The Indifferent Stars Above by Brown Daniel James

The Indifferent Stars Above by Brown Daniel James

Author:Brown, Daniel James [Brown, Daniel James]
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: HarperCollins
Published: 2009-04-17T06:00:00+00:00

At the lake camp, Christmas Day brought little cheer, little to celebrate.

Just how much each of the families huddled there felt the bitter irony of spending Christmas in such miserable circumstances depended to some extent on where they and their forebears were from. Christmas as we know it was, in some senses, just being invented in America in the 1840s. Families that hailed originally from New England, as did Sarah’s family, might still have felt some sense of the strong disapproval with which their Yankee parents and grandparents and their Puritan ancestors had regarded any special treatment of the day. But by the end of the 1830s, the old severe views were beginning to slowly give way, even in New England. For the first time, meetinghouses were beginning to be decorated and ministers were beginning to preach sermons on Christmas themes. The thawing would take a long time, though. As late as 1869, schoolchildren in Boston could still be expelled for skipping school on Christmas Day.

But German and Irish immigrants were bringing different attitudes to the United States in the 1840s, slowly altering the American concept of Christmas and gradually popularizing not just the Christmas tree—which until then had been found only in German settlements in Pennsylvania—but also the traditions of gift giving, feasting, decorating homes, and celebrating Christmas services with something of the elaborateness and joyousness of the Catholic liturgy. In 1842 the first commercial Christmas cards were printed. When Charles Dickens, immensely popular in America, published A Christmas Carol in 1843, it infused the American imagination with the revival of English traditions then under way in Victorian England, traditions like celebrating the day with roasted fowl, plum puddings, and the singing of carols.

By the mid-1840s, well-to-do families, particularly in New York and in the South, had begun to observe Christmas on a fairly elaborate scale. Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s home overlooking the Potomac in Virginia, was decorated with holly, ivy, and mistletoe. Gifts were given to family members and the household staff. A Yule log was set ablaze in one of the fireplaces, and the family attended special Christmas services at a nearby Episcopal church. On that particular Christmas Day in 1846, as the Donner Party huddled in the Sierra Nevada, Lee himself was fighting the Mexicans and living in a tent in Mexico. But a letter he wrote home to his family that day gives a sense of what Christmas at the Lee household was like.


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