Dec 23, 2022

Our Ancestors’ Christmases

December 23, 2022

It’s a couple of days before Christmas, and most of my rushing around buying, wrapping, cooking, mailing and decorating is done. As I sit by the glowing Christmas tree, my thoughts have strayed to my ancestors’ Christmases.


One of my great grandfathers spent Christmas of 1867 aboard an immigrant ship bound from Liverpool to New York City. He was seventeen years old and was travelling alone that Christmas Day to begin a new life in America. He was the only Swede on board; the rest of the passengers were mostly English and Irish with a few Germans scattered among them. Speaking no English, he couldn’t communicate with them or the crew. He found the food on board good but skimpy. On Christmas, he overheard other passengers saying a phrase that seemed to magically produce extra rations. He tried it himself. He never forgot that Christmas when he learned that saying “for two” got him an extra helping of the special Christmas dinner. He didn’t understand what it meant. As an always-hungry teenager, he was thrilled to discover the key to extra food.


Another great grandparent, a great grandmother this time, spent Christmas of 1877 in New Zealand with her family. The description of their celebration sounds like something from Dickens – a Victorian extravaganza. They feasted on roast beef, ham and roast pork accompanied by Yorkshire pudding, fresh peas and new potatoes (December is summer in New Zealand), fresh bread and four kinds of pie. Later the whole company played games like blindman’s bluff and charades until the scandalously late hour of eleven pm. In a nod to the summery weather, the family spent the day after Christmas at the beach enjoying a picnic and swimming in the sea.


Finally, a contingent of my ancestors were Puritans. They landed in New England in the 1600s. They believed that the celebration of Christmas was pagan. Work and chores went on as usual. In fact, they passed laws forbidding any observance of the holidays. It’s hard to imagine how long and dull the harsh New England winter must have seemed without any midwinter holiday festivities.


These are just a few of the Christmas celebration stories I’ve discovered through my genealogy research.  I’ve uncovered many of these stories from autobiographical sketches, journals kept by LDS missionaries and through books on the history of New England.


These stories have enriched my own Christmas celebration and reminded me that the past was very different from today. Maybe you’ve discovered information about your own ancestors’ Christmases. If you’ll be with family and friends this holiday season, it could be a good time to pass these stories along. It may give some of your family a new appreciation for your genealogy obsession.


Family history is more than names and dates. It can bring our ancestors to life, especially at Christmas time.


Merry Christmas,


Carol Stetser