In 1864 the Lehigh Valley was like a lot of America. Most people lived on farms; they found enjoyment and solace in churches and taverns and cheered or complained about the same national politicians. And their sons were dying in the same war. But the Lehigh Valley was Pennsylvania-German and that made all the difference.
The Lehigh County Historical Society celebrated this difference, as it has for many years, with a special event at the historic Troxell Steckel House, a house-museum that has roots going back to the 1750s.
The event on December 1st focused on what a Lehigh County Christmas would have been like in 1864 during the Civil War. “We did one based on an 1863 Christmas last year," said the LCHS’s Sarah Thayer. "By then many of the German traditions around Christmas had become accepted nationally.”
At the time the Troxell-Steckel was built, the region was home to a growing German immigrant community, the largest number of non-British inhabitants (except for African Americans) in the English colonies.
That pretty much stayed the same into the 19th century. While regarding themselves as thoroughly American, the Pennsylvania Germans tended to keep the language and folk customs that made them distinctive. And one of the most important of these focused around the holiday of Christmas.
Back then in America Christmas was not the widely celebrated national holiday that it is today. The early Puritan settlers of New England felt it was “Popish” and too close to Catholic and pagan traditions. They had handed down this view to their descendents who were still largely indifferent to the holiday in the early 19th century.
Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam (now New York) had brought their own Christmas traditions to the New World. And in 1823, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” attributed traditionally to New Yorker Clement Clark Moore, had appeared complete with reindeer. But Kris Kringle was not yet Americanized from St. Nicholas to Santa Claus. The southern colonies and later states celebrated Christmas with old English traditions they had gotten them from their ancestors. But these were regional customs that were not shared with the rest of the country.
But for the Pennsylvania Germans, Christmas was one of the most important holidays of the year. It was a time when the farm work was done and some of the tasks of the hard labor that they had to do could be set aside. Church of course and the birth of Christ were the most important aspect of the holidays and were never neglected. But there were other things that the Pennsylvania Germans did to celebrate the holiday that would have bothered the dour New Englanders as pagan relics.
A Christmas tree, long a German Christmas tradition, was common. These ancestors of the enormous decorated and lighted trees of our time tended to be much smaller affairs. At the Troxell-Steckel house, there's one on a table top. The holiday also had plenty of food available- baked items were an important part of the day. Another Pennsylvania German tradition was the Bellsnickel, the Pennsylvania German anti-Santa Claus. A child who had not behaved could expect a visit from this doleful figure, coming without gifts to scold them.
But in the 30 years between 1844 and 1864, Christmas trees and celebration were not just a Pennsylvania German tradition, but becoming a national one.
The reasons for this shift included a large number of German immigrants coming to America in the 1850s. As a result of failed revolutions in the German states, many fled to America and brought their Christmas traditions with them. As they came into the big cities it began to seem a more natural thing to adopt them and the Christmas culture.
Immigrants from Ireland, also arriving in large numbers in the 1840s and 1850s, brought with them a strong attachment to the holiday. Even in New England the old fashioned Puritan fear of Christmas began to gradually recede.
Perhaps more significant was the impact of England’s Queen Victoria and her husband, German-born Prince Albert. Starting in the 1840s, Americans- at least those who had the leisure time to be concerned with cultural trends- began to notice the attention being paid in the press to the celebration of the holiday by England’s royal couple. And it included a Christmas tree.
Women’s fashion magazines, especially the popular Godey’s Ladies Book, began to focus on the celebration of the holiday by the era’s best known trendsetters across the Atlantic. As one humorist has observed, the period didn’t become known as the Victorian era for nothing.
Another important cultural factor was the creation of the modern Santa Claus. It was in Christmas of 1862 on the cover of Harper’s Weekly, a widely popular illustrated magazine of the time, that Thomas Nast, German immigrant artist and cartoonist, first gave the world the figure that has since come to define the secular aspects of the holiday. Fortunately for generations of children Nast did not make the Bellsnickel the object of his art work.
Looking back today some see in Queen Victoria’s Christmas trees and Nast’s Santa the start of the secularization and commercialization of Christmas, making it less a holy day and more of a holiday. But Christmas still seems to come through it all in spite of it.