During the city’s first 150 or so years, the residents of the colony that would become didn’t celebrate Christmas the way we celebrate it now: by buying gifts, decorating a tree, and telling stories about Santa Claus coming down chimneys.
In fact, New Yorkers weren’t celebrating Christmas at all. The Dutch holiday of St. Nicholas Day, on December 6, and then New Year’s Day, were the festive holidays of the month.
By the Gilded Age, however, Christmas as we know it was in full swing. And one writer who wrote a book about life in New York details the consumerism, feast-eating, and general festive mood that constitute the modern Christmas season.
“For weeks before the great day of the feast the city is in gala attire,” wrote James McCabe, author of New York by Gaslight, from 1882.
“The stores present a brighter and more attractive appearance than at any other season of the year, the streets are filled with larger throngs, and the stages, street cars, and trains of the Elevated roads are more crowded than ever.” (Above, a painting of shoppers by Alice Barber Stephens, in 1896.)
The Christmas tree, introduced in the 1830s and 1840s, had become a staple of every home by this time. (Above left, a card from a New York business from the era.)
The cross streets in Manhattan that constituted the biggest shopping districts—Broadway, 14th Street (at right in 1899, next to the old Macy’s store), 23rd Street, and Grand Street among them—”are all driving a thriving trade.”
“It’s the money spending time of the year, and those who are out mean business,” he wrote of the crowds jostling on sidewalks. “Here is a woman with a bundle of toys in her arms, surmounted by a huge turkey for the Christmas dinner. There goes a man struggling under the weight of a Christmas tree, and sweeping his way through the mass with its thick, sharp branches.”
“Boys with penny whistles, young men with tin horns, render the streets discordant with their noise,” he notes, also describing the “half naked” kids gazing into shop windows “with wistful eyes.” They “will not be forgotten on the morrow.” (Above, a parade of expressmen with packages on their wagons to deliver.)
McCabe noted the window displays seen during the day and the electric lights ablaze inside stores once darkness fell. Inside homes, passersby could see families decorating their Christmas trees. “Something of this may be seen from the cars of the Elevated roads, as you whirl by second-story windows of the houses along the route.”
(Above, a montage by Thomas Nast of sentimental family scenes at Christmas 1863, from Harper’s Weekly.)
About the elevated train, which were built atop several avenues in Manhattan in the 1870s: “In the cars it is almost impossible to move, because of the great bundles of merchandise. You stumble over huge turkeys and market-baskets filled to overflowing with all manner of eatables….”
Those turkeys and other feast foods could be found at the city’s great markets, like Washington Market in today’s Tribeca.
On Christmas Eve the market stays open past 11 p.m., selling “long rows of turkeys” hanging from the hooks of stalls, as well as sugar-cured hams.
After the feast was purchased, Christmas Eve turned into Christmas day. (A market scene, at left)
“When the bell of old Trinity tolls the last stroke of the hour of midnight, there is a momentary hush in the streets, and then rolling down from their lofty height, through the dark thoroughfares and over the silent waters of the bay, come the rich, glad tones of the chimes, filling the air with a burst of melody,” McCabe wrote.
McCabe wrote about the poor of the city, explaining that the “numerous charitable and benevolent institutions spread bountiful tables for their inmates….the hearts of the little ones are gladdened with toys, trinkets, and other presents suited to their needs and years.” (A dinner for the poor, below right)
What else was similar? Matinees. “All the theaters give special performances, termed ‘matinees,’ in the afternoon. The houses are thronged, and the managers pocket large receipts. At night, balls, festivals, and entertainments of all kinds, close the day.”
[Top image: NYPL; second image: MCNY; 43.425.12; third image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY 2010.11.8795; fifth image: Thomas Nast from Harper’s Weekly, 1863, NYPL; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: NYPL; eighth image: MCNY 37.351.16; ninth image: MCNY]