A RICHLY decorated tree aglow with bright lights and shimmering store-bought ornaments stands in the corner of a living room. Wrapped gifts gather underneath it as stockings sway on the decorated mantle and mistletoe greets you at the door.
There’s probably a crackling fire (or a yule log on Netflix, at least) somewhere in the picture too.
These are the traditions that say “Christmas” to us in 2015. But where did they come from and how “traditional” are they really?
Telfair Museums’ Owens-Thomas House invites you to step inside this holiday season and explore the genesis of American Christmas traditions. The museum is offering their “Evolution of Christmas Traditions in America” tour through January 4, 2016.
The house, built in 1816 and lived in until it officially became a museum in 1954, is the perfect setting for an exploration of American Christmas ritual, which really only entered the zeitgeist in 1820. The tour examines holiday traditions through 1875.
“What we try to do is give people a sense, not of how Christmas was celebrated at a particular moment, but how it changed over time,” Shannon Browning-Mullis, Assistant Curator of History and Lead Interpreter at the Owens-Thomas House, told me when I went on the tour earlier this month.
So how different was a 19th century Savannah Christmas from a 2015 one?
That question begs another question: for whom? For much of the house’s history it was staffed by slaves. What would Christmas have been like for a Savannah slave?
If you guessed “not great”, you were right! If you were a plantation slave with a master whose heart was made of calcified manure, you may not have gotten a day off for Christmas at all.
According to Browning-Mullis, the average was three days of celebration during which slaves were given a break from fieldwork and allowed to eat and drink liquor at their leisure. It would’ve been the only time a year this was allowed.
However, if you were a slave at the Owens-Thomas House during Christmas you would’ve been busy preparing the house to entertain guests. At the time, celebrations centered around the New Year, the Winter Solstice, or Twelfth Night more so than Christmas.
In the 1820’s no one was really giving gifts in celebration (mass production of toys and other consumer goods wasn’t a thing yet), but a big feast was common.
What kind of Christmas did Owens-Thomas House slaves enjoy/endure? “It was the custom at Christmas for the family to prepare a large meal for their slaves and allow their slaves’ friends over for dinner,” Browning-Mullis told me.
There’s one problem, though—none of the slave-owners would’ve known how to cook. So this was either the worst meal of all time or the slaves cooked the meal earlier in the day and the slave-owners just served it up.
Yum! Nothing says Christmas like dinner with your racist oppressors.
Owens-Thomas House Interpreters don’t shy away from these less-than-flattering bits of history. In fact, a significant part of the tour is dedicated to the Christmas experience of slaves, a group on whose backs the city was built and whose narrative is too often erased from the history of American holiday rituals.
And make no mistake—Christmas traditions are performative rituals. Rituals which were, in many cases, invented very recently by writers and artists.
Santa Claus, for example, was brought into the American Christmas tradition by Washington Irving and the Knickerbockers, who claimed Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of New York when it was a Dutch colony.
“They thought America didn’t have enough tradition and ceremony,” Browning-Mullis says. “So they projected these things onto the holiday that didn’t exist. They invented traditions but almost convinced themselves it was really historic.”
If you take a moment during your tour to kiss under the entryway mistletoe, you can say a silent “thanks” to Irving as well—his description of it in an 1820 short story called “Christmas Eve” helped popularize the plant as a standard holiday decoration.
It took until the 1870’s for Christmas trees to regularly appear in Savannah homes, and they did so in response to the lightning quick commercialization of the holiday. Parents would decorate a table top tree with gifts for their children, homemade ornaments and candles; then it would be presented on Christmas with the candles lit like a birthday cake.
At the Owens-Thomas House, this has been re-created in the family dining room.
“Christmas—once it was finally being celebrated in America—was always a commercial holiday,” Browning-Mullis explained. “People want to think that there was this moment in America where it was all about family, but it really wasn’t. The holiday started being celebrated when people started advertising Christmas gifts. So Christmas trees were seen by some people as a way to de-commodify the holiday. Maybe you were buying mass produced gifts, but you were hanging them on this actual tree and making an occasion out of it.”
As you move through the house, rooms are staged in such a way that it feels like the Thomas family may have left only a moment ago. In the main bedroom, a doll’s dress is being sewn as a gift for a child; in the family dining room, paper ornaments are half finished.
The aristocratic families who once lived there can’t be called “relatable” by most of the modern Savannah community, but the artistic re-creation of their Christmas rituals brings them new life.
So while it seems that Christmas has always been a holiday co-opted by capitalism, the traditions that surrounded it in the 19th century were performed in the same spirit as our modern traditions: to bring people together.