I’ve always wondered if Christmas was as important a religious celebration in earlier times as it is nowadays.
In an entry from the 1835 diary of Deacon Elihu Woodworth, for example, we find no mention of Christmas whatsoever. Woodworth’s diary for 1835-1836, a publication of the Wolfville Historical Society, contains an appendix mentioning Elihu had a close association with the Presbyterian-Covenanter Church and was its chief administrative officer.
In other words, while Woodworth was obviously was a man of deep religious convictions, we find in his diary for December 25, 1835, that he spent the day butchering a cow. “Dec. 25. Soft weather. Cut up 510 lbs. beef,” the diary entry reads. No mention is made of Christmas in the December 24 or December 26 entries either.
In the diary of Adolphus Gaetz, 1855-1873, (a Public Archives of Nova Scotia publication) we also find Christmas being totally ignored. However, the Woodworth and Gaetz diaries are not typical records of Christmas celebrations. Glimpses of Christmas in earlier days can be found in two works by Wolfville historian, James Doyle Davison. From Davison’s work on Handley Chipman, for example, we find the following:
“… towards the end of the 18th century, the proprietor of the household that included several servants would recognize the occasion (Christmas) in a special way,” Davison wrote of British customs. Of our Planters, however, Davison notes that while they paid little attention to Christmas, it was customary to celebrate it at home “with an extra helping at dinner.”
Davison gives us another view of Christmas in his book on Eliza Ann Chipman, Eliza of Pleasant Valley. Mr. Davison writes that Alice “passed the Christmas month without any reference to an observation or special celebration.” He then follows with an excellent overview of early Christmas celebrations here and touches on its German origin and the origin of Christmas cards and Christmas trees.
Davison Quotes Dr. John Burgess Calkin, who wrote extensively on Christmas customs in Kings County in the 19th century. Davison’s source most likely was Eaton’s Kings County history. Eaton quotes Calkin extensively, especially regarding Yuletide customs, and here we find that turkeys, geese “or perchance a young pig” were the main fare on Christmas Day.
In the history of Greenwich (Greenwich Times, published 1968) we find that Christmas was a special time for the early settlers of this area. However, the observations on early Christmas customs in this area appear to have been taken from Eaton’s Kings County (whom as we know was quoting Calkin) so nothing new can be found there.
If you wonder what Christmas was like in your grandfather’s day, I refer you to Glen Hancock’s wonderful book, My Real Name is Charley. Most of us seniors will remember the Christmases that Glen writes about. The long-awaited adventure with Dad to find and cut the Christmas tree, the school plays, home-made fruit cake, the goose (turkeys weren’t “in” yet) for Christmas dinner, which seemed to take forever to rend and roast.
And one more glimpse of Christmas in earlier days, this from Leslie Eugene Dennison. Writing about Yuletide celebrations in the 1870s, Dennison recalled a memorable Christmas when he received his first pair of steel skates. Until then, he said, all his skates had been wooden with steel runners and straps.