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Friday, March 13, 2009

Victorian Christmas -- Western Style

When my editor told me that the launch novel for my upcoming trilogy was to be a Christmas themed story, I was equally excited, and stumped. Snagging a holiday slot was fabulous news, even though it meant a total rewrite of the summer set novel I'd nearly written in keeping with my proposal.

I'd published a Christmas themed short story a couple of years ago, so I had a fair idea how the holdiay was celebrated in Victorian America, but I was stumped on how the Old West ranchers truly celebrated Christmas. Face it, it would be nearly impossible or impractical to brave blizzards and go caroling door to door, as your nearest neighbor could be miles away.

Decorating Christmas trees had gotten a foothold in Europe in the early 1800s, and that tradition was brought to America.

Though blown glass ornaments had been used to decorate Christmas trees in late 1870s Germany, they didn't become vogue in America until the 1890s. The glass ornaments were handpainted and decorated with twisted wire and tinsel, reflecting the time. Jockies on horses, sail boats, trumpets, globes, bells and baskets -- just to name a few.

Nuremberg angels, with their spun-glass wings and gold and silver crinkled skirts, were much sought after. Ornaments imported from Dresden, Germany were another hugely popular decoration, being made between 1880 and 1910. These pressed cardboard designs were extremely realistic, and either gilded, silvered, or handpainted.

Electric Christmas lights were invented in the late 1880s, but many people still used tiny candles on trees, either because they lived in isolated regions were electricty hadn't reached, or they were poor.

For those without the financial means to deck the tree in the new Victorian fashion, they relied on what they had at hand. Popcorn and berry garlands, or paper strings were used to drape a tree. Yarn dolls, gingerbread men, and lacy sachets hung from the boughs. Cornhusk angels often perched atop the tree.

The children hung their stocking by the fire, in hopes that St. Nick would leave candy and a toy, and maybe a shiny new penny inside.

For those living on ranches in the West, they did their caroling around the Christmas tree. Their gifts were mainly handmade items that were desperately needed.

Christmas Day dinner was as much a feast as could be had, with the ranch family and the workers gathered together to share the bounty. If they could afford it, they'd order a turkey or ham from the mercantile in town. Some imported fresh fruit, only to have it arrive frozen. Many baked desserts far in advance, from pies to cakes to traditional plum puddings.

One thing remained the same for those living in the city or country. By and large they viewed Christmas as a special day of sharing and reflecting.

I enjoyed doing research on Victorian Christmas traditions for my October '09 release, A Cowboy Christmas. My heroine adored Christmas and all it meant, and my hero had never celebrated the holiday in his life. I hope to have an excerpt up on my website soon.

What's your favorite Christmas tradition? Comment for a chance to win a copy of my Christmas short story, Christmas Showdown.


Diana Cosby said...

Christmas is such a special time. I enjoyed reading about the different traditions. For me, just seeing others you haven't seen in awhile is the best. Enjoy your weekend and my best to you on your upcoming release!


Kathryn Albright said...

Hi Janette,

Interesting post--I didn't realize electric tree lights were available that early! I'll look forward to reading your A Cowboy Christmas--I love the holiday themed stories.

Anne Carrole said...

Can't wait to read Cowboy Christmas, Janette. I still have two German glass christmas ornaments that hung on my grandparents' tree. Unfortunately, w/a dog, cat and child, I don't dare hang them up.

Edie said...

That would be fun to research. It's very cool that you'll have the Christmas book. You'll make a lot of sales. Besides mine!

Tracy Garrett said...

My favorite Christmas tradition is coming home for the late church service and enjoying champagne and stories with my family.

Congratulations on A Cowboy Christmas. It will definitely be on my Xmas list.

Tracy G.

Carolyn said...

I have two favorite Christmas traditions. The first is relatively new; the extended family gets together on Christmas Day and we have a white elephant gift exchange. (This is in addition to any separate Christmas gifts the various families do on their own at their homes) That is, we set a modest maximum for a gift to bring, and the we chose a gift or steal someone else's. We have ages from 5 to 81 participating in the stealing etc, and it's proven to be something all of us look forward to.

The other is my 13 yo son's tradition of asking for one very very odd gift. One year he asked for a salami. Another year a giant cheese wheel. Darned if it isn't fun to watch him come up with the item and then go to great lengths to make sure he gets it. And it's fun to watch how happy he is to get this particular gift.

Janette Kenny said...

Diana, I agree. Seeing people we haven't seen in a while is always special. Have a great weekend!

Janette Kenny said...

Kathryn, I didn't realize christmas lights came into being then either. In fact that's a lengthy blog in itself with the argument of who created the first lights and on what type tree. :)

Janette Kenny said...

Oh, Anne, those are treasures! And yes, if your pets are curious creatures like mine, you don't dare hang the ornaments. I broke one of my old German globes two years ago, hanging it and I felt aweful about it.

Janette Kenny said...

LOL, Edie! I hope you're right on this one, too. Thanks for dropping by. ;)

Janette Kenny said...

Those are wonderful traditions, Tracy. Never tried the champagne idea, but I'm open. :) I was very happy my new editor was pleased with ACC. Hope the readers are too.

Janette Kenny said...

Carolyn, that has to be a wonderfully fun free-for-all. I've never heard of it before, but what a great family tradition to start. And LOL at your son with his "odd" gifts! Too cute. :)

Janette Kenny said...

Okay, I rolled the dice and it came up two. So Kathryn Albright is the winner of Christmas Showdown, my Christmas short story from Samhain.

Kathryn, drop me an email and I'll get your e-file to you.

Thanks to everyone who commented!