Notes from the Curator – Joys of the Season | December 2022
Joys of the Season
Pam Miner, Vice President of Collections,
Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage
Source: Van Buren, Martin. Martin Van Buren Papers Series: 2 General Correspondence -1868; -1840, 1840, Oct. 9- Dec. 31, October 9, 1840, 1840.
Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from Library of Congress.
December 26, 1840
Me & all my household [sic] greet you with the joys of the season and with a long & useful life & a happy immortality.
This sentiment begins correspondence to then President Martin Van Buren from his predecessor Andrew Jackson. The subject of the letter is Jackson thanking Van Buren for a copy of his annual message to Congress. Jackson responds, “it is an able document…,” along with other thoughts about the forthcoming legislative session in Washington, D.C. Typically, the letter would have started with the polite “thank you.” However, writing on December 26, Jackson firstly acknowledges the present season.
Joys of the season continue at The Hermitage as the Andrew Jackson Foundation shares more than 200 years of Christmas at the site. While touring, you will experience a special holiday spirit. Festivities at Jackson’s cherished retreat are illuminated with decorations and stories transporting you to a past era.
For centuries, people have engaged in celebrations dotted throughout the year. Flowing into the fall, harvest was completed, and folks prepared for winter. They brought natural elements into their home to keep and encourage light and the colorful offerings of spring and summer to return after months of short, dark, often cold days. Feasts, festivals and remembrances created positive experiences, as well as to potentially ward off negative ones. St. Nicolas Day, Christmas, New Year’s and Twelfth Night endure as sources of wintertime celebrations from long ago.
Christmas observances began to expand, along with many other lifeways, throughout the early 1800s. Church-based and public-oriented activities became more inclusive of Christ and commercialization. Tennessee deemed it a legal holiday in 1889. As today, the event was marked on calendars, and anticipations flowed a plenty. Unlike today, simpler trimmings, practical gifts and community parties were customary.
By 1845, Jackson’s family living in the mansion included his son, daughter-in-law and their three children, along with Sarah’s widowed sister Marion and her three children. Many kin resided in the neighborhood. Some 150 enslaved lived at The Hermitage. This large community was exemplary in their recognition and celebration of the occasion.
Hermitage Mansion’s Holiday Spirit
The Hermitage mansion and grounds are mostly dressed for the holidays to represent the 1821-1845 timeframe that Andrew Jackson and family occupied this home. Materials include what they could gather from the grounds and gardens or arrived with the treasured annual cache of goods from New Orleans.
Still prevalent during this transformative period was using evergreens, cedar, pine, magnolia, boxwood, holly, acorns, seed pods, dried flowers and, if a mild winter, fresh blooms from a hearty rose. These natural elements were merely draped or hung, perhaps made into swags, sprigs, sprays or mistletoe (kissing) balls, as well as placed into vases and bowls. Extra candles or yule logs were burned. Each were symbolic of gestures such as long-lasting life, bearing fruit in unlikely times, light, warmth and renewal.
Mansion Front Parlor mantle decorated with holly, mistletoe and pinecones.
The Christmas tree centerpiece elaborately trimmed is a relatively new addition to the ornamental tradition. The term “German tree” first appeared in an American-published dictionary in 1828. Originally small or sections of evergreens brought inside remained unadorned. When more modern times flourished, items were added as homemade ornaments, candles, strands of cranberries or larger pieces of oranges or apples, as well as molded sugar animals, cookies, candies and small gifts.
(Left) A young “Little Rachel” at the period she spent Christmases with her grandfather, Andrew Jackson.
(Right) Typical sweets the Jackson family enjoyed on Christmas Day.
“Little” Rachel Jackson Lawrence, Jackson’s granddaughter, relates in an interview with Will Allen Dromgoole of the Nashville Banner, Christmas at the Hermitage, Dec. 1907, that everyone was treated to a wonderful dinner, including ham, mutton, beef, pig, chicken or other lighter meats, biscuits, vegetables and sides “too many to mention-would have run a church bazaar of to-day for a week,” eggnog and a black and white or fruit cake.
Besides the afternoon “dinner” fare, Rachel recalls also receiving gifts of candies and oranges in the family members’ stockings hung on a green sofa in the “General’s room.” Other gifts mentioned over the years include firecrackers, pocketknife, clothing, pincushion, extra money or many like goods advertised in a Nashville newspaper: books, toys, jewelry, watches, silverware and perfume.
Rachel shares that the family breakfast would end by the call of Christmas music playing by the enslaved household on the front veranda. Music and dancing were enjoyed by all. Gifts to the enslaved included cakes, cider, Madeira wine, aprons, socks and other “useful remembrances.” Thoughtfully she notes, “Gen. Jackson always stood over against the right-hand pillar of the veranda, leaning on his stick.
On Christmas morning, the Jackson family was called to the veranda by the enslaved playing music. All gathered to celebrate the holiday.
Source: Winter holydays in the Southern States. Plantation frolic on Christmas eve. [New York: Frank Leslie] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
Following time with the Hermitage household, Rachel reports the enslaved went to spend the day “as they chose around their own fireside.” Friends and family, young and old, then called upon the Jacksons late into the evening. Music was provided by perhaps Old Squire strumming a fiddle, Sam Coban jangling the tambourine or Sarah’s sister Marion Adams playing the piano. Dancing commenced.
Jackson relates a glimpse of how he and (wife) Rachel spent the season while serving as Tennessee’s U.S. Senator in Washington D.C. A letter to General John Coffee on December 27, 1824, states, “We have been in constant bustle since our arrival & will be so for & during the Holidays, although Mrs. J. & myself goes to no parties…, the young at parties & Mrs. J & myself at home smoking our pipe.”
Festive Parties were customary during the early 1800s.
Source: Sheppard, William Ludwell, Artist. Christmas in the South – egg-nog party / drawn by W.L. Sheppard. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
Andrew and his wife only spent a few more holidays together. Rachel unexpectedly passed away on December 22, 1828. She was laid to rest in her cherished garden on Christmas Eve, December 24th. Granddaughter Rachel lovingly recalls in the Droomgoole interview, “the spirit of Christmas left the Hermitage with her, …(Jackson) put aside his own sad memories to make a season a glad one for us.”
We continue to ensure to make a season a glad one for you here at The Hermitage. May you be inspired to decorate simpler, give useful gifts and throw a neighborhood party. As you approach the mansion on a visit this holiday season, envision General Jackson welcoming guests by a pillar, leaning on his stick with his beloved Rachel nearby, laid to rest in her garden.
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