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Christmas in Early America
Nature Bulletin No. 326-A   December 21, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Captain John Smith, on one of his exploring expeditions, wrote an account of what was probably the first Christmas celebrated in this country: "The extreme winde, rayne, frost and snow caused us to keep Christmas among the savages where we were never more merry, nor feed on more plenty of good Oysters, Fish, Flesh, Wilde Fowl and good bread, nor never had better fires in England. .

In 1621, Governor Bradford's diary records that "on the day called Christmas", their first at Plymouth, the Pilgrims were called out to work as usual but some of them said it went against their consciences and, instead, played games such as "stool-ball" and "pitching the bar". The Puritans, more bigoted, did not believe December 25 was the date of the Nativity, prohibited any "pagan revelry", and in 1659 enacted a law in Massachusetts which provided that "Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like... shall be subjected to a fine of five shillings". It was not until the middle of the last century that Christmas became a day of gift-giving, Christmas trees and a general festivity in New England or among those "Yankees" who first settled the Chicago region and northern Illinois.

The fun-loving Dutch colonists of New .Amsterdam, although they observed Christmas with church services, carols and quiet family gatherings, made it their principal holiday when "Sint Klass" (St. Nicholas) came on his white horse to fill the children's stockings. In our southern colonies there was much visiting between plantations, feasting, dancing and fireworks, with a "Christmas gift" to every servant and a holiday as long as the huge Yule log burned. The Christmas tree was introduced during the War of the Revolution by the Hessian soldiers who later founded communities of "Pennsylvania Dutch". The names Kriss-Kringle -- a misunderstanding of their German word for the Christ-child -- St. Nicholas and Santa Claus, did not become generally applied to the children's patron saint until the 1820's and 1830's. Other old-country customs were brought here by the Scandinavians, the Italians, the Slaves and other nationalities who have added flavor to America's "Melting Pot".

There was quite a celebration at Fort Dearborn on Christmas Day, 1804. It had snowed for a week and the lake was frozen as far as the eye could see. A party of soldiers, led by Francis Ouilmette, had gotten a spruce tree from the grove of evergreens north of the Chicago River. Other soldiers and coureurs de bois had brought in a fat buck, wild turkeys, raccoon, rabbits and prairie chicken. There was also a roast pig, a magnificent pudding blazing with brandy, and toasts were drunk - - out of silver goblets made by John Kinzie -- to President Jefferson and Henry Dearborn, Secretary of War. There was music by the fife and drum, and by Kinzie's fiddle. He and Mrs. Whistler, the captain's wife, led a reel. Black Partridge and his band of Indians, who had "drooped in", did a corn dance while wolves howled outside the stockade.

The first Christmas here, however, was observed in 1674 in a rude log hut on the shore of the south branch of the Chicago River by Father Marquette who, true to his promise, had returned from Green Bay, bringing four large pictures of the Virgin Mary for the Illinois Indians. At midnight he celebrated mass for threescore savages clad in buffalo robes, and then they had a feast: a big wooden bowl of porridge mixed with grease and fed each one with the only spoon, fat meat of the "wild cattle" and, as a special treat, boiled dog.

You probably won't have boiled dog but have a Merry Christmas anyway.

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