The Wichita Sedgwick County Historical Museum hosted a presentation on Victorian Christmas last weekend. Joyce Suellentrop led us through the Wichita Cottage that was decorated for Christmas.
I was enchanted with the tree decorations.
Don’t you love this tree topper?
Suellentrop first pointed out that the Victorian era is an English and American event. We don’t think of an “Italian Victorian Era” for example. I had never thought of it that way, but of course she’s correct.
The creation of our “American Christmas” extends from the 1800s to the first World War she said. That’s when we were forming traditions and adopting those of other nations. Prior to that time, July 4th was the most important holiday in America.
Christmas was a religious observance, celebrated by the family. The feast aspect of it came into being after Isabelle Beeton’s “The Book of Household Management.” The tree became the number one symbol of the holiday and was decorated generally on Christmas Eve, as their Christmas season would begin on Christmas Day and extend for the 12 Days of Christmas. The number two symbol of the holidays would have been the plum pudding.
“A Christmas Carol” and “The Night Before Christmas” were important in forming our ideas about the holiday.
Suellentrop mentioned a reference to a “Subscription Dance” in Wichita in 1870, where everyone brought a present and then left with one at the end of the night. The gift was the “subscription.” The announcement said it would go on until the candles burned down or the sun came up.
Other milestones she mentioned:
1880 Woolworth was selling tinsel (Jami said the tinsel on the tree is very heavy)
1860-70 Christmas card from Prang
1850 articles about the stress of the holidays
1840 were suggestions to feed the homeless at the holidays
The feasts at Christmas generally involved oysters of some sort. In 1880, an older gentleman was asked about the first Christmas in Wichita, which was 1868/69. He didn’t remember that, but remembered the Christmas of 1870 and said it was the first time oysters had been in Wichita and they were $1 a can.
The one thing you won’t find are older recipes for cookies, because most of them needed sugar. They depended on molasses or honey for sweetener.
Ladies Home Journal in 1887 gave a sample menu for the holiday. It listed 14-20 dishes including peas served in turnip cups, ginger syrup, plum pudding and hard sauce, oysters on the half shell and turkey with chestnut stuffing.
There was a letter to Santa Claus, which referred to Montgomery Ward as “Monkey Ward” but went on to say that the father didn’t approve of them using slang.
It was a very Christmasy afternoon and I highly recommend a visit to the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum. They have another display of miniature trees up for the holiday season.