Though modern Americans may find it hard to believe, decorating during the winter holidays has not always been widely accepted and was actually quite slow to catch on in the United States. In fact, the entire celebration of Christmas in the U.S. is a relatively recent phenomenon. As late as 1886, the Methodist newspaper The Christian Advocate described Christmas as a day “on which more sin and sacrilege and pagan foolishness is committed than on any other day of the year.”
As members of the Disciples of Christ, James and Lucretia Garfield acknowledged the importance of the December 25 date to Christians and looked forward to the holidays as a time to come together as a family. As Victorian Americans, however, they did not do a great deal of decorating for Christmas (though they did do at least some exchanging of gifts). Therefore, the decorations you see if you visit James A. Garfield National Historic Site this time of year are small and simple, accurately reflecting both Mrs. Garfield’s personal taste and societal norms of the era.
From the diary of James A. Garfield, we have a small window into his family celebrations of Christmas over the years:
December 25, 1872: Staid home all day and helped children with Christmas sport…Jimmy fell on the steps and struck his mouth on the iron railing and before he got off his lips froze to it. Had much difficulty in getting him off.
December 25, 1874: Awoke early to the exclamations of delight from the children at the presents which had been distributed during the night.
December 24, 1875: Spend most of the day with Crete selecting Christmas gifts for the children. Becoming very difficult to find appropriate gifts as they grow older. (We) purchase unnecessary things because they are pretty.
December 25, 1879: Christmas morning filled the house with joy. For several hours the children were busy with their presents and Crete and I experienced even a greater pleasure than their own in seeing their happiness.
Finally, we present this New Year’s Eve quote from President-elect Garfield during the last holiday he would spend at his beloved Mentor farm. Some interpretation of his words could lead to the conclusion that he had an inkling about what was ahead of him in the new year of 1881:
I regret that I am too much occupied to review the impressions which the year has brought…I close the year with a sad conviction that I am bidding good-by to the freedom of private life, and to a long series of happy years, which I fear terminate with 1880.
Happy holidays from everyone at James A. Garfield National Historic Site! We look forward to serving you in 2013!
-Allison Powell, Park Ranger