Historians explain how 100-year-old traditions are still a part of seasonal celebrations

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published December 18, 2013

 In the early part of the 20th century, Christmas cards were often used to decorate Christmas trees.

In the early part of the 20th century, Christmas cards were often used to decorate Christmas trees.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki

The items on our Christmas list tend to change from year to year. Toys become cooler, gadgets become more high-tech and the whole lot of it will likely become more expensive.

But the festive traditions our families embrace each holiday season seem to be the only things we don’t mind letting stay the same. And, in fact, many Christmas traditions in this country have remained largely unchanged for a century.

Just ask Jim Johnson, senior manager of creative programming at The Henry Ford. Johnson helps to plan Greenfield Village’s Holiday Nights program every year, where visitors can tour the grounds of the historical village in Dearborn after hours and learn more about what Christmas was like generations ago.

Johnson said one common misconception people have about the Christmas holiday is that it’s always been a family-centric celebration. Not so.

“The Civil War did a lot to bring Christmas home. Past the 1860s, it really becomes a holiday that is celebrated in the home and geared more so towards children,” he explained. “Prior to that, it was very different. It was celebrated much like New Year’s Eve is today, by getting drunk and making noise in the streets. Instead of shopping for presents, it was all about getting your hands on gunpowder to make things explode.”

Johnson went on to explain the English tradition of mummers, or rather, the original Christmas carolers. People, mostly young men, would walk about the neighborhood in wild costumes singing songs, acting out pantomimes and asking for food. Sometimes, they might even damage property or become obnoxious.

Fast forward a bit, and you arrive at 1913. Believe it or not, Johnson said, Christmas 100 years ago wasn’t celebrated that much differently than we do today — just on a smaller scale.

“In 1913, the Christmas tree had really gained popularity, and a larger percentage of American households would’ve had their own Christmas tree. Before that, Christmas trees were more something to be seen in public places, like stores or churches or town hall,” he said.

He went on to say that many Christmas traditions, naturally, have European origins. The Christmas tree is one, and another is the décor that adorned those trees, like miniature glass-blown ornaments. In fact, the German man who invented those popular ornaments imported millions of them to the U.S. and made a good deal of money. It was about that time, Johnson said, that retailers really jumped on the bandwagon and began to commercialize the holiday.

“Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping and a different variety of magazine really focused on the holiday for gift giving, gift making and how to decorate the table,” he said.

It was about 100 years ago that Christmas cards became all the rage, as well. Melodie Nichols is the curator of the Clawson Historical Museum, and this time each year, she decorates the historic Clawson home for Christmas as it would’ve looked in the year 1919, when the house on Fisher Court was built.

Among those decorations are paper vignettes of Christmas villages — a tradition upheld today by many Department 56 collectors — and Christmas cards, which would be displayed around the house or used as ornaments to decorate the tree.

A large focus of the celebration, she added, was the food. Much like today, a decadent Christmas feast was something to look forward to each year, with all the trimmings. Believe it or not, a real treat would be to have fresh fruit or vegetables at your table on Christmas, she said, and even children looked forward to the healthy luxury.

“Fresh fruit and vegetables were hard to get in the ’20s. Refrigeration hasn’t really been developed yet, or refrigerated trucks. And oranges aren’t grown in Michigan. To ship fruit was very expensive, because it probably wouldn’t make it. It would rot before it arrived. So, especially in the winter months, you wouldn’t be getting fresh produce,” she said. “The meal was a lot of canned items and root vegetables.”

Retailers today would have you believe that the holiday season is about impressing with elaborate gifts. Nichols also explained that while children had fewer possessions than kids in the new millennium, it was still common to open up toys from Santa Claus on Christmas morning.

“Dolls were very popular,” said Nichols. “There was a huge selection of toys at that time. Paper dolls, games, Lincoln logs, building blocks, stuffed animals. But they might only get one or two toys.”