Fourteen Yards of Cranberries and a Paroquet: An 1870s Christmas Story

IMG_2230 (3)Last month we took a look at how young Marion “Minnie” Boyd Allen spent Thanksgiving Day in 1875 and 1876 (rousing renditions of popular plays and too much food were all the rage). But Minnie didn’t contain her holiday exuberance to Thanksgiving; she had plenty left over for Christmas.

Minnie says very little about the lead-up to Christmas in 1875 when she’s thirteen years old, except to note pretty frequently—beginning in November—that she’s making Christmas presents. This activity seems to keep her in the spirit throughout the season, but most of her excitement about Christmas is packed into two days. On Christmas Eve she “Did not go to school in forenoon,” but rather “The house is turned up side down, getting ready for tomorrow.” Unlike today when most people decorate for Christmas as soon as Thanksgiving is over (or earlier), most of the Allens’ decorating took place immediately before Christmas. “Grandma and I strung over fourteen yards of cranberries to trim the billiard room with….[Brother] Will and I put up the tree and hung evergreen. In evening Will and I (seated on the billiard table) filled boxes and cornicopias [sic] with candy.”

Minnie’s entry for Christmas Day makes clear exactly what kind of presents she had been making for the last six weeks: “Will fixed all the pictures that were to be given away, up in his room, and later in the day everybody came in to see the ‘Art gallery.’” Minnie, who would grow up to be a successful painter, was an enterprising artist even at thirteen. Not only did she spend hours painting and drawing these gifts for others, but she then curated them into her own art exhibit. (For more on Minnie’s background, see the previous post.)

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And just like Thanksgiving, Minnie made sure to capture the day in a pen-and-ink drawing at the top of her entry (above).  Her drawing of a Christmas tree surrounded by presents (which appears to be placed in a bay window, common to the brownstones of the South End of Boston where Minnie lived) seems to sum up the day nicely, as after “our usual Christmas dinner (and we children had to wait till we were [half] famished before we got ours, for nearly everybody was helped first)…we heard the Christmas-tree-bell ring. We raced up stairs and soon Santa Claus answered our knocks at the door. We all went in and began to undo our presents.” Among her presents were “the Rocky Mountain series, three packs of cards, mittens, a ring, a little stuffed paroquet [an old spelling of parakeet] and so many other things that I cannot tell them. Almost everybody went away, after we had a dance, and a reading from Mr. Horace Lunt.” The entire day is strongly reminiscent of the opening of The Nutcracker, with its beautiful tree, presents for all of the children, and dancing by the guests, although the ballet was not produced until 1892. (It also leads to questions about just when these familiar Christmas traditions began, many of which are answered in a blog post from last year about the history of Santa and the Christmas tree.)

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From “The Night Before Christmas,” McLoughlin Bros., 1899.

After this lavish description of 1875, Minnie’s entries for Christmas 1876 are rather disappointing. The 23rd of December found Minnie working hard all day, as “There are so many things to ‘finish up’ the last minute. Will and I did our presents together in evening. I made twenty-four of mine myself.” She then “Went down town with Will to see the evergreens.” Christmas Eve was a Sunday that year, so after church and Sunday School, she drew two more pictures for friends, decorated the tree, noted the arrival of a cousin, and then abruptly ends her diary: “I must finish up my journal now and commence a new one. I have had this a long time and am sorry to leave it. Good-bye!”

In a way, although the reader may feel cheated by missing out on one of Minnie’s detailed holiday descriptions, it seems suiting that the diary would end here. Having begun it when she was twelve, at fourteen years old Minnie is now on the eve of adulthood. Her infectious enthusiasm for celebrating holidays will begin the next diary, which she may have received as a Christmas present and couldn’t wait to use (there are quite a few blank pages at the back of this one). It’s hard to begrudge her growing up, but the rich, amusing, and rare way in which she recorded her adolescent years leaves one wanting to read more.

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