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The Ghost of Christmas Celebrations Past

Article and Photographs by Sara Duane-Gladden

[This article originally appeared in the Vol. 39 - No. 08 Wright County Journal Press' December 21, 2008, edition of The Drummer.  It is reprinted here with permission. It would be a violation of copyright law to reprint it without written permission from that publication.]

The Ames-Florida-Stork House, located at 8131 Bridge Street in Rockford has been turned into a museum and contains 150 years worth of preserved rural Minnesota history.
On December 7th of this year, the Rockford Area Historical Society held its 19th annual Christmas Tea at the Ames-Florida-Stork House, where visitors could experience how Christmas was celebrated in Wright County at the turn of the 20th century.  It might seem hard to imagine, but with all the advances in technology and changes in lifestyle that have occurred in the past few years, many Christmas customs have been unchanged for over a century.  Most of these traditions can trace their roots to the period known as the Victorian Era, between 1837 and 1901. In many aspects, Christmas is celebrated much the same way now as it was back then.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Ames-Florida-Stork House located at 8131 Bridge Street in Rockford, it is a museum that contains 150 years worth of preserved rural Minnesota history.  George Ames, who helped to found Rockford around 1855, began construction on the home in 1860.  It belonged to the Ames family until the home was sold after George’s death in 1875 to his friend, Joel Florida. It was passed among members of the Florida family for almost 60 years until it was purchased in 1936 by Clinton and Meda Stork. Realizing how special it was, the house was lovingly restored and maintained by the Storks and its treasures shared with the community.  In 1985, the house was purchased anonymously and donated to the city.  The Rockford Area Historical Society (RAHS) was created in 1986 to help the city preserve and manage it ever since.

For its Christmas Tea, the RAHS volunteers decked the house in the traditional Victorian style.  Decorations haven’t changed much in 100 years.  Wreaths, pine boughs, pine cones, holly, and ribbons were used to decorate furniture, doorframes, and fireplace mantles just as they are now.  Many decorations were hand crafted and edible - popcorn or peanut garlands, popcorn balls hung with strings, and apples stacked in pyramids on tabletops. A festively scented decoration not seen often now are orange pomanders: oranges pierced and covered with whole cloves.  They look and smell lovely, emitting a spicy-sweet scent for months.
Entertainment at the Victorian Christmas Tea event included performances by the Rockford High School choir students and the Majestic Winds Woodwind ensemble, seen here. From left to right: Flautist Susie Zander, oboist Lenore Lemke, and clarinetist Sharon Olson. (This photo by Christina Vikingson)
By the turn of the century, Christmas trees had been an American tradition for over 50 years.  They were decorated with ribbons, beeswax ornaments, candy canes, bags of candy, small gifts or tokens, and sugarplums.  For those who have ever wondered what a sugarplum is, they are pieces of fruit dipped in melted sugar.  Tinfoil was indispensable when it came to decorating the tree.  It could be made into garlands and it was used to wrap around walnuts, which were then hung from tree branches.

One very different method of decorating the Christmas tree was the use of candles.  Today, the idea of placing lit candles in a wooden tree covered with dry pine needles is absurd. At the time, however, it was quite popular.  Because of this, fire extinguishers and pails of water would be kept near the tree.  Though electric Christmas lights were invented in 1880, the Florida’s would not have used them. Not only were they not widely available until 1917, according to a letter from George Florida dated December 13, 1907, Rockford did not yet have electric power, though nearby Hanover did.

Forget the Grinch, Charlie Brown, or even Bing Crosby’s iconic Christmas melodies, without electricity, radios, or televisions, some aspects of holiday amusement were quite different. In nearly every household, providing entertainment for each other was a family affair. People would read out loud Christmas letters and cards that they had received.  Carols like “O Holy Night,” “Joy to the World,” and “Jingle Bells” would be sung or played on musical instruments. The poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” by Clement Clark Moore, had been a holiday mainstay for over 50 years and may have been read aloud.  In the evening, there were parties with dancing and parlor games, like pin the tail on the donkey, checkers, and chess.  With several stage and film theaters operating in Minneapolis at the time, the Florida family may have even taken a trip to the city to see a holiday performance of the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol.”

Communication around the holidays has evolved immensely since then.  Phones were still relatively new, having been first patented in 1877.  E-mail and text messaging were far from being invented.  Connections instead were made through letters and the fairly new custom of sending Christmas cards, which had first appeared on the east coast in 1875. In its collection, the RAHS has several letters and cards exchanged between the Florida siblings and their only married sister Nellie, who lived with her husband Will Hatch in Oak Park, Ill.  In their correspondences, they provide updates on their activities, anecdotes of daily life, thanks for gifts received, and regrets that the family could not be together for the holiday.

These miniature wooden bowling set and hand-carved ox figures may have been toys that children received as Christmas gifts at the beginning of the 20th century.
Gifts at the time tended to be practical and modest. Some presents that the Florida family gave and received were butter, flour, scarves, an apron, socks, and stockings. Ready-made clothing was expensive, so people would make clothes by hand and send them as gifts. Sometimes they would just send fabric and a garment pattern, leaving the recipient to sew the article of clothing together. That’s not to say there were no fun gifts, as children could receive candy, books, dolls, and small toys. Then, just as now, letters and packages would be mailed to loved ones, with the hopes that it would make it through the mail system safely and arrive on time.

Though how food is prepared these days may be different, Christmas dinner has not changed much since 1900.  A menu for a Florida family Christmas meal included a roast turkey with dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, bread and butter, fruits and nuts, and of course, cranberry sauce.  Some items offered that may not be expected, though, were oysters and shrimp.  Even in central Minnesota, residents were able to fulfill their cravings for seafood thanks to shipments that came via the Mississippi River to St. Paul.  And though some may grumble about how much time it takes to cook and bake for the holidays, in Victorian times preparations could start on the 1st of November or earlier.  That’s because it takes nearly two months to make authentic plum pudding, a past holiday favorite that is not as popular now.

In this fast-paced world where advances are being made every day, it’s nice to know that some things haven’t changed.  100 years away from the Victorian time period, parents are still worried about spoiling their children with too many toys and gadgets. People still lament how the holiday has changed, as when Miss Jessie wrote to Carrie in 1916, the stores are “beautifully decorated and the displays are fine but things are high priced and it makes X-mas seem very commercial.” The most important tradition of all which has not changed is the season’s emphasis on family and friends.  When all was said and done, the Florida’s greatest wish for Christmas was that the family could be together.  That is one part of any holiday that will never change.

To see more pictures that were taken in the making of this article, please visit the Ames Florida Stork House album atFlickr.

Sara Duane-Gladden is as a freelance writer living just outside of Minneapolis & St. Paul in central Minnesota. She graduated in 2003 from the University of Minnesota, Morris, with a BA in English and has been working in the writing & marketing fields for over 5 years. She also writes and maintains the True to Words language blog and Sam Can Shoot photography blog.