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Christmas in the 1870s

Posted by Megan Rohleder on Dec 16, 2021

A reminiscence of Harriet E. Adams, sister of Zu Adams, written June 20, 1928. Harriet Adams is recalling a memorable Christmas from her childhood in Kansas in the 1870s. 

(The first page of her typed reminiscence.) 

The Christmas which made the first lasting impression upon my mind, I think, must have been the one following my seventh burthday. Just why those preceding it have left no lasting memory, I can not guess, unless it was that I had reached the age when reason began to take the place of unquestioning faith, and imagination to stir gently.

I remember so distinctly the air of expectancy, and secrecy which invaded the household. Sister Zu was quite active in fostering the spirit. She was an able entertainer, and furnished the stimulation necessary to make the approach of Christmas a very exciting event.

(Zu Adams, 1890s)

Among our books was a volume of selected poems, some of which were illustrated. Zu often read to us from this, and before that Christmas this invaluable collection must have been consulted again and again, for between its covers, somewehere in the middle was a fascinating picture of a jolly, white bearded old man with a sleigh and reindeer and oh! the undescribable delight of that little group as Zu read, "T'was the night before Christmas, and all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse," Then too, the moon and the weather must have fitted in most perfectly to the description "The moon, on the breast of the new fallen snow, gave the luster of midnight, to objects below". For, after dark I would peep out of the window, or out of the door to consider anxiously whether all conditions were favorable, the glistening expanse of snow deep enough to support that wondrous reindeer drawn sleigh.

(The Adams children as adults: Harriet is seated in the middle, Zu is seated on the right.) 

Then as Christmas Eve approached, I was filled with anxious questioning as to how St. Nick could get into our house, to fill our waiting stockings. There was no chimney down which he could slide safely, in fact I finally decided that it was an absolute impossibility for him to get into the house through any chimney it possessed. My concern on this matter finally reached such a pitch that I took it up with Mother. I told her my fears, and she said he would most certainly be able to leave his gifts, for when no large chimney was provided, the parents would leave the door open a crack at least, so he could push his way in with no difficulty whatsoever. This was a most reasonable solution of the difficulty, and I was fully satisfied, and later events proved that my faith in her explanation was justified.

No Christmas is ever quite complete without a tree and candles, and we little folk saw all the preparation of the tree. We were living but a short distance from the Little Blue River, and on the bluff nearest our home, was a scattering growth of cedars. Father took us with him as he carried an axe and selected the tree, which he cut and big brother helped carry it home. Then Father set it up securely in the center of the living room, and found piece of tin and made the candle holders, and fastened them to the tree. When that much was accomplished, it was time for the little folk to get to bed, for under no consideration would it be good form for any of the children to be awake when Santa should arrive.

(A christmas tree candleholder from the 1870s) 

Christmas morning we were awake early, but it was an inviolate rule that the tree could not be seen until after breakfast was eaten. So we hurried through a perfunctory meal, then lined up outside the living room door, the least child ready to lead the grand march, while Father and mother went in to remove the sheet with which it has been necessary to cover the tree to protect it from prying eyes, and to light the candles. When the door was opened we marched in and clear around the tree, taking in the beauty of the lighted candles, and the tree festooned with strings of cranberries and popcorn and gay colored ribbons, while we looked for the gifts hidden in the branches and protruding from our stockings. Then there was the most delightful odor of scorching cedar, and Father would keep walking around and around the tree smothering every smoking stem and keeping the candles burning safely, while he and Mother distributed the gifts which Santa Claus had brought.

(A decorated tree from the 1870s) 

I was blissfully happy, and I am sure my little brother George was too, for he was always a happy contented child. There was nothing lacking to make it a perfect Christmas. I have long since forgotten what toys that magic tree bore, except one thing, and that was a Noah's Ark. To this day when Christmas shopping and I see a Noah's Ark among the other toys, I can picture two small children, a little girl and a smaller, sturdy little boy, side by side as they arranged twigs from the Christmas Cedar into rows or groups of trees and placed amongst them the animals which Noah had saved from extinction.

In children the sense of comparative values is largely undeveloped, and I doubt very much if children of the present day, with the profusion of toys now attainable, derive any more joy from the expensive array than did we, with the less expensive and simpler ones which Santa Claus gave us. At any rate, the happiness of that Christmas was never excelled in any later one.


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