Friday, December 23, 2011

A Pioneer Christmas, Part I: Journal of Susan Fenimore Cooper

Moments ago, as I was sitting here in my recliner reflecting upon Christmas memories, I began wondering- How did the pioneers celebrate Christmas?  What were their holiday traditions?  How did they make preparations for the holidays?  I wanted to know so I did some "snooping" on the web to find the answers.  

Entries in the journal of Susan Fenimore Cooper, written from 1848 through 1849, describe family preparations and anticipation of the Christmas holiday.  The family resided in Otsego County, New York.  Susan's journal became a published book, Rural Hours.  Highlights from her journal written December 1848:

December 19th- While walking outdoors, Susan describes a "cart standing in the woods filled with Christmas greens for her parish church".

December 21st- Her journal entry states, "It is snowing a little, we may yet have sleighing for Christmas", she hopes.  She writes a description of "female industry" in preparation for Christmas- "It is a very busy time within doors.  For the activity in the rural housekeeper's department is now at its height.  A variety of important labors connected with Christmas cheer are going on.  Cake jars are filling up with crullers, flat, brown and crisp; with dough-nuts, dark, full and round; and raisined olecokes.  Waffles, soft and hard, make their appearance on the tea tables; mince-pies, with their heavy freight of rich materials, are getting underway; and cranberries are preparing for tarts.  Calves'-head soup and calves'-foot jellies are under consideration; turkeys and ducks are fattening in the poultry yard while inquiries are made after game birds and fish from the lake."  She continues, "there is a dawn of the kindliness and good-will belonging to Christmas perceptible in the kitchen and pantry; the eggs are beaten more briskly, the sugar and butter are stirred more readily, and the mince-meat chopped more heartily than on any other occasion during the year".  

After describing the preparation of traditional holiday fare, Susan turns to other "Christmas tasks." "Greens are put up in some houses. And, of course, Santa Claus must also be looked after. Santa's pouch and pack must be well filled for the little people, with this or that nursery-book, sugar-plums and candies, puppets and toys." She gives special emphasis to the appeal of home-made dolls, "such as those huge babies of cotton and linen with pretty painted faces, and soft, supple limbs. The rag-babies or, more properly, Moppets, are always pets with little mammas, for no other dolls are loved so dearly as these. But it is not just adult women who make Christmas presents; many little slips of womankind are now busily engaged upon some nice piece of work, with bags, purses, slippers, mittens, what-nots all getting a more finished look every hour". Whether by grownups or children, it is female handicraft that Susan celebrates as Christmas nears.

December 22nd:  "We shall doubtless have sleighing for the holidays".

December 23rd:  "Winter is out in its true colors at last.  It is a picture postcard day.  Merry bells are jingling through the village streets.  There are cutters and sleighs with gay parties dashing rapidly about.  It is well for Santa Clause that we have snow, if we may believe Mr. Clement Clark Moore, who has seen him nearer than most people, he travels in a miniature sleigh with eight tiny rein-deer".  

December 25th:  "Christmas must always be a happy, cheerful day," she affirms; "for even when the sky is cloudy and dull, the bright fires, the fresh and fragrant greens, the friendly gifts, and words of good-will, the 'Merry Christmas' smiles, create a warm glow and humble backdrop for the exalted associations of the festival, as it is celebrated in solemn, public worship, and kept by the hearts of believing Christians". For Susan, the religious context is uppermost, for it is a time to celebrate the meaning of "the Nativity of the Prince of Peace in pious devotion and with deeds of charity to the poor and afflicted". Next, she says, is the importance placed on children. "Other religions have scarcely heeded children," she states, yet "Christianity bestows on them an especial blessing. The unfeigned, unalloyed gayety of children makes Christmas merry," she concludes .

I enjoyed reading Susan's journal entries, for I could nearly place myself there midst the festive activities of the holidays.  The joy and excitement she expressed in her writings brought back memories of the feelings I shared many years ago in anticipating Christmas.
Susan's family was fortunate enough to enjoy all that the Christmas holidays had to offer during that time in history.  Other pioneer families celebrated Christmas differently, depending on their financial resources and locality- more about them in Part II.

No comments:

Post a Comment