A Good Old Fashioned Christmas

H.C. Frisbee, other early Fredonians, and the evolution of Christmas celebrations

by Douglas Shepard
Barker Historical Newsletter
Winter 1996

If there's one complaint we all heard just last year, it is that Christmas has become too commercial. We are bombarded from just after -- sometimes before -- Thanksgiving with newspaper ads, TV and radio commercials, decorated malls, and pre-pre-Christmas sales. "If only we could go back and just have a good old-fashioned Christmas", we say. Which got us to wondering, what exactly was Christmas like in the old days?

The old days, for our community, begin in 1802/3 with the arrival of Thomas McClintock and, for the oldest among us, run perhaps to 1900. To find out how Christmas was celebrated and recorded "in the beginning", we turned to back issues of our local newspapers, the Chautauqua Gazette, beginning in 1817, and the Fredonia Censor in 1821.

We checked the December issues of those weekly papers. (The Gazette exists only in random numbers; but the Censor is virtually complete.) What we found was, in a word, nothing -- no mention of Christmas, Santa Claus, trees, lights, or even sales. December after December we searched, with no results until, finally, in the Censor of 11 December, 1833, we hit what, if we were being very charitable (because of the season) we might call "paydirt".

It was a small advertisement by the publisher and bookstore owner H.C. Frisbee, headed "Christmas & New Year Gifts":

Comprising the following interesting works, for sale at the subscriber's bookstore, viz.

The Pearl, or Affection's Gift, for 1834, with 8 elegant Engravings.
Youth's Keepsake, a present for both sexes.
The Little Girl's Own Book.
The Young Lady's Own Book.
The Young Man's Own Book.
The Young Lady's Sunday Book.
Humorist's Own Book.
Singer's Own Book, and a great many others, pretty and cheap.

Call and see.

The absence of the Young Man's Sunday Book is suggestive, but we refuse to speculate.

For the doom-sayers among us, it may be some comfort to learn that the first public acknowledgment of Christmas in Fredonia was a commercial advertisement. On the other hand, it was a very little advertisement. And, in fact, it may not have been too effective, since it was not repeated for seven years. Late in December 1840, Frisbee tried again with:

Christmas! Old Santa Claus can find some fine things in his line at the Fredonia Bookstore, that would add much to his popularity with all good boys and girls.

Eight years later came a "Hurrah for the Holidays" advertisement from the Boston Boot and Shoe Store, but at least, on the front page, was the first Christmas-related story to appear in the Censor. [It was the custom, then, to have pieces of fiction and poetry on the front page and old advertisements and legal notices on the back, permitting that part of the weekly paper to be made up ahead of time, and only the mid-section needing to be set in type at the last minute.]

The Christmas story was called "Christmas Presents. A Story for the Holidays," by T.S. Arthur, better known for "Ten Nights in a Bar-room" and other uplifting tales. The lesson of this story can be summed up in a statement by Lizzie Green, sister to Jane and cousin to Margaret. The tale opens with Margaret asking her cousin if Lizzie's fiance, Edward, had given her any presents at all. Margaret herself had already received many gifts, she announced. To which Lizzie responded, "in a quiet voice" "You have been quite fortunate." It turns out that noble Edward spent his money buying necessities for a poor, widowed washerwoman, who was unable to work to support her two young children. So Edward had had the true Christmas spirit after all.

We can see that although the Censor may not have taken much notice of the holiday, it had already become too commercial for some people even then, almost 150 years ago.

In 1849 fifteen of the major businesses in the Village announced that they had agreed to close on Christmas and New Year's day "in order that those days may be observed in the 'good old style.'" What was that "style" and why was there so little about it in the public press?

As to the "style", we get a little insight from an item in the Censor of 29th December, 1858:

Christmas eve furnished occasion for a great amount of cheerful festivity and innocent amusement in social gatherings. The young folks of our village especially had a merry time in the reception of the bounties dispensed by the jolly patron saint 'Santa Claus.'

The children of the Presbyterian denomination, together with their parents and young people, assembled at the dwelling of Rev. Mr. Wright, where they had a very pleasant and happy time, and each one was enabled to carry away a substantial memento in the shape of one or more Christmas gifts. 'Santa Claus' did not confine his generosity to the little folks, for we understand that the pastor came in for a gift in cash to the amount of $22. Mr. D.J. Pratt, Principal of the Academy, and Superintendent of the Sabbath School, was likewise the recipient of an elegant silver server, with his name engraved upon its center. It was presented by the Sabbath School teachers.

The Children of the Baptist Society were entertained at the house of Mr. Guild, the place of assembly having been changed from the house of Rev. Mr. Wheelock, in consequence of intelligence received by Mrs. W. of the decease of her mother. The gathering of the children was large at the former place, and happiness prevailed.

The day was celebrated in a small way, focusing on the children, and very much related to their churches. But notice the odd mixture of the jolly patron saint, Santa Claus, bringing gifts to the children while they were gathered at the home of their minister.

Why was this? Far a detailed explanation, we would recommend "The Christmas Holidays of 1862" by Miss Elizabeth Crocker, originally in the Censor of 1862 and reprinted in her Yesterdays, Volume 4. Comparing the holidays of 1862 with 1962, Miss Crocker points out how the origins of Fredonia's residents influenced their attitudes. We might say, the Puritans saw Christmas celebrations as too reminiscent of the Church of England from which they had separated. As they read it, the Bible set aside only one day for rest. If Christmas did not fall on the Sabbath, it should be a work day, and New Englanders long held to those attitudes, even while the Dutch were introducing St. Nicholas (Sinterklass) to New Amsterdam and the Germans the Christmas tree into Pennsylvania.

The earliest settlers in Fredonia were nothing if not New Englanders or direct descendants, and they brought with them some of those old attitudes. So when did the Christmas we know, the old fashioned Charles Dickens kind, first appear? Well, certainly not in the 1820s and 30s where we began searching. After all, Dickens was only twenty-one when Frisbee first had his advertisement in the Censor in 1833. A Christmas Carol was published ten years later, just in time for Christmas 1843, and it took a while for the Dickens version to develop as the standard in our Village, as elsewhere in the country.

Remember, too, that the first Christmas cards only began to appear in 1846. The Christmas tree (the German Christmas tree as it was first called), was popularized by a piece written by Harriet Martineau about one set up at Harvard by a German professor there. That account, first written in 1838, gradually caused the family Christmas tree to appear everywhere. From the 1860s through the 1880s, the cartoonist Thomas Nast drew Santa Claus, developing Moore's 1822 St. Nicholas into the Santa we know today. And all of this was capped off by the "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" editorial of 1897.

Now when we look back at the early record, we can understand why the familiar trappings of the Christmas we know, and sometimes complain about, do not appear in the Censor. Despite that, we do know that Christmas festivities did take place, but not as public events. Our readers may well recall our newsletter of 1994 describing the festivities at Dr. Squire White's home around 1840. There were games and stories, good food and drink. It was a time for families and friends to gather, laugh a lot and, perhaps, cry a little, and share, in quiet contentment, as Squire White's daughter, Ellen, said the "early ways and customs" of the "good old-fashioned times." Underneath the superficial trappings, hopefully, not really that different after all from Christmas in your home.