Artifact Corner: A Christmas Letter

Hi Everyone, and welcome to a special holiday edition of our series artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a letter from Lucy Ann Swetland to her step-sister, Francis Henrietta Delord. She wrote the letter some time in late December of 1829. At the time, Francis Henrietta was at a boarding school in Champlain, NY, and Lucy Ann was at home in Plattsburgh. It looks like Francis did not come home for Christmas that year, so her sister was letting her know what had happened at home. It might seem a bit weird that Francis did not just come home for the holidays, after all, it is only 21.5 miles. Well, in the 1820’s and 1830’s the roads were not as well groomed as they are today. So, using a horse and buggy, the trip probably would have taken about 7 to 8 hours one way.

Here is the letter that Lucy Ann sent to Francis:

“Dear Sister,
I have arrived here safe on Tuesday. I have spent my time very pleasantly since I have been home. I have been up to Aunt Maria’s. I suppose you want to know what I had in my stocking, or outside of it. I had a basket, something like the one Ma sent to Henrietta, only it was a little larger and prettier. Ma and me thought that a work basket would be more useful, so I am going to change it at Uncle Myer’s store for another of the same price, one like Ma’s work basket. I also had a scarlet handkerchief, cost a dollar, very large, and some raisins and a stick of candy. Rebecca sends this little sugar toy to Abram, which she got in her stocking. She also got two yards of check for aprons and raisins. Goodbye, dear sister. Your off sister, Lucy Ann Swetland.”

This letter is a fantastic insight into the lives of teenage sisters. Lucy Ann, while explaining her presents, has to get a dig in about how her basket is “larger and prettier” than her sister’s. It’s pretty clear that familial relations never change. She also mentions that she’s given a scarlet handkerchief, some raisins and a stick of candy. The act of giving children gifts for Christmas was a relatively new concept in the 1820’s. The puritans who settled in this country in the 17th Century were not big fans of celebrating Christmas. According to historian Stephen Nissenbaum, “So harshly did the Puritans think of Christmas that in Massachusetts it was actually illegal for several decades to celebrate the holiday.” Thankfully, attitudes towards the holiday lightened in the 18th Century. Then, in 1823 a poem began circulating through newspapers throughout the country, which helped shift attitudes even more in favor of celebrating the holiday. The poem, “A visit from St. Nicholas,” written by Clement Clark Moore, is more commonly known by it’s opening line. Needless to say, it became an instant classic. Here’s a bit of it:

“’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,”

In the poem it states that the stockings were hung by the chimney with care. A huge Christmas tree with tons of presents under it is a more modern concept. In the 1820’s and 1830’s, children would be left small treats in their stockings, similar to what Lucy Ann received. We are so lucky that transcripts of this letter are still around to remind of us of the evolution of the celebration of Christmas. All of us at KDHM wish you a happy and healthy holiday season! And as always, thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,