When I found out my writer friend, Diane Andersen, had written about historic Illinois Christmas traditions, I invited her to write something for my December blog, and she graciously accepted.
By way of introduction, although exploration and fur trading was taking place in Illinois as long ago as the 1600s, the earliest permanent European settlements were downstate since the earliest settlers came from eastern states by way of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers after the Revolutionary War. The northern part of Illinois was not open for settlement until the 1830s.
The Stephenson House, the home of one of the earliest Illinois settlers, is located in Edwardsville, Illinois, about twenty-five miles northeast of St. Louis. Diane is affiliated with the historical home. She has recently published a book about early Illinois traditions and she has written a novel that is due to be published this spring.
Have Yourself an Early Illinois Christmas!
by D. L. Andersen
An “old fashioned” Christmas brings to mind all sorts of images from stockings hung by the fire to holly and mistletoe and perhaps wandering into the woods to chop down the perfect pine tree for the parlor. Its roast goose and plum pudding and wassail toasted among wandering carolers. Those are the things I imagined and longed to experience after reading stories of Christmas past from Dickens’ chilling tales to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s cozy log cabin Christmases . It’s a wonderful time for me to share all the history and lore of those early American Yuletides and revel in experiencing a truly old fashioned Christmas as if actually time traveling into the past.
The 1820 Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House, a historic site in Southern Illinois, holds a Christmas Candlelight tour every Thanksgiving Weekend. We have gone to painstaking detail to interpret just what an early American Christmas in Illinois might have been like. Here are just a few of the traditions visitors will learn about and interact with as they wander through our nearly 200 year old site, enjoying a Merry Christmas together:
Decorations: You won’t find a Christmas tree at the Stephenson House. It’s the first thing most visitors wonder about. However, Christmas trees did not become popular in America until around the time of the Civil War. You might find a few families decorating a small tree, as seen in a few paintings from the early 1800s, but it was not the quintessential part of everyone’s holiday décor. Rather at most they might hang a few pine boughs, holly or ivy and mistletoe, as some old poems and carols describe. At the Stephenson House we have copied exact decorations from period woodcuts and lithographs showing a small sprig of holly in every windowpane. Each sprig is mounted with a small dab of beeswax—a natural adhesive that would have been readily available. Other decorations in the house include an apple cone and red ribbons strewn over tables and linens. Early Americans would have used what they had on hand, collecting greenery from the woods and gardens or hand making ornaments. They likely would not have decorated much unless they were entertaining guests and the decorations would only have lasted for a few days, not an entire month as is common now. Candles would have been a necessary light source used on a daily basis rather than just for a cozy glow for the holidays. Yet when the house is all done up and the candles are lit, it feels very festive and full of that old fashioned flavor worthy of a Thomas Kincaid painting, something Laura Ingalls or Charles Dickens might feel right at home in.
Carols: In the parlor of the Stephenson House is an antique pianoforte where carols are played during the Candlelight Event and visitors are invited to sing along. We bend the historical rules a bit there and allow standard favorites to be sung like Jingle Bells and White Christmas. However, our early American ancestors and the Stephenson family who once lived in the house would not recognize these carols. Yet most of the carols popular in the early 1800s would hardly be recognized today. Oh Come All Ye Faithful is one carol that has stood the test of time and would be well known by our American ancestors as well. But songs like Down in Yon Forest would more likely be heard in the homes of early Illinois as might also Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella or In Praise of Christmas. Christmas Cuisine: Anyone who’s read Dickens A Christmas Carol remembers the scene of the Cratchet family eating dinner and glorying over the roast goose and plum pudding. These indeed were popular dishes of the 1800s and are still with us today. In learning to interpret an authentic early American Christmas, I was most surprised to find many of our holiday treats have not changed much over the years, in spite of having so many other modern options to take their place. Plum pudding, a steamed concoction of bread crumbs, dried fruits, suet (beef fat), eggs and sugar is not as tasty to some as Dickens makes it sound. Sugar plums are not all that bad though, surprisingly made of sugar coated dates stuffed with a mixture of chocolate and ground nuts. It’s most surprising of all to know that neither sweet treat is made with plums in spite of the name. Other treats of the era that we have on display are gingerbread and shortbread as well as wassail, spiced apple cider usually spiked with rum or whiskey. According to a tradition dating back to Medieval Times, wassail was served in a bowl carried from house to house by carolers. The occupants of the house were given a piece of toast to dip into the bowl, hence the beginnings of our word “toast” in sharing a drink and offering a salute or a good word between friends.
These and more traditions and the older Christmas carols were woven into my latest story, Ben’s Christmas Treasury. It is reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Story and Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, based on the life and times of Benjamin Stephenson, a founding father of Illinois. For more information on the historic site visit their website: www.stephensonhouse.org.
Thank you, Pat, for allowing me to share one of my favorite topics with your readers.