To the Reverend Joseph R Wilson and his wife Jessie, Woodrow Wilson’s parents, Christmas in Staunton, Virginia in the 1850’s was marked by social gatherings and special foods prepared for family and friends. Stores stocked a variety of delicacies including fresh oysters, figs, raisins, tamarinds, and currents. Confectioneries advertised every kind of delicious cake imaginable and suggested that customers order early to obtain the best selection. E.M. Cushing and Company ran ads in the Staunton Spectator addressed to “Our Old Friends” which proclaimed they were “well prepared as ever to bake all kinds of cake for families; and we will endeavor to please all who favor us with their patronage. – Give us a chance and we will suit you.” Candies and imported chocolates from France were featured, too. Local Historian Lewis Waddell noted that his family baked cakes “cut in shapes of horses, deer, hogs, birds, and fish.” Local merchants made sure they had extra stock of all manner of seasonings, spices, and other specialty items for Staunton households.
Decorations, particularly for a Presbyterian minister’s home like that of the Reverend and Mrs. Wilson, tended to be minimal. Simple garlands and modest arrangements of greenery and berries were used to decorate the home. The Christmas tree would have been quite small and probably would have been displayed on a table top. Prior to 1870 the tree ornaments would have been handmade. Some decorations would include walnuts covered with real gold and silver leaf. Designs of many shapes including stars were cut out of pasteboard and covered with gold and silver paper, and cookies were suspended by strings. Strips of paper were made into chains and candles were fastened on tree branches. Presents also hung from the tree. The first Christmas trees in Staunton and Augusta County were displayed in 1855, the same year the Wilsons moved to Staunton. Christmas trees were uncommon at that time, except in German households. In general the holiday emphasis was on socializing, family gatherings and special meals prepared for these occasions. The elaborate Victorian Christmas that spawned many of the traditions we now associate with the 19th century came later, after the Civil War.
Two familiar traditions that gained popularity by the 1850s were gift giving and Santa Claus. The True American reported in December 1855 that local children were eager for the arrival of Kris Kringle, who would come down the chimney and fill their stockings with candies, cakes, and toys. The Rev. Benjamin Mosby Smith, the first minister to live in the Presbyterian manse where Wilson was born, commented that his children were up early on Christmas morning in 1848 and “in a great commotion about their presents.” One of the girls was “quite charmed with her bedstead” for her doll.
One more aspect of the Christmas season in Staunton and one that generally continued into the New Year was noise making. Residents typically awoke on Christmas morning with the sound of gunfire, firecrackers, and boisterous youths yelling in the streets. On the one hand, the local paper urged the city to increase its patrols during the holidays to calm peoples’ anxiety about these “abominable nuisances” but on the other hand, it noted one January that the bad weather between Christmas and January 1 resulted in a “dull and uninteresting season.”
For others, Christmas was business as usual. Many shops were open on Christmas Day, and if court session fell on the 25th, it was held. Rabbit hunting was a ritual for some, while men of Scotch-Irish decent dressed in disguise called “Shanghai-ing” and rode throughout the countryside.
Additionally, a feature of the Christmas season in Staunton of the 1850s was the return of slaves who were rented out for the year to their respective homes. Contracts for rented slaves were generally made from New Years Day to Christmas leaving the week between for rest, visits with family and Christmas cheer. This was certainly true of the “servants” who were rented out from local farmers by the Church for use in the Manse where the Wilson’s lived. There was no work for the slaves for this brief time; parties were held with music, dancing, food, and drink. Often slaves would come home only to be hired out after the first of the new year, a common practice in Augusta County. Sometimes the hiring took place on Christmas Day perhaps followed by a slave auction on New Year’s Day. This day was called “Sorrow day” by the slaves.