Today, people often long for the simplicity of Christmases past, free of Black Friday, the endless hustle and the never-ending shopping lists. At Christmas in Springfield 170 years ago, there was little of that.
Christmas in the 1840s and 1850s was no big deal. In many areas, New Year's was more important. But there were still some of the elements that we know today. Christmas trees were rare in the U.S. at the time, but gifts were given, and holiday dinners were popular.
During his Springfield years, Abraham Lincoln sometimes used part of Christmas Day to write letters to legal and political associates. He celebrated the holiday in 1860 by purchasing 11 handkerchiefs. In a time before television, radio and the internet, businesses reached out to consumers with newspaper advertisements. There were few of those from Springfield businesses in the Sangamo Journal at the time, but there was a hint of commercialism, as well as Christmas customs of the time.
In an ad in the Journal on Dec. 21, 1850, Hickox & Brothers, a longtime Springfield mercantile business, offered "100 muffs" a favored gift idea of the day. As the ad read, "What could be a more appropriate present for a wife, sister or daughter, than a muff (in) this cold weather?"
Below that was an ad for Adams Bakery, headlined by the words "Hurrah for Christmas" and adorned with the rhyme, "Christmas comes but once a year, and when it comes it brings good cheer." The bakery touted its "sugar toys, suited to Christmas times" as well as other holiday favorites of the day, including candies, cakes, crackers, oranges "and a first-rate quantity of cigars, nuts, perfumery, etc."
Adams also offered another top pick of the era at the holiday table -- oysters, "cooked and made ready when called on."
Similar goodies were available at Snow & Keys, where an ad on Dec. 19, 1850, told shoppers they could "find raisins, currants, nuts, apples, etc."
That year, the editors of the Journal were glowing over Christmas presents from friends, including "a large fine turkey and a basket of fresh eggs" sent by Mrs. John Thompson, "living on the north side of the Sangamon River." Another cohort sent "a box of fine Regalia cigars" that "filled up the measure of...Christmas Day's desire" as "we sat regaling their fragrance and watching the smoke."
The editors were also excited for their haul of gifts in 1851, which included "four pair of woolen socks" as well as a "fine goose," a basket of apples and a can of tomatoes.
Books were a favorite of the time, and Johnson & Bradford offered a wide array of storybooks and annuals in a Christmas Eve 1849 advertisement. Bibles were also a top gift selection.
That same day, an area grower, the Cottage Nursery and Garden, ran an ad in the Journal hawking bouquets for Christmas and New Year's. In an 1851 ad, a local jeweler pushed his stock of "gold finger rings, ear rings, pins, and pencils" for the holidays.
Dances were a big part of the holiday season. In 1850, the Journal carried a notice that "Mons. Labarthe will give a ball on Christmas Eve at his hall" at 8 p.m., adding "the ladies are respectfully solicited to attend it." For vanity, "a dressing room for ladies" was "secured on the same floor."
Some holiday celebrations were less refined. On Dec. 27, 1851, the Journal reported that "Christmas was a merry day for the boys of our city. They commenced shooting guns, pistols and firecrackers early (on Christmas Eve) and kept it up almost without cessation until we judge their money gave out."
Indeed, Christmas back then had a primitive side. There was a series of Journal ads in December 1850 from Fuller & Dawson, who "at considerable expense (had) purchased a fine large buffalo, in order to furnish the citizens of Springfield...with something rare for Christmas." The animal was to be slaughtered on Christmas Eve, and "offered for sale at 2 p.m. that same day."
Others marked the holiday with bad intentions. A Journal ad from a local foundry on Dec. 29, 1851, offered a reward of five dollars "for the apprehension and conviction of the thief who stole our sign" on Christmas Eve. The Journal lamented in an editorial on Jan. 4, 1850, of the "depravity" and "sad occurrences" of some that Christmas Eve.
But the spirit of the season was captured in another Journal editorial on Dec. 15, 1851, imploring readers "that have kind hearts, now remember the poor – the shivering children of misfortune. You who have never done this thing, try it, and see if you don't feel enough better." Though Christmas was little more than a day on the calendar 170 years ago, there was still reason to warm the heart in the capital city.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.