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  • Writer's pictureNancy Rogers

Christmas in the Big House

I’m often asked if I think Sarah Vaux ever got to see a Christmas tree. Could she have even had a Christmas Tree? I’m pretty sure the answer is no. I’d love to think she did, but it’s not likely.

We know that her husband, Percival, occasionally visited Philadelphia on business. We also know that Philadelphia had many German immigrants, who are credited with introducing the the Christmas to America in the 1820s. But to put the two together, is a stretch.

I’d like to think that Percival may have seen a Christmas tree in a hotel lobby or private home and rushed back to the plantation to introduce it to his family. Southerns loved glitzy, shiny things, you know—unlike their stuffy, Puritanical cousins in New England. It was in the Southern States where the Christmas tree really took off.

I feel extra sad that Sarah didn’t live long enough to hear the classic Christmas poem: “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” by Clement Clarke Moore. She couldn't have. It was originally published in the New York’s Sentinel newspaper on December 23, 1823. Sarah died July 21, 1823, five months too early.

So how would have Sarah and her family celebrated Christmas? Even though they wouldn’t have had a Christmas tree, they would have filled the house with evergreen bows and garlands displayed in windowsills, above doorways, on mantle tops and in large crystal bowls resting on tabletops.

The family was wealthy, don’t forget, so they wouldn’t have stopped at greenery, their Christmas decorations would have included clusters of expensive pineapples and oranges, lemons, persimmons, quince and no doubt, huge bouquets of white camellias from Sarah’s fast gardens.

Ribbon was made of silk back then, and ribbon, was therefore very expensive—that’s why narrow ribbons were the style for Colonial and early plantation-era women’s shoes. But I’d like to think that Sarah used them lavishly.

I wish I had photographs from those times, but a book cover like this goes a long way. I highly recommend this beautiful book by Patricia C. and Frederick L McKissack. The illustrations are exceptional and the book is very descriptive. It emphasizes Christmas traditions in the Big House and traditions within the Quarter. Both are touching. I wish I could say that I had written the book. It's lovely.

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