by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When giving our holiday tours, we make a point of emphasizing to visitors the dramatic changes that took place in the celebration of Christmas, along with the many other transformations in local and broader society, from the 1840s to the 1920s.
The holiday was largely a religious one, with most emphasis placed on the circumstances of the birth of Christ as related in the Bible, such as in Mexican California and specifically the pueblo of Los Angeles, though there was the early emergence of secular elements like the Christmas tree, Santa Claus and gift-giving in much of the United States. Feasting, dancing and other components were found in both traditions, but, in any case, Christmas was not nearly as popular a holiday back east as New Year’s Day or the Fourth of July.
This gradually changed and, by the 1870s, the Yuletide season took on greater prominence throughout the United States, including California and greater Los Angeles. More broadly, the secular parts of Christmas were more popular and Christmas cards began to be manufactured and distributed on a wide scale. In this area, Christmas trees were being sold and the religious elements of the Mexican and Spanish eras largely disappeared.
We can show these changes at opposite ends of the Workman House, where on the east side, which is generally where we discuss the 1840s era, the Las Posadas celebration is discussed as a major component of the holiday, while, at the west end, in a space devoted broadly to the 1870s, we display a trimmed, table-top Christmas tree and talk about the more secular elements of the Yuletide season.
Meantime, the Homestead collection contains artifacts relating to Christmas that tangibly demonstrate the transformation of holiday celebrations. Much of this took place between the 1840s and 1870s focus decades of the museum’s interpretive era and the two featured examples tonight are good illustrations, literally, of changes taking place with the Yuletide season.
As literacy rose in America, so did the readership of a multitude of popular magazines. These periodicals increasingly reflected the growth of Christmas celebrations and the first object here is a 30 December 1854 issue of Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion. One of the earliest successes in the popular magazine genre, the publication was launched in Boston in 1851 by German-born Frederick Gleason, a bookbinder who began publishing short popular novels and had a weekly called The Flag of Our Union that did well.
One the authors he published, Maturin Murray Ballou joined Gleason in the establishment of the pictorial, which drew heavily on the template of the very successful Illustrated London News. Like the British paper, Gleason’s touched upon current events and offered original short stories, poems, drawings and other content. It is Ballou’s name that is on the masthead, showing how much of the day-to-day work in running the operation fell on his shoulders.
In 1855, Gleason was financially comfortable and ready to retire, even though he was still in his thirties, so he sold the publication to Ballou, who renamed the magazine after himself. After a few years, after suffering enormous financial reverses during the Depression of 1857 period, Gleason returned to the field and published three magazines bearing his name before he finally hung it up in 1890, dying six years later.
This front-page image shows a pair of slumbering siblings in their bed and an accompanying article notes that, while the youngsters sleep and dream, the three female figures shown by the bedside include “the recording spirit in whose weighty volume good and evil deeds are credited and debited;” a second ghost who rewards the children for their excellent record “with her lap laden with rich offerings, her sweet face beaming with kindliness;” and the last is “Chastisement—the Nemesis of childhood,” who, though, “has no occupation here, except as a shadow to relieve her bright companions.”
Notably, the article foretells the future of most young ones, ones that “are darker and sadder” and that these fresh faces “will show lines of care and grief.” For now, however, “it is merry Christmas” and “we will listen only to the music and the laughter of the festival.” As for adults, “for one day of the long year we will be children again if we can, or at least enter into the pleasures, sports, and hopes of children.”
The second image is from Harper’s Weekly subtitled “A Journal of Civilization” and which had a very long and successful run as one of America’s best-known popular publications. The front-page drawing from its 31 Decmeber 1864 edition and is denoted as “Christmas Morning.”
Not surprisingly, the remainder of the magazine has a great deal of content about the Civil War, which was fewer than four months from concluding after four years of horrific slaughter and destruction. Included as a centerfold is a stunning image of a “Union Christmas Dinner,” which will be covered in a future holiday post.
Meanwhile, this view has a reference to the conflict, as a mother and father peek through a bedroom door to see their seven children joyously playing with a treasure trove of toys received for the holiday. Two boys in the foreground are playing war, with one of them wearing a Union cap, backpack and bedroll, with a drum over his shoulder and a sword extended toward his brother. On the floor next to the pair is a sled with a small Christmas tree behind it.
Another boy stands on the bed blaring his trumpet, while another, apparently with a piece of candy in his mouth, has one hand buried deep in a stocking. He has a figure with a spear or similar type of weapon in his lap and other toys around him, including what looks to be a soldier on horseback.
There are three girls, with the oldest avidly reading a book, perhaps a juvenile novel, while a younger one, with a bandana round her head, gazes upon a picture book while a doll rests on the bed behind her. The third daughter gleefully is astride a rocking horse and, on the floor next to her, is a doll sitting at a toy table with a tea set on it.
This scene, obviously not a complement to the other being a decade afterward, nevertheless is an apt companion to the Christmas Eve scene of anticipation and hope. As we recede further from our Christmas holiday over 150 years later, we can see that these two drawings, with all of their differences from our modern world, do have elements that are relevant and relatable.