I’ve been taking more dips into Google Books to find documents of long-gone Christmas celebrations, and my latest finding is an article in an 1843 edition of the American children’s magazine Merry’s Museum. The author presents Christmas as an exotic, old-world custom with comparatively little presence in the US beyond New York (and also blows the secret that Santa Claus is actually the kids’ parents, something that later publications for children would make some effort to obscure):
Those who belong to the Romish or English church, pay great attention to Christmas: on that day they hold religious meetings, and have their most interesting services. On the occasion, the churches are decorated with evergreens, and have a handsome appearance.
In this country the people, generally, do not pay great attention to Christmas; but in all European countries it is noticed by a variety of customs, some of which are pleasing and interesting. In England, though the Christmas customs have many of them ceased, there are others which are kept up and observed with much interest. It is there a time for making presents, particularly to friends, and it seldom happens that any boy or girl does not receive some gratifying mark of regard in this way.
Christmas is a time when hospitality and kind feelings are cherished and displayed. The rich then remember the poor, and there are few indeed, on that day, that have not the means of making a feast, though in many cases it may be a humble one.
Among the superstitious notions of the olden time, was this: they used to believe that Sr. Nicholas, familiarly called Santaclaus, used to come down chimney on Christmas eve, the night before Christmas, and put nuts, cakes, sugarplums, and pieces of money, into the stockings of such people as would hang them up for the purpose. Now it really did often happen, that when the stocking was hung up, in the morning it was found stuffed with such things as children take delight in! I have seen this actually done: and in New York, where Santaclaus is supposed to be at home, it is still practiced. But the secret of the matter is this: the parents and friends, when children are snug in bed, and fast asleep, slip into the room, and fill their stockings with such things as please the young sleepers. In the morning, when they get up, they find their treasures, and give old Santaclaus all the credit of the pleasant trick.
The article then turns to England. After a description of wassailing, it discusses the custom of baking luxuriously-decorated Twelfth Night cakes. Also covered is the phenomenon of children nailing people’s coattails to window-frames — the sort of mischievious tradition now associated with Halloween rather than Christmas. “Peter Parley”, who turns up as a protagonist in an anecdote here, was actually the persona of author Samuel Griswold Goodrich.
On twelfth-day, in London, from morning till night, every pastry-cook in the city is busy, dressing out his windows with cakes of every size and description. These are ornamented with figures of castles, kings, trees, churches, milk-maids, and a countless variety of figures of snow-white confectionary, painted with brilliant colors. At evening the windows are brilliantly illuminated with rows of lamps and wax candles inside; while the outside is crowded with admiring spectators. Among these, are numbers of boys, who take great delight in pinning people together by their coattails, and nailing them to the window frames. Sometimes eight or ten persons find themselves united together in the way; and such is the dexterity of the trick, that a piece of the garment is always sacrificed in the struggle for freedom.
Perhaps you have heard that old Peter Parley, when he was once in London, as he was gazing into a shop-window, seeing the twelfth-night-cakes, got his coat-tail pinned to the gown of a woman, which made no small degree of fun. Within doors there is also a frolic going on at this time. A large cake is cut up among a party of young people, who draw for the slices, and are chosen king and queen of the evening. They then draw for characters, thus making a great deal of sport.