The longer one lives the higher the tower from which the Christmas bells ring; the sweeter the angels sing and the brighter the Star of Bethlehem shines. The carols are fuller and echo deep within us; the brilliance of the Christmas lights humble our souls with their magic. Just when we think we have lost the mystery and wonder of this blessed time, we find it again, Christmas blooms in all her glory, and for a while, we become as children.
So, once more the smiles of Christmas are rushing back to our hearts, to our ears, if they will but listen for the music; and to our eyes if they will take the time to look into the souls of our fellowman and feel their pain or rejoice with them in their joy.
There has never been more sparkle in diamonds than in bits of bright glass, in pure silk than in calico, or in an isolated farmhouse than in a penthouse: a symphony in the woods is a match for the greatest opera house in the world. The season of Bethlehem knows no favorites.
Christmas in the 1800s
Showing no respite for the joyous nature of the occasion, the bitter winds of Christmas Eve raged mercilessly, freezing wisps of snow to the frame of a lonely farmhouse. Inside a young woman stuffed a small bag filled with bits of dried fruit and a pair of flannel mittens into the toe of a homemade Christmas stocking. The gentle rhythm of her babies breathing in the room next door softened the howls of the whistling wind. Pulling a blanket around her shoulders, the woman fetches a thick diary from atop the mantel and settles in a chair beside the fire. Illuminated only by the dancing flames on the hearth, the books empty pages draw her in. There she stays, recording the details of this lonely Christmas Eve until her eyes fall heavily in sleep.
Join me now as we peer over the shoulders of some devote diarists of yesterday. Perhaps they won’t mind. There are young women alone in lonely cabins, such as the one above. There are fragile lasses who write in extravagant pose; a glimpse into the life of a desperately poor young woman; and, then, just everyday folks-as they penned Christmas memories from the shadows of country cottages to the spirited campfires of pioneer trails. Some of these survived, almost forgotten, only to be brought to life many years later.
Emily French’s diary reveals what it was like at Christmas for a poor woman in Colorado in 1890. Emily was working as a laborer in the Keller household, where she earned barely enough to survive.
December, Thursday, 25, 1890. Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift. 2’oclock, I am up again to feed the baby, the fire is low. I sat down to put the words in my book from the 21st-this is the first night I have had a bed to myself.
Tis a hard place at the best, there is little to eat, but I must try to bear it. Mr. Keller and the children have treated me kindly. But none are disposed to merriment since the recent loss of dear Mary. This Christmas will be shadowed by her death. All are sad. But the poor mite, he cries for his mama and I cannot comfort him. Mary and child, strange that……..
The Journal of Miss Agnes Lee
On Christmas Eve in 1852, 11-year old Eleanor Agnes Lee wrote in her journal for the first time. She made the last entry known, five years later, at the beginning of 1858. Raised primarily in Arlington, Virginia, as the beloved daughter of a U.S. military officer, Agnes’ first entry is written with a refreshing exuberance for life.
Christmas Eve, De. 24, 1852.
I am flying around preparing presents and hanging up stockings. I am still in a perfect twirl, I can’t keep still a minute. Tomorrow is Christmas! Oh, what a happy time I expect to have. I have received most of my gifts, a new dress from Mama, silk……which I am going to put on tomorrow. “Angel Over the Right Shoulder” my favorite book from Grandma, and the “Distant Hill” from my cousin, M. Goldsborough, who is so stuffy! A portmanteau from Miss Susan Poor (my governess). How I wish they were all here then my cup of happiness would be so full. But never mind next summer we all meet.
Miss Sue says I must keep a journal it will improve my “style.’ At any rate it will be amusing in after years to know what I did and what I felt when I was so young….
Lewis and Clark at Christmas
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark kept detailed records of their great explorations. Clark was responsible for the following Christmas Day entry. At the time the group’s supply of food was almost gone and spirits were low.
Christmas, Wed., December, 1805
At day -light this morning we’re awoke by the discharge of the fire arms of all our party and a salute, a shout, and a song which the whole party joined in under our windows, after which they retired to their huts. I received a present from Capt. L., of fleece hosiery, shirt draws and socks, a pair of moccasins, a small Indian basket, two dozen white weasel tails and some black root from the Indians before their departure. The day has proved wet and disagreeable.
We would have spent this day, the nativity of Christ in feasting had we anything to raise our spirits or even gratify our appetites. Our dinner consisted of poor elk, so much spoiled that we eat it through near necessity to keep from starving. Some spoiled pounded fish and a few roots. We are tired unto death. God spare us. We will try to observe the blessedness of this day.
From a love-smitten bank clerk in 1887
Jenny does seem to mention marriage quite often these days. I don’t think she will be too pleased with my offering of Shakespeare, since it must be a ring she has in mind. Even her parents look suspiciously at me. Why am I so fickle! I think I love Jenny, but must admit I am not ready for a marriage and family yet. I only want sweet kisses in the park and a long sleigh-ride.
Jenny gave me a pretty box containing six white silk handkerchiefs and a muffler which she made me put on before I left. She also showed me a ring given to her by John, who has begged for her hand. Jenny cried. What must I do? Grandma has promised to pray for me.
Jenny and John were married in June 1888.
Reach Micki Cottle was a long-time columnist for The Sampson Independent who occassionally regales readers with her wit and charm. She is also a member of the Sampson County Historical Society.