America’s Family Holiday: A Gilded Age Christmas

Photo Credit: Christmas card by Louis Prang, showing a group of anthropomorphized frogs parading with banner and band. Note the card has the makings of a work of art (see below for more details about Prang and his philosophy of Christmas cards). 19th century (no specific date), American Antiquarian Society. M2545/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100

“The Gilded Age, a time of particularly challenging social and economic upheaval, underlined the importance of family ties even as it threatened them.” (Restad, par. 24)

Last month, I wrote here about how the wealthy San Francisco family of my Waxwood trilogy would have spent their Thanksgiving holiday. Thanksgiving was a “dining out” affair for many Gilded Agers but especially the well-to-do. Our modern associations of Thanksgiving with the Norman Rockwell-type happy family gathering just didn’t exist in the 19th century.

Since this month is Christmas, I found myself wondering again how people celebrated this holiday as compared with the way we celebrate it in the modern age. Many people complain about the way in which Christmas has become a commercial and gaudy holiday so as to loose all its original meaning. We might say the roots of Christmas as we know it today were planted by the post-Civil War and Gilded Age generations. For, as Penne Restad points out in “Christmas in 19th Century America”, “Americans did not even begin to conceive of Christmas as a national holiday until the middle of the [19th century]” (par. 2). It was the upheavals and extreme social, political, and economic challenges of 19th century America (some of which I discus here) that sent the nation reeling in a sea of uncertainty, chaos, and confusion. Christmas became the holiday that united Americans and reminded them of a simpler and more peaceful time: “The swirl of change [in industrial America] caused many to long for an earlier time, one in which they imagined that old and good values held sway in cohesive and peaceful communities” (Restad, par. 5).

This transformation of Christmas as a national holiday wasn’t only about nostalgia but also about democracy. In my research of Christmas in the Gilded Age, I couldn’t find anything specific about how wealthy people like the Alderdices would have spent their holiday as opposed to other social classes that were so distinctly defined in the era because Christmas swept away the social and economic divides of the time, at least temporarily. It wasn’t so much everyone celebrated Christmas in the same way (or even at all, since we must remember there were then as there are now many people who didn’t celebrate Christmas) but many of the Christmas traditions were embraced by every ethnic group, and culture. Unlike with the Gilded Age tradition of Thanksgiving dinner at a lavish hotel or restaurant which only the rich could afford, some of our most beloved traditions associated with Christmas such as the Christmas trees, Christmas cards, gift-giving and gift wrapping and even Santa were taken up by the nation as a whole.

For example, the tradition of the decorated Christmas tree was actually brought over from Germany but the Gilded Age added its own philosophy of splendor and show off to it. As you might recall, modesty was not exactly the order of the day for Gilded Agers. They liked lavishness and glitzy show and they weren’t afraid to make a profit from it. So while in the early part of the century, “[c]elebrants added nuts, strings of popcorn or beads, oranges, lemons, candies and home-made trinkets” to their trees, in the Gilded Age, “widely-read newspapers and ladies’ magazines raised the standards for ornamentation” (Restad, par. 12). To that end, “[v]endors hawked glass ornaments and balls in bright colours, tin cut in all imaginable shapes and wax angels with spun glass wings” (Restad, par. 13).

The humble Christmas card also took on a different meaning in the Gilded Age. The tradition was in fact begun for commercial purposes. Louis Prang, one of the most successful printers of the Gilded Age, began producing them not only for profit but also as a lesson in culture. In fact, “[h]e saw his cards as small, affordable works of art [and through] them he hoped to stimulate popular interest in original decorative art and to educate public taste” (Restad, par. 16). The idea of bringing democratizing fine art which had until then been the exclusive domain of those who could afford it is not one we would expect of the Gilded Age. So predictably, Prang’s idea of elevating Christmas cards fell by the wayside when other manufacturers decided to cash in on the trend and produced cards of inferior quality. It was then Christmas cards became big business.

Also big business was the gift-giving that now dominates Christmas in our modern world. Restad points out that, aside from the obvious commercial value of gift-giving, the practice also “served more subtle ends [as the] getting and giving of gifts provided a means of grappling with jarring social change” (p. 20). Today we might find it appropriate to give a family member or friend an Amazon gift card and let them choose what they want but in the Gilded Age, such easy gifts just weren’t to be had. Gifts had to be individualized and carefully thought out and chosen. So, “[t]hrough personal gifts, Americans mediated the fragile relationships of an increasingly fragmented society” (Restad, par. 20).

Wrapping presents was also a Gilded Age invention. It fit into the idea of elaborate presentation and surprise that characterized the age. Here also, people like the Alderdices could flaunt their wealth, as while paper might have blurred a present’s association with commerce in some cases, in others it advertised a material status associated with patronizing the ‘right’ store’” (Restad, par. 23).

Photo Credit: Merry Old Santa Claus, Thomas Nast, 1 January 1881, Harper’s Weekly: Soerfm/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100)

Just as gift-giving had a double-edge sword, so did Santa. We think of Santa as a jovial, generous white-bearded, somewhat heavy man bestowing presents down a chimney to “good” little boys and girls. In the Gilded Age, Santa also had political and social implications:

“[T]he charming notion that Santa and his tiny helpers supplied all the Christmas toys encoded a highly romantic vision of American capitalism. This Santa reigned without opposition over a vast empire. In a world of practicality, he prospered as a highly successful manufacturer and distributor of toys. From his fur coat to his full girth, he resembled the nation’s Gilded Age presidents and its well-fed captains of industry.” (Restad, par. 29)

The message of plenty which the Gilded Age represented even went as far as Santa.

So in my mind, the Alderdices of my story would have blended in with the rest of the nation with their Christmas celebrations. They may have done things a little more elaborately, a little more expensively, but on the whole, their traditions would have been the same as anybody else’s.

Works Cited

Restad, Penne. “Christmas in 19th Century America.” History Today. History Today Ltd., 2018. 12 December 1995. Web. 19 December 2018.

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