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The Truth about Vintage Christmas


Victorious Victorians

Feasts and a few decorations preceded the modern tradition of gift giving. Christmas advertising in Portsmouth newspapers first appeared around 1814. Initially they promoted moral and upstanding books for the edification of children. Imagine the thrill on a child’s face when receiving, not the latest Sony PlayStation, but a weighty copy of John Bunyan’s Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. By 1850, Tom Hardiman says, the practice had expanded to include toys, often imported from Europe.

It was only after the horrors of the Civil War that the familiar New England Christmas evolved. The rise of the middle class, the products and inventions of the Industrial Revolution and the increase in leisure time among wealthier Americans set the scene. New Englanders borrowed traditions from their romantic Victorian counterparts in Europe and adopted lively moral tales like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Children still received edifying books, but now they were wrapped in fancy paper and ribbon, placed under elaborately decorated Christmas trees or in stockings awaiting Santa Claus.

With 19th century Victorian excess came a purging dose of 17th century Puritan guilt. Portsmouth-born poet Celia Thaxter (who once dined with Charles Dickens) wrote a number of books for children. Among her lesser known works is a poem called "Piccola" about a desperately poor French girl. Piccola (the name is more likely Italian) leaves her small shoe out on Christmas Eve in hopes of receiving a present. The child is full of anticipation, but her parents have nothing to give. One stanza reads:

    No gift for Piccola! sad were they
    When dawned the morning of Christmas day!
    Their little darling no joy might stir;
    St. Nicholas nothing would bring to her!

But in the morning, Celia writes, Piccola is ecstatic over her holiday gift. Her parents are astonished. A tiny sparrow, seeking shelter, is nesting in Piccola’s shoe.

The Vintage Advantage

The lesson still stands. The more complex and fast paced the holidays become, the more we struggle to appreciate the little things. Victorians too were overwhelmed by their high-tech era and the fast-paced, stressful holidays.

The Right Reverend John Bernard Delany, a bishop from Manchester, found himself travelling throughout New Hampshire during the holidays in 1895, attending ordinations and listening to confessions. After ministering to a consumptive man and installing a half life-sized manger scene in Dover, Delaney wrote a letter from Portsmouth to the sisters in his diocese.

"I will, please God, go home Christmas day and be there for supper and the little joyous family reunion. It is one of the greatest pleasures of the year," he wrote while stopping at Portsmouth on December 19. "I will try to find a little present for you, but ‘tis not what we give, but what we share."

What we give these days -- the Nooks, Flips, flat-screens, Blu-rays, Bluetooths, Elmoes, and iPhones – may seem foreign and fast-paced by Victorian standards, but ultimately little has changed. Our 19th century ancestors cobbled together and commercialized the rituals that we call a "vintage" holiday. They too sometimes mistook the trappings and traditions for the true meaning of Christmas – just as the pious Puritans had feared. But they also found ways to get back on track and remember what matters. They learned that the scrooges, sleighs, snowmen and Santas were just symbols of the passage of another year.

Traditions are like speed bumps. They slow things down, and create opportunities for memory and reflection. That seems especially true here in New England where the classic symbols of the holiday – warm hearth, new fallen snow, a crisp starry sky, the sound of bells and caroling, the scent of pine and wood smoke – are ubiquitous. What other climates and countries recreate in plastic and Styrofoam, Seacoast residents get for real and for free.

Our local "vintage" holiday comes especially easy because we are surrounded by so many of the historic buildings that housed the generations come and gone. We can walk down narrow lanes and, with little imagination required, conjure the same scenes in centuries past. And we do our ancestors a disservice if we imagine them finding the meaning of the holiday with ease. It has always been difficult to pause in the midst of so much activity.

But the pause is the gift. At least, that’s what the Victorians – and maybe even the Puritans – were trying to say. The purpose of any holiday – any holy day in any religion – is to stop, look around, and be aware. Out of that momentary awareness comes a healing and spiritual connection. We are "in the moment". We recognize that we are alive, and that our lives are short. We measure the newest moment against similar moments in our own past. We compare our history against the history of others. Through the holiday tradition of giving presents, we become charitable. By receiving them, we become thankful.

Being thankful for simple things, even for a moment, is the purpose of the pause. That is the miraculous message that seems to be coming at us from every religion and from every era during the holidays.

Perhaps, as Bishop Delaney would say, we will be lucky enough this year to share one more simple meal with friends. Or even better, as Celia Thaxter wrote, we should all be as fortunate as little Piccola. She found nothing but a sparrow in her shoe -- yet her thankfulness knew no bounds.



Copyright © 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is the editor and owner of, the award-winning local history web site. His column appears every other Monday on the Herald front page.



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