An American at an 1820 German Christmas

The trappings of an American Christmas have become as familiar as one’s own family—lights and trees, Santa Claus and reindeer, food and good cheer. That hasn’t always been the case, of course. The Puritans, for one, simply banned Christmas in the New World. Stemming from pagan celebrations of the harvest and the winter solstice, the Christmas season had historically been a time for inverting the social order, featuring a rowdy carnival atmosphere of mobs, alcohol, and excess. Even when, later in the eighteenth century, American Protestants began to celebrate Christmas once more, it looked very different from our Christmas today—many chose to retain the elements of public disorder and excess, while others called for moderation and piety.

An 1882 book featuring Irving’s Christmas stories, “Old Christmas: From the Sketch Book of Washington Irving,” published in London.

But by the early 1820s, the seeds of our modern, domestic version of Christmas had begun to be planted. In the late eighteen-teens, several Boston ministers, mostly of the Universalist and Unitarian variety, joined Episcopalians and Catholics in offering Christmas Day services. Though the religious focus of Christmas saw its heyday in these years, Christmas as a cultural phenomenon was just beginning. In January 1820, Washington Irving, in his The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (which included the soon-to-be classics “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) published several nostalgic stories describing how Christmas was still celebrated in the “old” way in England. The Sketch Book was incredibly popular, and these stories, along with Irving’s earlier depictions of Saint Nicholas (though as a patron saint of Dutch New York with no attachment to Christmas)in his satirical A History of New York, served as one of the inspirations for Irving’s friend Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Within a few years that poem would be the smash hit it continues to be to this day, and is largely responsible for the association of St. Nicholas with Christmas.[1]

Likewise, in 1820 America almost no one had heard of a Christmas tree. Though they would become common within a couple of decades, all of that was in the future when a young Massachusetts man visited the home of a baron in Berlin, Germany, to celebrate Christmas Eve. George Bancroft, who would become the preeminent American historian of his generation, witnessed the relatively new German ritual centered around the Christmas tree in the house of the renowned jurist Baron Friedrich Karl von Savigny. Writing home to his parents in Worcester, Massachusetts, on December 30, 1820, Bancroft describes a scene both magical and moving:

Beginning of Bancroft’s Dec. 30, 1820, letter. From the George Bancroft Papers.

Christmas is kept in Germany as the most sacred & cheerful festival. On the eve preceding it the general custom prevails of making presents to one another. The parents, be they poor or rich have a Christmas gift for each of their children. The circumstances attending the evening donations are exceedingly moving. Mrs. de Savigny had invited me to spend the evening at her house, & this gave me a chance of seeing the whole of the beautiful domestic scene. A little evergreen tree, the top or branch of a fir tree is always placed in the centre of the room, & hung full of little wax candles. This is done in every house; in the houses of the rich with greater profusion of lights. The tree is generally loaded with sweetmeats & gift apples, which glitter charmingly amidst the candles. The children are long before hand full of the joy that awaits them at Christmas, and are perfectly happy at receiving these pleasing tokens of parental affection. No festival is looked forward to with such longing expectation, & none celebrated with such sincerity of joy – On reaching the house of Baron Savigny I found the children assembled in the antechamber, and waiting with uncertain expectation the presents destined for them. The parents were busy in arranging the tables, kindling the lights, & preparing all things in the saloon. At length the signal was given; the Baron rang the merry bell, & the folding doors were thrown open. A bright blaze of light burst upon our eyes. In the centre of a large table a fine branch of fir & two smaller ones on the right & left were filled with little tapers, the splendor of which inspired gladness into the hearts of children & men. A Geranium on each side of the larger fir was another emblem of immortality with it’s [sic] perpetual freshness & fragrance. We all hastened into the apartment. First came the infant son: he found his presents spread on a table, so low that he could reach them. The other children followed & rejoiced loudly at finding the very books, clothes, playthings, they had long been wishing for. The parents had their good things too, which their elder relations had sent them. I too found a plate loaded with good things for me, apples, burnt almonds, and sweetmeats. At length curiosity was satisfied: each had found his own treasures & examined those of his neighbours. The tapers on the “Christ’s tree” were extinguished, the halls lit up as usually, & while the young ones still continued amusing themselves with their newly acquired playthings, the elder part of the company withdrew to the tea table, and began an interesting conversation on the wise & great men, whom Germany had produced in later years.

Though the types of gifts are somewhat different, and it was the custom to have just the top of a fir on a table rather than an entire tree, it’s easy to see the connections between this German Christmas in 1820 and ours today. “No festival is looked forward to with such longing expectation, & none celebrated with such sincerity of joy,” and food, candy, presents, lights, and a focus on children are all hallmarks of the celebration Bancroft describes.

That Bancroft would be witness to such a ceremony when Christmas in America was still nascent was suiting in that his father, Aaron Bancroft, was among the Protestant ministers in Massachusetts who tried to resurrect Christmas as an observed holy day in the eighteen-teens. Aaron Bancroft was a Congregational minister in Worcester and held services on Christmas Day from at least 1816 to 1818. Among the congregants was AAS founder Isaiah Thomas, who in his diary for 1816 noted, “Rev. Dr. Bancroft preached a Christmas Sermon at West-boylston, by request.” In 1817 Thomas’s Christmas Day again included a “Sermon preached by Dr. Bancroft at his Church.” And on Christmas Day 1818, Thomas “Went to Church. Sermon at Dr. Bancroft’s Meeting. Dined with many other Gentlemen with the Sheriff, at Sikes’s—a handsome dinner and a very respectable Company.” Bancroft had this last sermon published as The Doctrine of Immortality: A Christmas Sermon.

By the late 1830s and into the 1840s, Christmas trees, Santa Claus, the nativity, and presents had all become mainstays of a new domestic American Christmas (though an excess of alcohol, food, and good cheer, of course, has never fully disappeared from the Christmas landscape). But in his 1820 German Christmas, Bancroft unwittingly got a glimpse of what Christmases would soon be like in his own homeland. It leads one to wonder how his father, who had tried to spur observance of the holiday, reacted to the description, and if both Bancrofts, in later years, ever remarked on how quickly that Christmas, the likes of which George had obviously never seen, became commonplace in America.

[1] For a full treatment of how Christmas changed in American from European settlement through the nineteenth century, see Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle For Christmas: A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

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