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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
By Morgan Byrn
"Silent Night" by Jean Gauld-Jaeger shows the Tennessee State Capitol at Christmas. Taken from Tennessee State Museum Collection
Have you ever thought about the things we do on the holidays? Putting presents in hanging socks and bringing in trees to decorate them seem like odd traditions. A lot of these traditions come from a time called the Victorian Era. During this time, Christmas became a major holiday in the United States. Let’s unwrap some popular traditions that Tennesseans have done to celebrate the holidays over 150 years ago. Do you think we still use some of these traditions? Let’s find out!
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their family around their Christmas Tree. - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Immigrants who came to the United States brought several traditions with them to their new home. German immigrants brought the idea of Christmas trees to their. But it wasn’t until Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, brought Christmas trees to the palace that it became popular. The first decorations were made of dried fruit, nuts, paper, and wooden ornaments. These are things people could make or find around their home. Glass ornaments from Germany were also very popular. These ornaments were expensive. Families cherished them and passed down the ornaments through the years. Today some people still add a Victorian tradition to their tree, with the Christmas pickle ornament. The Victorians would hide the Christmas pickle somewhere on the tree after the children had gone to bed. In the morning, the first child to find it would get a special surprise. Even though we don’t know who started this weird tradition (some say it was German immigrants and others say it was a Civil War solider), many families still hide a Christmas pickle in their tree.
Christmas Card. Taken from the Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Many people love the holidays because it’s a time for fun mail! According to Hallmark, 1.3 billion Christmas cards are sent every year. That is a lot of stamps! Sending letters and postcards was once the only way to communicate with family and friends. In 1843, Henry Cole had a lot of Christmas cards to send out. He really didn’t want to spend time writing all those letters. He had a friend draw and print the very first Christmas card. Then he only had to sign his name, and he was done! Queen Victoria received one of these first Christmas cards and thought it was a jolly good idea. Her royal highness decided to send them as well, and the rest is history. So remember, next time you receive a Christmas card, it’s all because one Victorian wanted to be a little lazy that Christmas.
Lots of families gather around the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and read a story together. Reading around the tree was a popular nighttime activity over a hundred years ago. Two of the most famous Christmas books, A Christmas Carol and The Night Before Christmas, were written during this time. Charles Dickens wrote and published A Christmas Carol in just six weeks in 1843. His story became a huge success! Today you can read his story or even watch it as a movie on Christmas Eve. The Night Before Christmas was first published in 1823. The poem was published for years in newspapers. It became very popular with people, especially children. This was the first time we learned about Santa’s reindeer. It became so popular that it gave us another one of our Christmas traditions, the stocking.
The Night Before Christmas story book. Taken from the Tennessee State Museum Collection.
“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,” is one of the most famous lines from The Night Before Christmas. For Victorian children the stocking held some of the most exciting treats of the day. They hoped Santa would leave them things like apples, oranges, nuts, candy, chocolate, and firecrackers. These things were expensive treats. Sugar cost a lot. Eating candy every day was not normal for most people. Fruit was also expensive because it had to be shipped from warmer climates. Receiving these treats on Christmas was very special. Firecrackers might seem like an odd present for children. For the Victorians it was a very common request. Families would celebrate late into the night with firecrackers and noise makers.
Please bring me a filled stocking, some candy, apples, nuts, raising [sic] and oranges, some firecrackers, and Roman candles and anything else you think would please a little girl like me. -Clara Bell Gallimore”
- taken from The Dresden Enterprise and Sharon Tribune, December 24, 1915, Dresden, TN
As we deck the halls and trim the tree, think about the Christmas traditions your family does. Do you hide a Christmas pickle or send Christmas cards? So, this year as you sip your hot cocoa and snuggle up to watch A Muppet’s Christmas Carol, thank those silly Victorians. Happy Holidays to everyone!
Victorian Era - the time in which Queen Victoria ruled Great Britain, 1837-1901.
Traditions - something a person or group of people hand down from one generation to another, can be a belief, legend, or costume.
Expensive - cost a lot of money to purchase.
Cherished - something or someone a person loves, or thinks is very important.
Published - to print something for sale.
Climate - the weather of a region.
What was the name of the Prince who brought Christmas trees to the palace?
Name two things a Victorian child might find in their stocking.
Which was published first A Christmas Carol or The Night Before Christmas?
What is one holiday tradition you do with your family?
Listen to Michael Bublé recite The Night Before Christmas
Make your own Holiday Card to send to friends and family!
History.com Editors. “History of Christmas Trees.” History. October 2009, Updated November 11, 2021. Accessed November 21, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees
Beeson, Eric. “A Guide to Christmas Antiques and Vintage Christmas Decorations.” Mental Floss. Accessed November 21, 2021. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/72927/guide-christmas-antiques-and-vintage-christmas-decorations
“Queen Victorian and Prince Albert around the Christmas Tree”. 1848. Illustrated London News. British Library Board. P.P.7611. Victoria and Albert Museum. London, England. Accessed November 21, 2021. https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/victorian-christmas-traditions
Hallmark. “Christmas Cards.” Hallmark. Accessed November 21, 2021. https://corporate.hallmark.com/hallmark-news/christmas-cards/
Hanc, John. “History of the Christmas Card.” Smithsonian Magazine. December 9, 2015. Accessed November 21, 2021. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-christmas-card-180957487/
Sager, Jessica. “T’was the Night Before Christmas: The Story and Trivia Behind the Beloved Classic Holiday Tale.” Parade. September 21, 2-21. Accessed November 21, 2021. https://parade.com/1136533/jessicasager/twas-the-night-before-christmas-words/
Beete, Paulette. “Ten Things to Know About Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.” National Endowment for the Arts. December 4, 2020. Accessed November 21, 2021. https://www.arts.gov/stories/blog/2020/ten-things-know-about-charles-dickens-christmas-carol
Mansky, Jackie. “Why We Should Bring Back the Traditions of the Christmas Orange.” Smithsonian Magazine. December 21, 2018. Accessed on November 21, 2021. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-we-should-bring-back-tradition-christmas-orange-180971101/
Bublé, Michael. [Michael Bublé]. (2019, December 5). “T’was the Night Before Christmas-Narrated by Michael Bublé” [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4Y1IpCGHss
Morgan Byrn is an Educator with the Tennessee State Museum.