The history of Christmas, and the traditions that many practice still today can trace their origins to the 19th century in America.
In the early half of the 19th century, the northern states, having Puritan backgrounds, viewed celebrating Christmas as sinful and frivolous. However, for southern states, Christmas was an important part of the social season.
The first three states to make Christmas a legal holiday were in the south. Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas all declared Christmas a legal holiday during the 1830s. It would not be until 40 years later, that Christmas was declared a federal holiday on June 26, 1870 under President Ulysses S. Grant. The last state to introduce Christmas as a holiday was Oklahoma in 1907.
While the United States declared Christmas a federal holiday in 1870, Florida legislation did not declare Christmas as a legal holiday until 1881. Throughout the 19th century, Floridians celebrated the Christmas holidays in many different ways. This lasted up until the 20th century when better communication and transportation decreased the isolation of the state and saw it enter into mainstream American life.
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In many rural areas of Florida, it was quite common for gifts to be handmade; in fact many families received fruit, cakes and nuts as their only presents. Decorations were homemade and often of natural ornaments such as palmetto frond, magnolia branches, citrus fruits and paper and popcorn chains.
In the early half of the 19th century, many Americans did not exchange Christmas gifts, as they were believed to be given to someone not in the same social class as you. However, by the turn of the 20th century, this view changed and homemade gifts would begin to be gifted. Children often received homemade wooden toys, books, popcorn balls, candy, firecrackers, guns and horns. While adults would receive books, notepaper, pens, perfumes and soaps. Store bought gifts were rare during the 19th century, but became the norm during the 20th century. Gifts generally started out small enough so that they would fit in stockings, or be tied to tree branches following the German tradition. However, as time went on, gifts grew larger in size and eventually were displayed under the Christmas tree.
While the Christmas tree was used by many German-Americans, it did not grow in popularity until the 1850’s when the image of Queen Victorian and her family with a Christmas tree was featured in the popular 19th century catalog, Godey’s Lady’s Book. Christmas decorations of the period were often minimal, and not placed until Christmas Eve, after the children went to bed. Garlands, holly, evergreen boughs, as well as fruits, bayberry, mistletoe, magnolias and pine cones, were all common decorations and would cover mantels, pictures, chandeliers and door and window frames. Ornaments were often homemade, such as dried fruits and strings of popcorn.
During the 19th century, Christmas trees would be decorated with lit candles instead of electric lights. Because of a risk of fire, electric lights were invented in 1882 by Edward H. Johnson, though they would not become widely accepted until 1895 when President Grover Cleveland used them in the White House. Many families, such as the Stephens family whose 1912 farmhouse is located in the Manatee Village Historical Park, would not have used electrical Christmas lights though, due to expense. In 1903, it would have cost $2,000 of today’s dollars to light up a Christmas tree, and would only be seen at high society holiday parties. Not until 1917 were electric Christmas lights affordable to the masses.
Christmas in the southern United States was an important part of the winter social season, and a joyous occasion to celebrate. It was traditional for southerners to extend celebrations until New Year’s Day, though some even celebrated until Epiphany on Jan. 6.
To learn more about traditional Christmas celebrations in Manatee County, visit the Manatee Village Historical Park, 1404 Manatee Ave E., Bradenton, Florida and visit the Stephens House, a 1912 Florida Cracker home decorated for Christmas. Due to the holiday season, please call (941) 741-4075 or visit www.manateevillage.org for hours of operation.
Bridget Donahue-Ferrell is curator at the Manatee Village Historical Park in Bradenton.