As we frolic from Thanksgiving towards Christmas, I am struck by how the celebration of Christmas Day has changed over time. Since I am embedded at James Madison's Montpelier, living literally in the shadow of Madison and the interpretation of his life, it has made me wonder what they were doing in anticipation of the big day, the arrival of Santa, the plethora of gifts, the twinkling lights. You get the drift.
So I asked the smart researchers at Montpelier to regale me with the descriptions of Christmas Past and the many, merry doings during Madison's life, especially in his retirement, here four miles south of the Town of Orange.
Good new; bad news. There is a lot we can perchance learn from Mr. Madison and the life he lived. And maybe a hint as to how we might all re-address ourselves to Christmas but it is not going to be in the consumptive nature of the day.
In the myth-busting category, which is long -- let's start with the first shocker. There was no tree. There were few, if any, decorations in or around the house. There was no decorating with fruit (it was expensive and if you had a pineapple you ate it for goodness sake). There were no candles adorning the windows (wasteful). There were no massive gift exchanges (you might get some gloves, a book, a gift of food). You were as likely to receive a gift on New Year's Day as on Christmas. No one came by to judge your decorating prowess or stack of presents.
However, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas was celebrated as a season of family, food, parties, and maybe a little hunting. And season is the key, Christmas wishes were certainly exchanged but the "season" was the opportunity, post harvest and pre-spring planting, for extended visits in the days when moving from point A to point B was a several day affair by horse-back and carriage.
More good news of traditions we can continue to harken to: there was lots of eating and drinking. It might have been eggnog that filled your cup or oysters that filled your plate. There would have been ham and turkey. And your house would be filled with family and friends.
So this year, if you want to be in true Madisonian spirit, ditch the presents (except for a few), spread the cheer over the season, decorate but frugally, and enjoy the companionship of friends and family.
With that, I send “Seasons Greetings” to you and yours,
P.S. - Christmas was not recognized as a national holiday until 1870. You can thank President Grant for that approval.