Hermitage Holiday Traditions
Christmas and New Year’s: The Celebration of the Holiday Season in the Mid-1800s
If you visit Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage today, you will see holiday decorations in the mansion similar to what the Jacksons would have displayed during their time there, but what was going on behind the decor? What holiday traditions were celebrated by the Jacksons and the enslaved community? Just like the holiday decor, Christmas traditions during the 1800s did not consist of “white elephant” games or opening presents Christmas morning. Most of our cherished traditions had not yet arrived in America. The Jacksons did celebrate Christmas, but their customs differed from those we love today. Although Andrew Jackson wished friends the “joys of the season,” he also conducted a great deal of business on Christmas Day. The Jackson grandchildren, who faithfully hung their stockings in expectation of candy and oranges, also shot off firecrackers to celebrate the season.
Rachel Jackson Lawrence, the President’s granddaughter, and Mary E. Donelson Wilcox, Andrew Jackson Donelson’s daughter, late in their lives recalled festivities at The Hermitage and at the White House during the 1830s. They both mentioned presents for children, festive parties and the obligation to look out for those less fortunate, such as orphans and slaves. What is missing from these tales, though, is mentions of holiday decorations, including Christmas trees.
Although Santa did not take on his complete traditional appearance until the cartoons of Thomas Nast in nearly 30 years later, both women remember Santa Claus as the bringer of gifts to children. They also recalled slaves turning the tables on their white masters and shouting “Christmas gift” as a greeting and demand for a special treat. Although Santa was not specifically mentioned in family letters, Rachel did ask her brother Samuel in 1848 if he was going to hang up his stocking so that Kris Kringle, or Santa Claus, could fill good children’s stockings.
The 1830s and 1840s seem to have been a transitional time in the traditions of Christmas. Every family may have decided which day, Christmas or New Year’s, that they would celebrate and may not have celebrated both. Or they may have celebrated continuously during this period. In Little Rachel’s (Andrew Jackson’s granddaughter) reminiscences, she implied that General Jackson did not believe in coddling children from the realities of life very much, a stern Calvinist viewpoint that undoubtedly governed much of his attitude toward the holidays. Andrew Jackson did hold large New Year’s receptions at the White House, and in 1833, he complained to Sarah Yorke, his daughter-in-law, of being kept three hours on his feet. In the same letter, he also sent Sarah a New Year’s gift, an unidentified document that had just been presented to him. The lack of a physical present may have been more the result of the difficulty in shipping packages than it was the lack of a desire to present a gift since Jackson remarks that the document was the only thing he could send in the mail. Two years earlier, on New Year’s Day, Andrew Jackson Donelson wrote to his wife Emily of the “usual crowd of well wishers and bad wishers of both sexes and all parties,” suggesting that the White House reception was as much a political event as it was a holiday celebration.
At the White House, Mary E. Donelson Wilcox also remembered the gifts from Santa Claus, the taking of presents to the local orphanage and a special children’s party that was held in 1835. For that party, the East Room of the White House was tastefully decorated with evergreens and flowering plants, as well as a mistletoe ball. The entertainment at the children’s party was a mock snowball fight complete with noisemakers in the cotton ball snowballs, a sedate re-enactment of the kind of rowdy Christmas behavior which was losing favor with many people at this time. On December 24 of that same year, an adult party attended by 300 people took place. A bill from the confectioner who supplied the White House shows tea cakes and cookies of all descriptions, ice cream, punch, pineapple water, lemonade, orangeade and prepared chocolate.
We know most of the information about this party from a booklet written by Andrew Jackson Donelson’s daughter many years after the fact. You can see it here: https://archive.org/details/christmasunderth01wilc.
Before the Civil War, Christmas at The Hermitage–and throughout most of the United States—was quite different from the picture we have of a homey Victorian Christmas. Parties, revelry, and noise making were holdovers from a time when Christmas was a relief from continual work and drudgery. After the Civil War, the customs of America’s many ethnic groups spread. Illustrated magazines encouraged the general adoption of many more family-oriented Christmas traditions, many of which we still celebrate today.