Glencairn Museum News | Number 12, 2016
Christmas in Pennsylvania features vintage objects and images from the National Christmas Center and Museum (Lancaster County) and the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University (Berks County). “I’m very excited about the material we have on exhibition this year. We’ve developed close working relationships with other institutions with Christmas collections, and they have loaned us some real treasures,” says Ed Gyllenhaal, who curates the Museum’s collection of religious art as well as the Christmas exhibitions assembled each holiday season.
What was Christmas like in the countryside in southeastern Pennsylvania? In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, homemade cardboard Christmas ornaments were popular among the Pennsylvania Dutch:
“In the country, where trees may be had for the cutting, a little ingenuity will enable any family to have a beautiful Christmas tree at very little expense. With a few sheets of bright colored paper, some pasteboard, some gay tarletan and a generous supply of popcorn, one may make cornucopias, gold fish, stars and balls, Christmas fairies, and graceful festoons enough to decorate a large tree very handsomely, with an outlay of less than one dollar” (The Bucks County Intelligencer, December 22, 1874).
The cardboard used to make homemade tree ornaments was recycled from old boxes, and the shapes were often based on patterns found in women’s periodicals. Small chromolithographed pictures could be purchased or adapted from the colorful trade cards handed out at stores. Sometimes the cardboard was covered with cotton batting, edged with tinsel, and sprinkled with images of angels and stars. The subject matter of these ornaments includes religious images such as the gates of heaven, anchors (a Christian symbol of hope) and crosses, as well as everyday household objects.
And what was Christmas like in the city of Philadelphia? The first live Santa Claus at a store is believed to have appeared in Philadelphia in 1841:
“Criscingle, or Santa Claus. Much as our young readers have heard and imagined of this worthy character as the bountiful patron of good children on Christmas Eve, they probably never expected to behold the real personage in the very act of descending a chimney, as our friend Parkinson [a confectioner and restauranteur] has shown him over his well thronged shop door in Chestnut street. He was decidedly the attraction yesterday and last evening, and monopolized more than his share of the attention of the young folks, which is usually bestowed with undivided admiration on the bon bons in the windows” (The Philadelphia North American, December 25, 1841).
For many families, a trip to downtown Philadelphia on the trolley or train marked the beginning of the Christmas season. Market Street was home to the “Big Six” department stores: John Wanamaker, Gimbel Brothers, Strawbridge & Clothier’s, Lit Brothers, Snellenburg’s, and Frank & Seder. Each store tried to outdo the others with elaborate window and in-store decorations, Christmas concerts featuring audience caroling, toylands for the children, and even the opportunity to visit with Santa himself.
Glencairn Museum wishes to thank Patrick Donmoyer of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University, and Jim Morrison of the National Christmas Center and Museum in Lancaster, PA, for their generous loan of objects for the Christmas in Pennsylvania exhibition. Christmas in Pennsylvania, World Nativities, and the Christmas in the Castle tour run through January 8, 2017.
A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.