Our family is fortunate to have a bird’s-eye view into the 19th century through my wife’s great-grandfather Llewellyn Barker’s diary. These entries provide us with an interesting glimpse into the 1890s during holiday season.
In 1890, Llewellyn (40) and his wife Dell (26), have three young daughters, Venia (6), Olive (3) and Martha (2). Dell is 6 months pregnant with their youngest daughter Anna who will be born on March 8th of 1891. Selected entries from Llewellyn’s 1890s diaries are clustered according to the following categories.
Shopping: Even back then, it is a key element of Christmas preparation. Could they have had any idea what they had unleashed? How simply it started!
“I went to New Haven to get a present for Dell ... carpet sweeper & book (12/24/1890)
"At half past 11 went over to New Haven on the train with Dell & Venia to get some things for Chrismas ... We came home on the 3 oclock train" (12/19/1892)
"Went up at noon & bought mittens & handkerchief for Dell." (12/24/1892)
“Snow wind She (Dell) went to New Haven with Geo. Beach in a carriage I shoveled snow etc Dell couldn’t get the stage man to bring her from the station so she walked through the snow and brought the Christmas things” (12/23/1896)
“Venia & Olive went over to New Haven on the stage with Mrs Hegelheimer for Christmass things” (12/23/1899)
Today's Black Friday shopper stories are easily matched for high drama when picturing Dell, gifts in hand, trudging in the snow over a mile from station to home. As daughters Venia and Olive head toward New Haven, we see the shopping tradition has become firmly rooted in the next generation.
Church: For the Barkers, this includes services and entertainments at the various Sunday Schools both before and after Christmas Day.
"Venia Olive Martha & I went to church Olive & Venia staid to Sunday school Evening Venia Dell & I went to the Christmas Eve service at the Congl Church the music was very good (12/24/1893)
“In the evening we all went in to the Sunday schools Christmas entertainment Olive & Martha each got a present Venia recited a verse. "(12/26/1894)
”The children went in town with Sarah Bragg to rehearse their XMass pieces.” (12/19/1896)
“went down to the mill to see Adams about taking the children and us to the Christmass annual. We all went in a sleigh.” (12/28/1896)
“Dell & the children went in town with the Hegelheimers to the Baptist Christmass Sunday School entertainment” (12/24/1897)
“Evening we went to the Christmass Sunday School Entertainment Venia & Olive spoke Venia made a failure.” (12/27/1897)
“The family all but Anna & I went to the Episcopal entertainment” (12/28/1898)
Special Tasks: The dolls, children and poultry all need to be dressed for Christmas.
“Dell is making dolls cloths for the children” (12/23/1891)
“killed 4 cocks” (12/23/1892)
“Dell finished the dress for Venia” (12/19/1896)
Christmas Tree: This tradition is well-ensconced in all the households. Many years, Llewellyn goes into the woods with one or more of the children, family and friends to cut, cart, and decorate the tree with various items including strung popcorn and twinkling candles “fired”.
“Afternoon, Venia & I went up in the lot and cut a Christmass tree Emps & Frank got one too” (12/24/1890)
Most named in llewellyn’s entries are friends and neighbors. However, Emps, Ammi and Minn are Llewellyn’s older siblings. Frank is Emps’ son.
“Fired the tree & Anna Bartholomew & Roy came over She helped put the things on the tree” (12/24/1892)
“Venia Olive Martha & I went on Pisga hills to cut a Christmas tree we got a pine one and it looks fine with the children’s things on it” (12/24/1894)
“We fired the Christmass tree” (12/24/1895)
“The children are popping and stringing corn for tree” (12/20/99)
Christmas Day: It looks very familiar to us today. This includes sharing gifts, Christmas stockings, feasts and visits to neighbors and friends to admire each others trees.
“Christmass we had a Tree for the children and right well they enjoyed it. I went up the pond with Emps to see others I also went to town got some bread butter etc, etc. Jim eat dinner here. Ammi & Emps were here.” (1890)
“The children arose before light to see the tree & all were delighted with their dolls etc. I went in to the Post Office & down to see Ammi saw Mr Boynton & family Dell did up the work early I worked a little around out doors cutting up some logs Dells pa & ma with Rubin came down he brought me a white P Rock Cock” (1891)
Even on Christmas Day, there is often work that needs to be done. “white P Rock Cock” refers to a Plymouth Rock Cock, a breed of chicken. The post office is open on Christmas Day? How times change.
“I went in town to see Ammi he is a little better. He is to get a pension carried him 2 cocks for Xmas. When I got home Woodstock was there We went up the pond on the ice.” (1892)
Llew’s brother Ammi, age 52, was a Civil War soldier who became eligible for a pension due to a law change in 1890 opening eligibility to those veterans who could no longer perform manual labor. No longer was it restricted to those wounded in the war.
“The children had a few things within stockings which they enjoyed very much I went in town to find my gloves found them at home The children Venia Olive & Martha eat dinner down to Emps. After tea Dell & I with Anna went down” (1893)
After Llew’s unnecessary trip to town, he can relax with Dell and their youngest Anna before joining the festivities. The three older daughters can go on ahead.
“The children got up before light to see the Christmas tree I fussed around put a shelf and made a stand for the begonia Florine & Kenneth Woodstock ate dinner with us The children plaid hide & seek out doors for though it rained last night it was mild colder tonight.” (1894)
“I cut the big limb from our near maple tree which broke the platform for the cloths line I burned the brush & the children burned the leaves I went in town to get team to come out after the children to go to the festival Olive & Martha spoke a piece they got a pair of scissors & hand kerchief. Dell got a gold pin & holder & a clothes wringer I got a pair of gloves match box etc. The children got the usual number of things” (1895)
The daughters got included in this major outdoor cleanup on Christmas Day. Perhaps receiving gifts at both the festival and at home made up for it.
“We made a feast and expected Mr & Mrs Hegelheimer & Mr & Mrs Elmer Farnham but Mr & Mrs Hegelheiner did not come until after dinner We had a very pleasant day. The children seemed quite pleased with their presents though they were meger” (1896)
Christmas plans can change abruptly. This year was a difficult one financially for the Barker family and the meagerness of the gifts stands out for Llewellyn.
“I split wood & cut Dell & I road our wheels a little way too cold Miss Edna Hoadley made a call. We went to Mr Hegelheimer Mr Nagles & Tom Wards to see their trees” (1897)
“Our wheels” are their bicycles that, with the mass-production of the safety bicycle in the 1890s, had become a very popular mode of adult transportation. They require no hay! This is just one entry attesting to the fact that gatherings at various homes for meals and visiting is a firmly established tradition in the 1890s.
“Will Lane and I took a walk up to Resivoir George Farnham & family and Edna Hoadley came up and eat dinner and supper with us We went down to the power house” (1898)
“The resivoir” is known currently as the Branford Supply Pond, very close to their home on Mill Plain Rd. The “power house” was constructed in 1895 on Route 1 as it crosses the Branford River. It remains a CL&P substation today.
“We went down to Tom Wards and to Nagels to see their Christmas tree. I also went up to supply pond Montgomery gave us a duck I hauled ashes on the walk I pulled the bean poles and trimmed grape vine Hegelheimers came evening” (1899)
This is the third reference Llewellyn makes to the gifting of poultry at Christmas during the 1890’s. In addition to working at the Branford Lockworks, food comes from his gardens and the poultry kept in the yard.
And finally, the part of the tradition still strong today, the return to the store of an unwanted gift. Dell had something else in mind for herself.
“I went over to New Haven to meet Venia I went to Minns got me a diary & exchanged Dells gold pin for another” (12/31/1895)
All these elements seem so familiar. So what’s different? For one, although fairly regular churchgoers, there is no mention of a Christmas Day service. Also, Venia has been taking piano lessons for years but there is no word about Christmas carol playing or singing in the home. Many other times Llewellyn mentions groups gathering around the piano to sing “the old tunes”. Missing also is Santa, his eight tiny reindeer and sleigh. The only mention of a sleigh was the one in which the Barker family glided over the snow to get to the “Christmass annual” in 1896.
The biggest difference, however, seems to be in a matter of degrees. The Christmas season is so much shorter: only about a week. It is much less complicated. The tree is cut from the backlot and decorated by the children. The gifts are simple ones, often handmade. The emphasis is on family, neighborhood, and community gatherings.
So much of these 1890s Christmas celebrations are very familiar to us.
So much seems exponentially different.
Llewellyn’s observations in the diaries from his youth about the Christmas season bear little resemblance to those in the 1890s when he is the head of the household. His first mention of the word “Christmas “ wasn’t until 1868 when, at age 18, he is living with and working for his cousin Aaron Barker and Aaron’s wife Mary in Wisconsin.
“he (Aaron) wants to leave out earley to get the Chrismuss tree” (12/24/1868)
”Today is chrismas I have enjoyed myself very much Aaron and I went a gunning I shot 3 partrig in the evening I read paper and history Aaron and Mary has gone to bed and I am up all alone.” (12/25/1868)
For both Llewellyn and for many of us today, the celebration of Christmas has changed dramatically in our own lifetimes. This, we can expect, will be the experience of generations yet to be born.