|Title||Celebrations in the 1830s|
|Type||Papers and Articles: Historical Notes|
A listing and brief description of holidays celebrated in early nineteenth-century New England.
As descendants of the Puritans, rural New Englanders in the early nineteenth century continued their ancestors’ very limited observance of holidays and celebrations. Throughout the calendar year the following occasions would be recognized.
New Year’s Day was acknowledged by exchanging New Year’s greetings and sometimes settling accounts with trading partners. Less frequently, presents were exchanged or a New Year’s Ball was attended.
Washington’s Birthday was an increasingly observed holiday, often marked by orations, balls and formal dinners where men drank toasts to political leaders and causes. Washington Cake was traditionally served along with various punches. (A recipe for Washington Cake can be found at http://www.osv.org/education/Activities.html)
April Fools’ Day was sometimes commented on in diaries and children’s books. It appears that it was recognized as a day for practical jokes and pranks as it continues to be today.
Another traditional April occurrence was Fast Day, a day proclaimed by the state government, not the churches, and observed by religious services, public fasting, repentance and prayer. Fast Day was a reminder of New England’s Puritan roots, but by the 1830s it often involved less prayer and fasting than it once had. There are many references to foods associated with Fast Day, both fasting as well as celebratory. Children of a very religious family often hoarded food in anticipation of fasting. Oranges were often served in urban areas that were quickly turning the day into a festive holiday.
In May, one of the Training Days required during the year was held. On Training Days men between the ages of 18 and 45 who were required to serve in the militia spent the day in military drill. Other citizens often enjoyed a break from their everyday tasks as they gathered around the common to watch the military exercises. Gingerbread booths are often depicted as being set up during Training Days in genre paintings.
Election Day, a misnamed celebration of the annual installation of the governor and some other elected officials, occurred later in the month of May. (In Massachusetts, the governor served a one-year term. The actual voting was conducted during town meetings in November.) Training Days and Election Days had something of a carnival atmosphere, with groups of adults and young people visiting, excited children running about and, for many of the men, plenty of drink from local taverns. Sometimes balls were held on the evening of Election Day. Many recipes for Election Day Cake appear in cookbooks through the mid-nineteenth century.
Independence Day, July the 4th, was one of the two most important and widely celebrated holidays in early nineteenth-century New England. It was celebrated with church services, patriotic orations, processions, public dinners for the men followed by toasts, and dances in the evenings. Picnics with cold meat, bread, and cheese, were popular but the most common reference is to Independence Cake. Similar to a modern day coffeecake, and like the Election Day cake, it was made with flour, yeast, spices, and currants or raisins.
Thanksgiving Day was the most important annual holiday in New England. Every year, a day of thanksgiving was proclaimed separately by the governor of each New England state. Thanksgiving was always on a Thursday, but its date varied between late November and early December. (Thanksgiving was not a national holiday until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a holiday of thanksgiving.) Thanksgiving was celebrated with church services in the morning followed by feasting the rest of the day. Since this is the ultimate food holiday, many traditions about Thanksgiving foods started in the early nineteenth century. Roasted turkey, chicken pie, turnip, squash, onions, bread, plum pudding, mince and pumpkin pies were traditional foods. Many foods that appeared on the nineteenth-century table, such as Marlborough Pudding (an apple custard-like pie), are much less common today in New England. Families gathered together and Thanksgiving was a traditional and popular time for weddings. The wedding ceremony was most often preformed at home and fancy foods were usually served to the guests after the ceremony. Wedding Cake was often served for this occasion. A fruited spice cake, it was labor intensive and the ingredients were expensive, but it remained a tradition until the 1960s.
In keeping with the Protestant Calvinist tradition that rejected the liturgical year, most rural New Englanders, except for a small number of Episcopalians and a few Catholics, did not celebrate Christmas or Easter either as holy days or holidays.
After 1840, great waves of immigration from Europe would reshape American culture and add to the American calendar many holy days and ethnic celebrations, as immigrants from other nations with different religions and traditions came to America. Most of the official national holidays we celebrate today (Martin Luther King Day, Lincoln’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Veteran’s Day) came about because of events later in American history.
In the early nineteenth century, Native American Indians and African Americans were minority groups in New England. The traditional celebrations of Native American Indians, if performed in public places, occasionally attracted some notice among Anglo-Americans. In larger New England cities, African Americans celebrated their own version of the state’s official Election Day in May or June, usually following the inauguration of the governor. People of color feasted, paraded, and elected their own black “King” or “Governor.” However, most of the cultural traditions of Native American Indians and African Americans were discouraged by the dominant white culture and observed privately, if at all.
Individual’s birthdays were rarely celebrated with presents and parties. Our modern birthday song “Happy Birthday to You” had not even been written. In the early nineteenth century, devout New Englanders often observed birthdays as days of reflection and prayer.