BLOOMINGTON — When Sarah and Judge David Davis moved into their new home on Monroe Street in the 1870s, Sarah celebrated Christmas by decorating with evergreens.

The greenery adorned the wire that held all the massive paintings throughout the house and was made into wreaths to hang in each of the windows.

Sarah, whose husband had been an Abraham Lincoln political adviser and was then a U.S. Supreme Court justice, also brought in a Christmas tree and garnished it with handmade ornaments, small toys and candles.

The ideas were new to those who lived in the Midwest and a dramatic change from the pagan celebrations that had taken place here and in Europe since before the Middle Ages.

“Americans were taming Christmas,” said Marcia Young, site manager of the David Davis Mansion. “They were trying to stabilize society … bring the spiritual back to Christmas.”

Celebrations had been far from that for years. The only ones marking the occasion were young, unemployed and impoverished men. 

“They dressed (as) grotesque figures and paraded up and down city streets,” Young said.  “The celebration lasted two weeks.  It was very much like Halloween.”

The men would drink heavily and go to the houses of the wealthy, demanding things in exchange for the family’s safety.

The wealthy allowed the behavior to continue, Young said, so the lowest of classes could let off steam.

The partying took place between Christmas and New Years after animals had been slaughtered and preserved for winter and the alcohol had fermented.  The impoverished knew they may not live through the harsh winter.

The practice continued until the 1830s and ‘40s when police departments were organized and officers started arresting revelers.  The change started in the East, where Sarah Walker Davis was raised, and began moving toward the “Wild West,” where she and her husband had moved in 1839.

By the 1860s, Sarah introduced the idea of bringing Christmas trees into churches in Bloomington, Young said.  It also was about that time Sarah and her husband began exchanging Christmas presents.

In a Dec. 26, 1864, letter to her sister, Fanny Walker Williams, Sarah wrote, “My good man … wished to remember so many at Christmas that he kept Mrs. Patterson and I running to find what he wanted.  I went to town three days with her and finally she had to go again.”

The new Christmas practices were designed to “to bring the family together in love … to focus on kids, make it safe and bring it into the home … to teach spiritual values to children,” Young said.

Giving gifts rewarded the children for their good behavior.  In the early years, the gifts were hung on the tree along with the ornaments.  Revealing the decorated tree for the first time was a big event.

“It was the element of surprise,” Young said.  “It was dark early. The tree was covered with ornaments and (candle) lights blazing.  It had quite an effect on the kids.”

Sarah had learned about the Christmas tree from a relative, Catharine Maria Sedgwick. Sedgwick was a famous author who wrote about a Christmas tree in a short story, “New Year’s Day,” that appeared in a popular Christmas gift book, “The Token and Atlantic Souvenir: A Christmas and New year’s Present,” published in 1835.

“Most things we do today were the invention of authors,” Young said.

After Sarah died in 1879, her daughter-in-law, Ella, took over decorating the mansion for Christmas. Through the years, traditions changed. 

When glass ornaments were used to decorate the tree instead of home-made ones, Young said children’s presents were wrapped and placed under the tree. To stop the children from rushing toward the tree for the presents, parents hid a pickle ornament in the tree and challenged the children to find it from afar.

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The child who located the pickle first received an extra gift.

Decoration evolution

David Davis Mansion displays reveal the evolution of Christmas practices. According to site manager Marcia Young:

  • Jolly old Saint Nicholas wasn’t in the beginning.  He started out as a stern bishop who had an evil twin brother who looked like the devil.  Author Washington Irving introduced the first “Nicholas,” a Dutch merchant and more friendly character, in the early 1800s.
  • In 1848, author Clement Clark Moore introduced Saint Nicholas, a peddler who appealed to the lower class.
  • Author Thomas Nast created the image we now know as Santa around the time of the Civil War.
  • While Washington Irving’s work really introduced Christmas traditions, Charles Dickens is given more credit because “he wrote a much better story.”
  • President Theodore Roosevelt prompted creation of the first artificial tree because he was concerned about depleting the nation’s forests.  Artificial trees were made from goose feathers.
  • Late 19th century farmers started the “snow tree,” created by stripping tree branches and wrapping them in fresh cotton.  It was adopted by others in the early 20th century. 
  • Victorians invented the first revolving tree as a way to entice children.
  • Louis Prang, a printer, invented the first Christmas card in the mid-19th century.  They were postcards, not folding cards.  He did such a quality job on the cards, he ended up going bankrupt.  He went on to make crayons.
  • Sending Christmas cards became more popular when the Post Office changed from charging the recipient to charging the sender for delivery. 


What: Christmas at Clover Lawn, tours of historic David Davis Mansion decorated for Dickens-style holiday celebration, with music, refreshments and costumed tour guides.

Where: David Davis Mansion State Historic Site, 1000 E. Monroe St., Bloomington.

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Wednesday through Dec. 31  (last tour starts at 4 p.m.).

More Information: (309) 828-1084.


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