A Creole Christmas in the Nineteenth Century
There’s no question that the residents of the Hermann-Grima and Gallier Historic Houses lived through times of staggering change: industrialization, immigration, industrialization, and a Civil War that resulted in the death of 620,000 soldiers and the liberation of four million enslaved Americans. What does this have to do with Christmas? The Christmas traditions that we know today surprisingly came about during these times of change and ultimately created a holiday that brings Americans together.
Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, there was no cohesive idea of what comprised a traditional American Christmas. It was not considered a national holiday. Calvinists and Puritans, who mostly lived in New England, did not observe Christmas because the exact date of Jesus’ birth is not in the Bible. Early Americans who did practice some form of Christmas usually lived in the middle states or the south. Many of their traditions evolved from ancient winter solstice celebrations including “Saturnalia” in Rome and “Yule,” practiced by Germanic, Scandinavian, and Anglo-Saxon peoples.
For the French, tradition was to give gifts on New Year’s Day, called lesétrennes,and there was little focus on gift-giving for Christmas. The Catholic Church did observe Christmas, however, and the French developed a tradition called le Réveillon, or “Awakening.” This is an extravagant family meal following midnight mass, after having fasted all day on Christmas Eve. Les étrennes and le Reveillon would carry over into Creole customs. In the dining room and parlor of the Hermann-Grima house you will see gifts, fruits and candies, and cards that read Bonne Année. The Hermanns, Grimas, and Galliers all likely had a Réveillon feast that would last into the wee hours of the morning on Christmas. It would have included rich foods such as oyster gumbo, roasted goose, daube glacé, soufflés, plum pudding, and coconut cake.
For centuries, Germans had practiced the tradition of erecting a small fir tree in the house adorned with candles, fruits and little gifts. German-born Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, installed a decorated tree at Windsor Castle in 1841, and that set the standard for Christmas in upper-class homes. After the Civil War, Christmas trees were marketed to the masses as a way to celebrate the holiday season, and by the end of the 19th century, the average American household would have a tree. It was such the norm that many Jewish Americans also put up and decorated trees. A New Orleans Christmas tree, however, would look slightly different than your classic fir. The Galliers and the Grimas likely would have had a wax myrtle, because they were more readily available in the South. At the Gallier House, you can see how we have decorated our wax myrtle! You will also see other types of greenery bedecking the mantles and stairs including garlands of magnolia, holly, and pine with pine cones. Lemons and oranges grow in New Orleans and would have been popular for decoration throughout the winter season. Pomanders (from the French pomme d’ambre) of orange and clove would be throughout the house as well, to bring a fresh and spicy scent to the home at Christmastime.
In the Gallier House parlor, notice a copy of the 1849 edition of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” now better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” Upon reading this classic poem, you may think that it described well-known Christmas iconography and customs of the time, but this is not the case. Prior to the popularity of this poem, it was not at all universal that St. Nick would deliver gifts on Christmas Eve. Early Dutch settlers of New York esteemed St. Nicholas as their patron saint and hung stockings to be filled with gifts on December 5th, the eve of St. Nicholas Day.
The poem also popularized the idea that “chubby and plump” St. Nick was pulled by a team of eight reindeer, each with individual names! It is unlikely that New Orleanians in the 1830s would have called him Santa Claus, but Santa would be a household name by the 1860s. That is mostly thanks to cartoonist Thomas Nast, who drew for Harper’s Weekly and is credited with the image of the Santa we know him today — the North Pole, Mrs. Claus, and a staff of elves included. Nast had previously illustrated campaign posters for President Lincoln, and legend has it that Lincoln himself requested that Nast draw an image of Santa Claus visiting the Union troops for the December cover of Harper’s Weekly in 1863.
Prior to and during the Civil War, Christmas often would be the only holiday for enslaved people. Enslaved field laborers would have time off, anywhere from a day to two weeks. In the Federal Writers’ Project interviews, former slaves share memories of receiving gifts, making music, dancing, drinking whiskey and eggnog, and eating well around Christmas and the New Year. It was also a time that some enslaved people would be “allowed” to visit family members from whom they had been forcibly separated. Unfortunately, enslaved workers in family homes likely would not have been given as much time. For them, the holidays would be hard work, particularly to prepare the lavish meals and decorations. The Galliers, Grimas, and Hermanns probably would have given such gifts as clothing, treats, and trinkets to those whom they enslaved. In a paternalistic fashion, some slaveowners would give better gifts and more time off as a “reward” for good behavior.
By the conclusion of the nineteenth century, Americans celebrated the holiday season as we know it today: a decorated tree, wrapping and giving gifts, tales of Santa Claus, and even greeting cards. The evolution of a classic Christmas had everything to do with the social and economic forces at play. Industrialization and urbanization allowed for more mass production and consumerism of gifts, but in a way, these trends also created a social need for a grounding family ritual in times of change. People began wrapping gifts as a way to add a personal touch to a factory-made product. Perhaps most importantly, it was after the Civil War that a cohesive American Christmas was marketed as a way to unite people regardless of region, status, or ancestry.