Thanks to Peter Wisbey, Former Executive Director of of the Seward House, for the following Guest Editorial

Christmas in the 19th Century

In the nineteenth century, Christmas was a private, family-oriented celebration.  Much has been written about the popularization of Christmas during this period.  Our modern view of Santa Claus as a “Jolly Old Elf” stems from the popular images drawn by Thomas Nast for Harper’s magazines from the 1860s to the 1880s.


Christmas Trees were decorated with natural materials

Christmas Trees were decorated with natural materials

The first Christmas trees were small tabletop affairs.  They were often decorated with natural materials – colored leaves, dried flowers, cookies, paper cornucopia ornaments filled with small candies and sugared nuts.  The branches were draped with paper chains and garlands of popcorn.  Toys and small gifts could be tied to the branches which were also draped with cotton.  Sixteen-year-old Nellie Seward recorded in her journal in 1876 that their neighbor Mr. Osborne’s tree was “very prettily ornamented with cotton (to represent snow) and various fancy articles.”

Candles were clipped or wired to the tips of the branches.  One popular magazine called for a ratio of 100 candles per foot of tree.  A lit tree, however, required special attention.  Homeowners were reminded not to leave their tree unattended and to keep a bucket of sand and a wet sponge nearby to douse any errant flames.

Children enjoyed the winter weather outdoors by sledding, skating and engaging in snowball fights.  Inside they had a variety of parlor games.  “Hot Buttered Beans” required a seeker to find a small note or ribbon hidden in a room.  The child who hid the ribbon called out “you burn,” or “you are cold” to the seekers.  The American Girls Book of 1855 details a game called “The Christmas Bag” in which a paper sack filled with sugar plums is suspended in a doorway.  Blindfolded children swing a stick to break the bag and spill its contents on the floor.

Seward house is located at 33 South Street in Auburn.  For more information about the museum, hours of operation and special events for the holidays, please call 315-252-1283 or visit the Seward House online.

Photos courtesy of The Seward House

If you enjoyed this post, you may also want to read: Holiday Traditions of the 19th Century: Thanksgiving and Holiday Traditions of the 19th Century: New Year’s Day.