Because the most recent book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, Pilfered Promises, is set during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, 1880, I spent a good deal of time researching how residents of that city were celebrating the holidays that year, including looking for articles in the San Francisco Chronicle. What I found was that many of the traditions that we are familiar with today started in the Nineteenth century…including the importance of advertising special holiday sales!
“The Arcade: We are offering this week SPECIAL and EXTRAORDINARY INDUCEMENTS to buyers of HOLIDAY PRESENTS, especially in our SILK DEPARTMENT” ––San Francisco Chronicle, December 19, 1880
However, these traditions were actually relatively new. Before the mid-1880s, most native-born Americans, particularly Protestants from the Northeast, saw Thanksgiving and not Christmas as the key national holiday. In fact, throughout the 1800s, a number of Protestant denominations were very resistant to the celebration of the birth of Christ in any fashion beyond religious observances.
Not surprisingly, it was the Southern state of Louisiana, where there was a significant Catholic population, that first declared December 25th a holiday (in 1837), and Christmas wasn’t declared a national legal holiday until 1875. The huge influx of European immigrants to the United States, starting in the 1840s, many from Catholic countries, also played an important role in shaping the way Christmas began to be celebrated, especially in the larger cities.
This multi-cultural perspective certainly held true for San Francisco in 1880, which makes sense since at that date three-quarters of the city’s population of over 233,000 were immigrants or their native-born children.
“But the presents would lose half their charm did they not come through the medium of the huge stocking, religiously pinned to the chimney side…” ––San Francisco Chronicle, December 25, 1880
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M. Louisa Locke, December 23, 2016