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Home for the Holidays

- Aaron Marcavitch, Yesterday's Island, 2004

I think the fantastic part of the holidays, especially Christmas, is focus on "home" and its cultural connotations. If you have the kind of home with a big old fireplace, maybe some exposed wood beams, some frosty windows, then you may already know about how strongly the connection between home and holidays can be felt. However, if you are missing the decorations, the food, and the laughter, you don’t have the cultural connections and you just have an old house.
Why do we dream of being home, or having a home, for the holidays? If you will allow me to delve a bit into the history and customs of the holidays - particularly Christmas, with its rich cultural connection to home - I think we can find an interesting link between home and holiday customs. This means I will not be as focused on historic preservation or architecture but instead focus on the importance of "home for the holidays."

Christmas is largely a Victorian invention that we in the twentieth century have taken as our own. Victorians tended to be interested in old things - as long as they reinvented them; newer, better, and, occasionally, flasher. Charles Dickens, a Victorian, practically invented Christmas with "A Christmas Carol," a morality tale about being greedy and not having family in a quickly changing England, written with all the flash and glitz Dickens could muster. Thomas Nash, an American Victorian cartoonist, drew Santa Claus with more joviality than had been seen in any other version of St. Nick.

It was the Victorian home, through, (think Tiny Tim by the fire) that played a central role in their lives. Without the family around the table, they could become as stingy as Scrooge. Victorians brought the world the Christmas tree. An English website (http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/England-History/VictorianChristmas.htm) writes that "Queen Victoria's German husband Prince Albert helped to make the Christmas tree as popular in Britain as they where in his native Germany, when he brought one to Windsor Castle in the 1840's." Our very own twinkling Christmas Tree is only 160 years in the making. At least we improved it by introducing spray-on snow and rotating tree stands. . Of course, it was the Victorian design ethic that led us to have those exposed beams painted black and whitewashed walls that we extol as "authentic." Our modern image of Christmas is due in large part to the Victorians.

If Victorian Christmas is how we arrived in modern holiday habits, then perhaps we should look further backwards in history for the bedrock of our American holidays. Examining Colonial Christmas customs, we can find some of early examples of how our modern Christmas was born. The Christmas celebration centered on the hearth and fire, where family exchanged handmade trinkets before returning to the daily work necessary to run a farm. Christmas was a day celebrating the beginning of the winter (before it became too cold). Surprisingly though on thing that Colonial Christmas was not was a time for children.
One great source of information on early Christmas traditions is Colonial Williamsburg. (Williamsburg is in Virginia, but many of Colonial patterns were similar to New England when it came to the larger societal customs.) On their website (http://www.history.org/Almanack/life/xmas/customs.cfm), Williamsburg's historians note that Christmas was not meant for kids "and the youngsters were cordially not invited to attend." It wasn't until after the Colonial period that the "emphasis on Christmas as a magical time for children came about...We must thank the Dutch and Germans in particular for centering Christmas in the home and within the family circle."

Gifts were exchanged, "but New Year's was as likely a time as December 25 for bestowing gifts." Perhaps this is why we still exchange small gifts, hugs, and well wishes on New Years. "Cash tips, little books, and sweets in small quantities were given by masters or parents to dependents, whether slaves, servants, apprentices, or children. It seems to have worked in only one direction: children and others did not give gifts to their superiors." I guess that is why fathers don’t seem to get anything better than a tie.

Colonial Williamsburg's historians also wrote about how we arrived at our modern eating traditions by way of an early agricultural society. "December was the right time for slaughtering, so fresh meat of all sorts they had, as well as some seafood. Preserving fruits and vegetables was problematic for a December holiday. Then as now, beef, goose, ham, and turkey counted as holiday favorites; some households also insisted on fish, oysters, mincemeat pies, and brandied peaches." Of course, as is common now, everyone enjoyed a bit of a nip on a cold winter night. "Wines, brandy, rum punches, and other alcoholic beverages went plentifully around the table on December 25 in well-to-do households. Others had less because they could afford less."

Lastly, the interesting part of the Colonial holiday period is that "the twelve days of Christmas lasted until January 6, also called Twelfth Day or Epiphany. Colonial Virginians thought Twelfth Night a good occasion for balls, parties, and weddings. There seems to have been no special notice of New Year's Eve in colonial days." In our hectic buildup to Christmas, we have to remember that it is the days after Christmas that are the most important days for religion.
Holiday decorating around the home was a hybrid of Colonial and Victorian customs. Colonial customs give us the wreath, the decorated windows, and the mistletoe. Victorians pushed it to the next level by lighting up trees and "decking the halls." Both of these societies though focus on the hearth as the focal point in the cold months of Christmas. It was a time to bring everyone together and have festivities - children or not.

Home, then, springs from customs and traditions, many of which were started by Victorians. However, the Colonial customs are most traditional and best loved. When we speak of returning to a simpler Christmas, we think of the Colonial Christmas. When we think of "home for the holidays," we think of customs and traditions of these two groups. Christmas is a holder of cultural memory in much stronger ways than any other modern custom.

Historic preservation has become as much about cultural preservation as it is about architectural preservation. During this holiday season, look at your customs and cultures. Figure out why you do what you do for the holidays. What is it that your heritage around the table? (Meat pies for my French-Canadian wife, as an example.) Take preservation with you wherever you go. It is not just about saving historic buildings; it is about saving traditional patterns and methods. The holidays may just be the best time to do just that.