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 dont 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 dont 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
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.