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.