to distant neighbors. Ritual processions from house to house created comparable feelings of community. These amusements also punctuated the dreary routine of rural life. In 1844, Thomas A. Hord’s children, on their isolated homestead on the Trinity River in Texas, dug a deep hole and exploded a major cache of gunpowder stolen from their father’s supplies. . . . James Lamar remembered that each Christmas Eve during his youth in Georgia, he and eight or ten of his friends armed themselves with “anything that would shoot.” Later in the night, they set out “for miles and miles visiting every house far and near in the whole neighborhood.” At each house, they sneaked as close to the bedroom as possible. With cocked guns in hand, they “became as still as death,” waiting for the “whispered command fire!...And by the time the man [of the house] had fallen over a few chairs, and the women screamed and the babies squalled a little, they found out that it was Christmas Eve.” Sometimes the householders invited the boys in for “Christmas pies and things, including, perhaps, a little extemporized egg-nogg.” “
“During the “Christmas Serenade,” in St. Augustine, Texas, a band of “pleasant spirits . . . blowing tin horns and beating tin pans” blazed their own trail of havoc. They visited every house in town, “kicking in doors and pulling down fences until every male member of the family had appeared with appropriate instruments and joined the merry party.” Their ceremony ended in the square “with a centupled tin row.”
I was intrigued by the Christmas day greeting of my Texas ancestors in Hornsby Bend and how traditions changed with new generations.
“Just off the Webberville Road in Hornsby Bend stood a stately old two-story home built about 1886 and was the home of Reuben Addison Hornsby and Ella Gilbert Hornsby. Many Christmas mornings Reuben Hornsby would get up early and from the front porch would shoot his shotgun. Seconds later Jess Hornsby, living a few yards away, shot his gun, answered by Mark Gilbert, Smith Hornsby and Spurge Parsons. Up the road could be heard guns of Wallace Hornsby, who usually shot twice, then Ernest Robertson and Jim Hornsby living down the lane. Tett Cox was next to shoot. One Christmas, half asleep, he shot too close to the front porch - the shot going through his roof. This he never lived down. Answering that shot was August Foster1, and nearer the Hornsby Cemetery was Paul Rowe and Vince McLaurin, who never failed to answer. From down near the river could be heard the guns of Malcolm Hornsby, Willie and Jimmie Platt, followed by Sam Platt with his forty-five. This was their way of saying “Merry Christmas” to the Hornsby Bend Settlement. As time went on many of the shooters married and moved away, others died, and so the tradition faded.
Years afterward, Harry Hornsby, Reuben Addison Hornsby’s son, decided he wanted to shoot his shotgun off on Christmas morning to see if there were anyone to remember. He shot, waited a few minutes, and there was no one left to answer. He silently came in the house to put his gun up and realized he was about the last one to remember to shoot on Christmas morning. This was the last shot to say Merry Christmas in Hornsby Bend.”
By 1860 states had began to designate December 25 as a legal holiday with Louisiana being the first, followed by California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia. Often they included the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s. Even Massachusetts, which opposed the exploitation of the day, set aside a day for Christmas.
By 1865, 31 states and territories officially recognized Christmas as a legal holiday and on June 26, 1870, the United States Congress declared Christmas a federal holiday. Although was meant only to regulate fiscal matters for holidays, it served to spread the idea of national holidays that had been informally observed for more than 50 years.
By 1880 Americans had created their own unique Christmas traditions. They took ancient themes, customs, and rituals of Christmas greeting cards, evergreen tree decorating, caroling, hanging Christmas stockings, and exchanging gifts and adapted them for the late 19th century.
Gift giving became so popular that stores began stocking up for the season, running ads for the holiday season which included Christmas and New Year’s. It was merchants who smelled the scent of money that pushed to designate Christmas a federal holiday.
Many Americans elected to purchase a tree from dealers rather than trudge through snow into the woods to cut one. Handmade ornaments, toys, and gifts gave way to factory made items. By the mid-1890s, people were purchasing Christmas cards with pre-printed messages instead of sending handwritten letters and cards.
“The Tapestry” notes that, even back in the 1890s, there were complaints that Christmas had become too commercialized.
“During the 1880s the “old-fashioned Victorian Christmas” that we see today on Christmas cards was the common sight. Trees with candles seen through front windows, children skating on frozen ponds, families traveling in horse-drawn carriages, gifts under the tree, stockings hung from the mantle and tables filled with food.
With the advent of electricity, electric lights were substituted for the dangerous candles on trees. Factory made ornaments and gifts for the family began to substitute for home-made ones. During the 1890s, grumblings began to be heard that “Christmas had become too commercial.” The sentiment continues to the 21st century while images of a more benevolent day lacking the current commercialism are held dear - an image that never existed except perhaps for a handful of years in the 1880s.”
Many of our modern day Christmas customs have their roots in the Victorian Christmas tradition.
Christmas Present(Carole Haynes)
Each of us has different memories of the Christmas of our youth. For me it was being with my family, a simple tree with red and green lights and ornaments, simple gifts, and the radio broadcasting for days our childhood favorites, including “O Holy Night”, “Here Comes Santa Claus”,“Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” (now politically incorrect), and Burl Ives’ “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Christmas would not be Christmas for me without hearing “White Christmas” written by composer and lyricist Irving Berlin and crooned by Bing Crosby. The song evokes a primal nostalgia of a childlike longing for roots, home, and childhood. Americans are longing for that even more today than in those simple days.
Even if Christmas of the past was not always the Victorian version, there is the present day Christmas that we create for our own families. For me, it is hearing Handel’s “Messiah” and attending Christmas Eve services at my Episcopal Church where we sing carols and read the Christmas story about the birth of Christ. I love the brass and string instruments, the choir, the incense, and the magnificent pipe organ with its soaring notes and crashing bass from the Bourdon pedal stops. I feel as though as though I am transcending into heaven. Christmas is the joyful celebration with my family as we gather to share favorite family dishes and just being together.
It seems this year has been different from any Christmas that I remember from the past. I heard Christmas carols almost the day after Halloween, Christmas decorations were put up on neighbors’ houses, and people were wishing each other a ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Happy Holiday’. We are losing our American Christmas as the far left viciously tries to eradicate Christian traditions from our nation and from our memories. I am eternally grateful to President Trump for bringing Christmas and its Christian message to the White House despite hostility and anger from the left.
I don’t know what will happen when President Trump leaves the Oval Office but I do know that, just as the people of Hong Kong are risking their lives daily to fight for freedom, we Americans have the power to stop the bulldozing by the left over our nation and our citizens.
Restoring our Constitutional Republic with its Judeo-Christian values of traditional family and morality must be a 2020 New Year’s resolution for each freedom loving American.