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History in the Hills: A look Christmases past

Christmas this year may be different for a lot of us. The parties, big dinners and mountains of gifts may just have to wait until next year.

Despite all the limitations of this year, however, it doesn’t mean that Christmas should be any less special or magical to us. It seems to many that nowadays the holiday season starts earlier, has become over commercialized and over taxes the finances. And that all may be true, but only if you let it be so.

Historically speaking, Christmas celebrations in the past were much simpler in material goods, but the spirit of Christmas was very much alive. This year Christmas may just be truer to our roots.

It is often asked of me around this time of year what Christmas at Historic Fort Steuben was like for members of the First American Regiment who were stationed here in 1786. We know that in December of that year there were frigid temperatures and snow, lots of it. The fort was well supplied with whiskey, turkey, venison, bear, raccoon and panther that holiday. Probably the occasion was not marked other than a little extra ration for the day. The business of just surviving in the remote outpost was first and foremost in the minds of the soldiers stationed here. That Christmas was the first on record in Steubenville.

Christmas in Steubenville in 1830 was more of a festive affair compared to the one at the fort 44 years earlier. According to an article published in the Steubenville Evening Star in 1890 about Christmas 60 years previous, the festivities were different but full of cheer.

Christmas gifts were exchanged, but most presents to children were a “cake, a penny, a sixpence, or some sweetmeat.” The children would fire muskets and makeshift cannons in the air in celebration of the holiday so much so that “the very air was redolent with the smell of burnt powder.”

Most men did not work and generally stayed with their families and friends. The Christmas meal was not just turkey, but also deer, bear and other game. Most of the holiday celebrations for the working-class folk were held at the hotels or taverns in the city. Here they would have a strong drink, play a game of shinny (a hockey like game) or engage in a shooting match. According to the article, the best sport of the day was catching a greased pig. A razor-back pig was shaved and greased and whoever caught it got to keep it.

For the “nobility” of Steubenville, Christmas meant sleigh rides to a neighboring town’s tavern or hotel for a festive holiday evening. Excursions went out to Wellsburg, Brilliant or to the Forks for an evening of fun. Revelers riding in a sleigh holding eight to 12 people would arrive to a lavish supper and a punch bowl filled with a hot toddy that took the chill off. Then the festivities began. They would dance the Virginia Reel and other dances popular in those days to the music of a single violin. No visits by our jolly old friend were mentioned.

It’s argued by historians that our particular image of Santa comes from the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” also known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The author, Clement Moore, published the work in 1823 in a Troy, N.Y., newspaper. The earliest account I can find in our area of the publication of the poem was in the Wheeling Daily Times on Jan. 4, 1843. The poem was changed from expecting Santa on Christmas to New Year’s Eve in that publication. Another Christmas classic that was known in our area was Charles Dickens’ short story, “A Christmas Carol,” published in 1843. By 1844, there are advertisements from various booksellers in our region that advertised the story.

In the 1860s, during the height of the Civil War, Christmas went on as it always had in Steubenville. And although the Christmas tree was not unknown in these parts at that time, most decorations we just simply described as evergreens. During the Christmas of 1863 Steubenville’s Ladies Soldiers Aid Society held a Christmas festival taking advantage of the “homemade” skills of the prominent members of Steubenville society. The evergreen decorated the hall and the ladies decorated tables with their craft. For the aid of the Union soldiers, the group raised more than $1,000, a large sum at that time. The following Christmas of 1864 brought a gift to the nation, as recorded in the Steubenville Weekly Herald. On Dec. 28 it was reported that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman presented the captured city of Savannah to the American people as a Christmas gift, including “800 rebel prisoners, 150 great guns, 130 locomotives and 190 cars, three steamers, several blown-up iron clads and 33,000 bales of cotton.” That was the last Christmas of the war.

In 1867 there exists a lovely description of Christmas in Steubenville encompassed in the Steubenville Weekly Herald. Shops were open on Christmas Eve to give shoppers an opportunity to get their last-minute gifts. “The interior of very many of the city residences were gratefully decorated with evergreens, and in many a home, children danced about the Christmas tree which Santa Claus had hung over with gifts for their especial delight.” It seems by this time in Steubenville, the Christmas tree had arrived for domestic use.

By June 1870, Christmas became a national holiday. And the Steubenville Weekly Herald summed it up. “No day in the year is so eagerly looked forward to by all classes and conditions of people. So far from its commemoration becoming less marked as the years roll on, each succeeding recurrence of the feast seems to be still more generally observed than the last, and from all indications to-day will form no exception to the rule.” Christmas seemed to them to grow with each passing year.

Looking back, it seems that Christmas past was a time of simple gifts, decorations and family. This year, despite the pandemic and the troubles of the world, Christmas still comes. The promises and hope that our ancestors celebrated are still true today. A simple Christmas is not so bad. Let us reflect on our past and hope for the future.

(Zuros is director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben and the Steubenville Visitors Center.)

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