Deck the Halls: What Christmastime Looked Like in the Jacksonian Era
It’s that time of year to trim the tree and deck the halls, but has Christmas always included string lights and sentimental ornaments? Christmas during Andrew Jackson’s time looked a little different than current customs. Guests who visit The Hermitage today will see the mansion decorated as if Andrew Jackson still lived here.
Before the Civil War, Christmas was celebrated in a subdued manner in some places, and in others, the revelry resembled more of our modern celebrations of New Year’s Eve or Mardi Gras. But in the very early nineteenth century, most residents of the New England states treated Christmas as any other day, with little remark being made about it.
It was not until the 1860s that Christmas and its surrounding traditions would gain recognition that spread through the States and even began to transcend religious lines. It was about this time that some denominations (such as Puritans and Presbyterians) who previously denounced Christmas would begin recognizing the holiday. Town newspapers and some church records began mentioning celebrating the “Saviour’s birth” and preparing for a “Christmas jubilee,” comments that were unheard of just a few years prior. Another indicator of the holiday’s growing importance was the increasing list of states that set aside December 25 as a legal holiday. In 1837, Louisiana was the first to declare Christmas as a holiday, with Arkansas following a year later. By 1860, 14 states—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia—joined the list of states legally recognizing Christmas. By 1865, 31 states and territories officially recognized Christmas as a legal holiday. It was June 26, 1870 when the U.S. Congress officially declared Christmas a federal holiday.
Letters and other documents curators and historians at The Hermitage have reveal almost nothing of the way Christmas was celebrated by the Jacksons. Curiously, in the few letters Jackson wrote to his wife Rachel at Christmastime made no mention of the holiday at all. In his later years, he engaged in correspondence and conducted business as if it were any other day. A few letters do include his closing remarks to close family and friends of “joys of the season” or “happy new years.” One of the earliest mentions of Christmas-specific activities in a family letter is from 1830, when Mary Eastin, one of Rachel Jackson’s grand nieces, told of spending Christmas “soberly yet agreeably” being entertained with visits of many cousins and saying candy pullings were the “height of our enjoyment.” In an 1833 letter, Jackson told his daughter-in-law, Sarah, that he was “bereaved of the joys of Christmas” by the death of his wife three days before Christmas five years earlier.
The transitional quality of the Christmas celebrations of this period give very little clue about the kinds of decorations that would have been used in a home like the Hermitage mansion. The emphasis in all accounts on parties as the main form of celebration for both Christmas and New Year would suggest that any decorations were done for that particular event and would have been centralized in the party room for the day of the occasion and that “seasonal” decorations would not have a place. (They also would not have comprehended modern Americans holding Christmas parties beginning at the end of November — Christmas parties took place on Christmas!). Both trees and decorations seemed to be tied to public celebrations in churches and schools but not to residences. It is likely that home party decorations consisted of whatever greenery and flowers could be found on site at that time of year.
Although Andrew Jackson himself paid little attention to Christmas, his grandchildren and their generation did embrace Christmas and helped make it America’s most celebrated holiday.