WRITTEN BY CHARLIE KUENZEL | PHOTO PROVIDED
As we approach Christmas 2021, we sometimes forget that many of the holiday traditions we celebrate today in Saratoga Springs have not always been in practice, especially during the 1800s. A walk around Saratoga Springs in the 19th century would not have offered glimpses of decorated and lit houses, lawn inflatables and the names of Rudolph, The Grinch and Frosty. It was a different time and a different village.
Christmas in the 1800s in Saratoga Springs would have been enjoyed by a smaller year-round population. Many of the historic stories that we enjoy about early Saratoga are rooted in the wealthy visiting during the summer months. December would have a been a very different environment. The population of the village was only between 6,000-9,000 residents in the winter, and that represented a more working-class population, with just a few wealthy residents.
Most working-class families would not have started to put up Christmas trees in their homes until after the Civil War. Queen Victoria, of England helped to make the Christmas tree a main decoration starting in 1841. Victoria had married Prince Albert from Germany and he insisted on the tradition of a Christmas tree that he was familiar with from his native country. London newspapers covered the decorating of their tree in 1848 and word of this event didn’t get notoriety in America until 1849. Even then it was considered to be a tradition that only the wealthy would enjoy. It took about 15 years until the common man would embrace this tradition in America.
It was not until 1861 that 29 of 34 states in the country had identified Christmas as a holiday. The general practice of donations and generosity at this time of year was not a general thought in the early 19th century. In 1843 the writing of “A Christmas Carol” in England provided thoughts that changed those practices in America.
The Christmas trees of today are illuminated by many small white or colored electric lights. We must remember that Edison did not apply for a patent for this invention of the incandescent light bulb until January of 1880, so the early illumination was by small candles placed on the branches. Many house fires were caused by those candles and therefore the eventual use of electric lights for tree decorations were greatly welcomed for safety as well as beauty. But the initial cost of electric lights was not for the general public.
The first use of electric lights for Christmas decoration was by Edison himself in 1880 at his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. He used 290 lights to decorate not a tree but the exterior of the building to welcome guests for a gathering during the holiday period. In 1882 the first reported use of electric lights on a Christmas tree was on a tree in the house of Edward H. Johnson, who served as President of the Edison Company that provided electricity to New York City. The New York Times reported on Johnson’s tree again in 1884 at his 36th Street house in New York City,” The tree stood six feet in height and was illuminated with 80 white and colored lights.” Johnson had a generator in his basement that allowed the electricity to be generated for the lights but also to allow a small motor to rotate the tree. At the time, the average person did not have this electric generation equipment, nor could they afford the price of the bulbs.
Ornaments for the tree in the beginning, were not what we decorate with today. In the 1500s many Germans had adopted the use of the Christmas tree and used apples to decorate the tree in reference to the biblical description of the Garden of Eden. The glass ornament, used widely in today’s culture, did not make an immediate entry into common use. Stories suggest that two glass blowers helped to start this tradition when according to lore, Hans Greiner and Christoph Muller made the first glass ornaments designed for trees. The story tells that about the year 1600, Hans Greiner did not have enough money to buy apples to decorate his tree and he looked at what materials he had in supply and decided to use glass from his workshop to make ornaments. Years later, in 1847, a grandson also named Hans Greiner sold the first glass ornaments designed for Christmas trees. Unfortunately, the first batch of ornaments used mercury to coat the inside of the ornament to produce the shiny appearance. Once health concerns were raised by the use of mercury, the process was changed to use silver nitrate for safety’s sake. It has been reported that by the later years of the 1800s, F.W. Woolworth made an estimated $25 million dollars a year selling glass tree ornaments. Today the estimated sale of Christmas Tree Lights in America is more than $150 million. That number does not include the orange and red sets sold for Halloween and Valentine’s Day each year.
Even the tradition of a White House Christmas tree wasn’t started until 1889, when President Benjamin Harrison put up a tree. The New York Times covered the event and described not only the ornaments, but the presents under the tree. President Grover Cleveland in 1894 arranged for the first tree in the White House to be illuminated by electricity. The first National Christmas Tree was ordered by President Coolidge in 1923. By the 1930s the majority of Americans were using electric lights on their trees.
Today the lighting of the Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Center in New York City is a widely viewed event on television, but the first tree on that location didn’t happen until 1931. In that year a group of construction workers decorated a tree during the construction of the building. When the building was finished in 1934 it became a regular event.
A main figure of Christmas today is of course Santa Claus. Santa is also a late comer to the Christmas party. The word Santa Claus is English and comes from the Dutch word “Sinterklaas” for the patron saint of the Dutch, St. Nicholas. Stockings were hung on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, December 5th. A poem published in 1821 suggests that St. Nick had a sled pulled by a reindeer. When Clement Clark Moore wrote the famous poem “The Night Before Christmas” in 1823, he had changed the sleigh to be pulled by eight reindeer and named each one. A drawing of St. Nick did not appear until noted cartoonist Thomas Nast showed Santa Claus in a sleigh visiting a Union Army Camp in January of 1863. Nast’s drawings were so popular that he continued them for many years and over time added a red suit and a North Pole workshop with elves.
So, Christmas traditions, in early 19th century Saratoga were quite different compared to those of today. By the beginning of the 20th century the trees, lights and names were starting to change until we have a closer resemblance to our view today. Saratoga Springs now kicks off the Holiday Season with a tree lighting, the arrival of Santa and an invitation to enjoy our charming our little city. A Saratoga Springs resident in the latter half of the 19th century probably would not have found a “Victorian Streetwalk” something they would have understood.
Today Americans crave the elements of a Victorian Christmas, which includes a season of horse drawn sleighs, crackling fires, carolers strolling the streets dressed in Victorian clothing and constant merriment. Americans today experience a hybrid Christmas made up of the old and the new. Christmas in Saratoga in the 1800s was different but not any less warm, festive and meaningful to those people. A Holiday Season in anyone’s hometown is fantastic because of the memories and its always great to be home for the holidays. I also think that the composition of a city is truly reflected at holiday time. It’s because of the great people and families in our city that truly make the season wonderful in Saratoga Springs. The widespread giving and holiday events help to make it a “dream come true.” Enjoy the holiday season in the way and traditions you are used to and as Clement Moore wrote, “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!"
A blizzard hit Saratoga Springs in March of 1888 and resulted in snowfalls of near four feet in depth. The lack of motorized snow removal equipment made digging out a hard job. The spectacular Grand Union Hotel is in the background.
Glen Mitchell was the name of the area that today is the present-day Maple Avenue Middle School. In the late 1800s a group of people from Saratoga visited Canada and returned with a plan to build one of the first toboggan runs in America.
This image is of a few college students from Skidmore getting ready to board a train from the Saratoga train station to return home at holiday time. That train station was located on Railroad Place on the westside of Broadway.
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