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A Subtle Celebration

Christmas in pioneer Indianapolis was a private and almost invisible holiday.

When historian George Cottman went looking for accounts of holidays in the early history of Indianapolis, he easily found information on Fourth of July celebrations but was far less successful in finding accounts about Christmas. What he attributed to the “drudging, narrow life of the Indiana pioneer” was probably related to the religious denominations most prevalent in the early Hoosier state – Christmas was not yet a religious holiday among most Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. German Catholics and Lutherans, who would bring traditions of Christmas trees and music to America, had not yet settled in any numbers in the new capital city.

What was left, as Cottman noted, were less obvious celebrations of the day. “The first Christmas in Indianapolis,” he wrote, “was signalized by a ‘stag party’ promoted by the gentlemen who had political aspirations, the festivity of which occasion was enhanced by a barrel of hard cider.” The legislature still met on the day, and Cottman was unable to find an account in the earliest Indianapolis newspapers of any celebrations.

Neither are the early diary entries of Calvin Fletcher forthcoming on celebrations of Christmas. On December 25, 1829, he records events in the state Senate, which was meeting “as usual”; his 1830 account of the day is equally without mention of the holiday. By 1831, he mentions buying “a box of paints” for his son “as a Christmas gift,” and in 1832 he records that his wife “made preparations for a Christmas dinner,” although the state legislature had still met during the morning.

By 1830, Christmas was occasionally being mentioned in an Indianapolis newspaper. On December 1st of that year, the editor ran a poem on “Winter,” which included the stanza: “I come with the festive throng/With the merry tale and the Christmas song/With the laugh of the young as the stocking pours/The torrent rich of its sugar’d stores.” Readers of the same newspaper could find small advertisements during the month of December in the early 1830s for “a variety of beautiful Bibles, Testaments, and other books, suitable for Christmas and New Year’s Presents.” Such was the private and almost invisible holiday in pioneer Indianapolis.

Sources: George S. Cottman, “The Pioneer Fourth of July,” Indiana Magazine of History, June 1912; Indianapolis Indiana Journal, December 1, 1830 and December 23, 1834; Gayle Thornbrough, ed., The Diary of Calvin Fletcher, vol. 1 1817-1838

A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.

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