Monday, December 16, 2013

Digging Deeper: Finding Christmas

Christmas has been around forever, hasn't it? Well, at least since Christ was born. But when we have long standing traditions engrained into our lives it is hard to imagine it any other way. Authors must check their facts to authenticate their cultural settings so I thought I share with you some of my own research discoveries on this very special time of year.

Since I have long been immersed in learning about Colonial American culture I was aware that Christmas was pretty much non-existant in the New England colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. Christmas was celebrated mostly by the middle and southern colonies and the northeast, particularly Massachusetts, refrained from the gaudy holiday due to their Puritan influence. So if you ever catch me writing Christmas into a New England set colonial I better have a good reason.

When writing my novella 'Tis the Season for Mistletoe Memories, I had to do a little research on how—if Christmas was celebrated—in New Jersey in the year 1820. What began as a book title—Mistletoe Memories—soon evolved into a plot element when the mistletoe found in New Jersey became the spot for my characters first kiss. Many Americans knew little about the holiday and it was Washington Irving's Christmas stories written in 1820 that revived the English festive celebrations with the remembrance of old St. Nicholas and kissing under the mistletoe.

"The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases."
Old Christmas From the Sketch Book of Washington Irving
My research also told me that the tradition of Christmas trees in America is documented by 1830 and that they were in German American homes much earlier. I included a table-top Christmas tree in my German heroine's new home and my Dutch hero gifted her with an ornament of tiny Dutch shoes, reminiscent of a Christmas tradition from his country of leaving treats inside the shoes on Christmas Eve (now what does that remind you of?). Thus the 1820 setting in my German community of Schooley's Mountain, New Jersey was a perfect fit for my Christmas novella. I even made Washington Irving a family friend of my characters.

My next Christmas tale is Upon a Christmas Tree Schooner in Guideposts Books A Cup of Christmas Cheer. This story takes us to the other end of the 19th century in 1875 to the German community of Milwaukee Wisconsin. I'd heard about the schooners that went out late season on the Great Lakes to bring back Christmas trees from the north to the Germans who wanted trees for their holiday celebrations. The tradition had been long enjoyed by the American German immigrants so by then it was a very lucrative haul. My whole story revolved around this custom which proves that holiday history can be a great inspiration for writing fiction, as it proved to be for many of the other authors who contributed to this 2 volume anthology.

"O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How sturdy God hath made thee!
Thou bidds't us all place faithfully
Our trust in God, unchangingly!"
~ O Tannenbaum, German Christmas Carol
Writers, how will your characters acknowledge the Christmas season and Christmas Day? How is the holiday celebrated within the context of your setting—do they have the day off, is it a federal or state holiday, do they go to church, have a family gathering, exchange gifts, decorate, offer charity? Don't forget other days associated with the season:  St. Lucia Day, Boxing Day,  2 Days of Christmas, Epiphany, and those other cultures and religions might be celebrating like Hanukkah.

Whether your write or read fiction, finding Christmas in our stories adds a delightful element that often touches on our own holiday memories!

May you be blessed as you find Christmas this year!

The History of Christmas in America

GIVEAWAY:  In honor of Christmas I'll be giving away a copy of MISTLETOE MEMORIES to one commenter. I'd love to hear about your favorite novels or novellas with Christmas themes!

Carla Olson Gade has written two books to bring joy to your Christmas. Her novella "'Tis the Season" is featured in Mistletoe Memories and a short story "Upon a Christmas Tree Schooner" can be found in Guidepost Books, A Cup of Christmas Cheer. Carla shares her writing journey at Adventures of the Heart.


Linda Marie Finn said...

I like Little Women, a Log Cabin Christmas with many authors. but Little Women is my favorite.
Linda Finn

Lane Hill House said...

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry remains my favorite.
Carla, I enjoyed your post so much! My German grandfather died before I was born. I wonder if his family originally settled in Milwaukee. My mother's family lived in Madison. What a neat cover on Old Christmas. I really like the addition of visuals in a post ~ brings it to life. May you have a very Merry Christmas! Kathleen ~ Lane Hill House

Susan P said...

I had never heard of the berry picking part of the mistletoe history. Very interesting!
My favorite story is always a Christmas Carol. I don't even know that I have read any romance novels that surround Christmas time. I must remedy that!
lattebooks at hotmail dot com

Anonymous said...

I adore Little Women, but I would have to say A Christmas Carol is my favorite. It has woven itself through all of the chapters in mine and my children's lives. They are 27 and 31 years old now and they both love the story as much as I do. Both participated in productions of the play this year as Nephew Fred. It is a really great story.
My son just completed his degree in History this week and is the Living History Director at Locust Grove in Louisville, Kentucky. I would love to win this book to commemorate this even. Thanks for the opportunity.
Karen C.

Anonymous said...

This was a very interesting post Carla. I have always loved hanging the Mistletoe. But, this is the first time I ever heard about the picking of the berries. Never anyone around to kiss anymore. I love all of the pioneer and log cabin stories. I love Christmas in the Little House on the Prairie books, and loved a plain and Simple Christmas book by Amy Clipston. And, I'm sure I would love this one if I win it. Thanks for a chance. Oh and never forget the Rudolf book. I LOVE that one. MAXIE mac262(at)me(dot)com

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