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MO Bicentennial Minutes: The Celebration of Christmas in 1821

The use Christmas trees began in the East, and not in Missouri, by 1821.
Drawing by John Lewis Krimmel, ca. 1812-1819
The use Christmas trees began in the East, and not in Missouri, by 1821.

Imagine a Christmas with no Christmas tree, no Santa Claus, no Christmas stockings, no holiday cards, no gift exchanges, no poinsettias, and in some communities, little recognition of the day at all. This was the case in Missouri and most of the U. S. in 1821. Part of the reason for this is the suppression of celebrations by the early settlers of the English colonies, especially in New England.

Many of the symbols and traditions we identify with Christmas came to America from Europe, mainly the German states. They did not become widespread until the 1830s. The author Washington Irving also promoted the festive nature of the holiday, especially the association with St. Nicholas and his role in the society of Dutch New York settlers.

Ethnic French residents did worship with special services at Christmas, as did some of the Protestant denominations. Many rural families feasted in association with the seasonal holiday. The Christmas season occurred at the time of year that harvests were finished and fall butchering of livestock for food concluded. Feasting was natural because some of the products of animal slaughter could not be preserved and had to be eaten quickly, and food crops were at their most available as well.

One customary Christmas celebration in some communities was behaving much as many people do today for New Years’ Eve. Men and boys moved from house to house and fired a salute with shotguns or flintlock rifles; filled logs with power, bored holes in them, and set them off; or hit pans or other metal pieces to make noise. People consumed liberal amounts of whisky, and many made egg nog for the holiday.

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.
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