A Gilded Age Christmas

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Photo Credit: Christmas card by Louis Prang, showing a group of anthropomorphized frogs parading with banner and band. Note the card has the makings of a work of art (see below for more details about Prang and his philosophy of Christmas cards). 19th century (no specific date), American Antiquarian Society. M2545/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100 

I love the holiday season and it’s fascinating to see how the traditions we know and love were shaped by history. I’ve done this post on Thanksgiving and this post about New Year’s here, I tackle Christmas, the holiday that comes at the mid-point of the holiday season.

Christmas in the 1890s was very much like Christmas in the 2020s in more ways than one. Love it or hate it, Christmas is big business aud the Gilded Age was when it all started (alibi on a much smaller scale than today). You might recall from my post here that the last quarter of the 19th century was filled with a passion for opulence, glamour, and progress (no wonder Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner christened this time “the gilded age” in their 1873 satire of the same name). There was nothing that couldn’t be packaged and sold to the American public, and Christmas was at the top of the list.

The tradition of Christmas tree decorations was brought over by German settlers in the 1830s, but the Gilded Age turned it into something much more elaborate. As you might recall, modesty was not in the vocabulary of the era. Gilded Agers loved sparkle and shine, and they weren’t afraid to make a profit from it. They turned the decorations of simple strings of popcorn and beads of the past decades into displays of lights, colored glass balls, and wax angels. Christmas tree ornaments became a big commercial enterprise during this time, replacing homemade ornaments.

The humble Christmas card also acquired a different meaning in the Gilded Age. Louis Prang, one of the most successful printers of this era, began producing Christmas cards with a dream in mind: to create mini lessons in fine art for people on a budget. He saw his cards as artistic achievements even the working class could afford. But this idea of democratizing fine art was not one Gilded Agers were yet willing to embrace. They were, however, happy to take the idea of the Christmas card and make it more illustrative and attractive to buyers. Prang’s idea of elevating Christmas cards to art fell by the wayside but it started a trend with other illustrators producing cheaper variations. However, as this article shows, they were still quite beautiful.

The gift-giving that now dominates today’s Christmas commercials on TV and online became big business in the Gilded Age. It was an opportunity to show one’s generosity with elaborate and expensive gifts. Wrapping presents was also a Gilded Age invention, as it fit in with the idea of garnish presentation that characterized the age. Plain white wrapping paper said something unpleasant about what the giver could afford, but elaborate wrapping paper told loved ones the gift came from the “right” places.

Photo Credit: Merry Old Santa Claus, Thomas Nast, 1 January 1881, Harper’s Weekly: Soerfm/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100)

We think of Santa as a jovial, white-bearded, and somewhat heavy-set man bestowing presents to “good” little boys and girls. In the 19th century, the Santa icon took on political and social implications. Santa was the glorified symbol of Capitalism with a capital “C”, an authoritative and somewhat mystical figure who held gifts aplenty — for those who deserved them, of course. The deserved ones were judged not by their goodness but by their political beliefs or their support of capital “C” Capitalism.

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