Christmas in 1866

Reader Contribution by Sam Moore
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Sam Moore

I have a very dog-eared bound volume of the American Agriculturist monthly magazines for the year 1866. The American Agriculturist was founded in 1842 and is still being published in this country by an Australian firm called Rural Press Limited.
The December issue of the paper, published about a year and a half after the end of the Civil war, offers some interesting reading.  
The editor complained about the high cost of labor to husk his corn and wrote: “I am now paying six cents a bushel for husking and may have to pay more, but I am tired of bidding high to secure men. I saw at the State Fair a husking machine that did the work admirably, and I hope by another season it will be generally introduced. If there ever was a time when labor saving machines were needed, it is now.
Under “Hints about Work” was some good advice: “To begin the new year aright when it comes, the old year must be finished rightly. Farmers are very apt to run into careless habits about their accounts – not so much in money transactions as in their store bills, especially where the farm products are seldom sold for money, but are exchanged for family groceries. Go over all accounts, and get ready to commence with a clean balance sheet January 1, 1867. A plain account book has prevented many a law suit, for it is the very best witness a man can take into court, provided it’s been regularly and accurately kept.”
In a story titled “Who Eats Sparrows?” (that made my wife exclaim: “Eew!”) was a recipe for cooking the birds.
“These little birds are found, by the Maltese and Italians, to be most epicurean. They are best in the fruit season. Find a tree in which they roost, and by burning a little sulfur under it you may bag a quantity. Pluck and clean them. Lard them, or better still, pin across the breast a very thin slice of pork. Wrap them in young grape leaves and put in the oven. When cooked, serve up in the center of a dish of boiled rice. Cover well with a rich tomato sauce. The grape leaf will be found an agreeable accompaniment. Other small birds are deliciously cooked in the same manner.”
Under the heading “Holidays and Evergreens” was the following story:
“Christmas without evergreens would lose half its holiday charms. The custom of decorating churches and houses is a pleasant one, and, in cities at least, well nigh universal. Most children know, and those of us who are no longer children recollect, the pleasures of anticipation, as well as the realized enjoyment of which the Christmas tree is the center.
“We might say much of the genial influences of the Christmas tree – for no other tree bears fruit so fragrant – but we set out to comment upon its business aspects. Unsentimental as it may seem, all this holiday decoration results in putting money into someone’s pocket. We never fail to make several visits to the markets in the week that precedes Christmas (where) the sight is astonishing. Our nursery men send in evergreens by the load and turn the streets near the markets into green avenues where the city odors are replaced by the scent of fir and cedar.
“The traffic in these green commodities is very large (and they) bring good prices, for in holiday times the purse is as open as the heart, and the vendors know it. Spruces and firs are always in demand for Christmas trees; holly, especially with berries, Laurel, Inkberry and Hemlock are all sold in great quantities. The smaller evergreens are made up into wreaths, or ‘roping’ of various lengths. Another class of decorations is made with a framework of lath or twigs and covered with evergreens. These are formed into crosses, stars and other devices, and some are prettily decorated with bright berries.
“The huge piles of greens are soon scattered; every express wagon takes a share, men and women ride in omnibuses and horse cars with their hands filled with them, and the poor woman who takes home her own market basket, bears a bit of holly or other green with it.
“As soon as the evergreens are taken to the house of rich or poor they become consecrated by entering the sanctuary of home, and contribute to the enjoyment of that holiday that celebrates the announcement: ‘Peace on earth; good will toward man.'”
Not everyone in the old days, however, decorated or made a big deal of Christmas. In a little book called A Home in the Woods, Howard Johnson published his grandfather’s (Oliver Johnson) oral reminiscences of life on an Indiana homestead farm in the 1830s. Oliver Johnson recalled: “While every family recognized Christmas in a religious way, there was no doins at home in the way of givin presents or celebratin the day. We went to school Christmas and New Year’s if they fell on a week day, just the same as any other day.”
So, Christmas festivities during the 19th century were a far cry from the gaudily lighted, hyper-commercialized and secularized affair it’s become today. However, it’s still my favorite holiday.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all Farm Collector readers.

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