One of the things that I find fascinating is “reading between the lines” of novels and poetry of the 19th century, and finding tidbits regarding life (whether real or exaggerated) at that time. For example, consider this extract from John Esten Cooke’s “Our Christmas at The Pines”, which appeared in the December, 1857 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine:
The chief objective of this veracious chronicle is, of course, to describe the manner in which we spent Christmas at “The Pines;” but I find some difficulty in handling the subject properly It was much more pleasant to go through with than describe.
We had games of “Copenhagen,” and “Change Partners,” and “Puss in the Corner,” and “Consequences,” and “Clap in, Clap out;” in the latter of which the gallant Captain Bombshell took his seat before Miss Araminta, and triumphantly remained, amidst protestations from every body that they had a previous arrangement; and then, tired of these games – tired of looking at the stars and wishing, and gazing at the moon over their left shoulders, and throwing apple-parings to discover their intended wives or husbands – tired of all this, and yet far from sleepy, the whole party made up a grand quadrille, to which succeeded a waltz, in which Captain Bombshell and Miss Araminta figured; and then the whole was terminated by a wild and uproarious reel.
The reel at an end, some question of the propriety of retiring began to be mooted. But this was quickly vetoed; and Sam Towers having proposed ghost-stories, his idea was hailed with enthusiasm. The young ladies gathered in a party upon low crickets, cushions, and pillows on the floor; the gentlemen essayed to imitate them; and Mr. Towers having carefully put out the light, and reduced the fire to a bed of dim coals, the fearful amusement of relating ghost-stories duly commenced.
Long afterward this evening was talked of, and various gentlemen were charged with the impropriety of pressing young ladies’ hands in the darkness. These breaches of propriety were indignantly denied by them, and laid to the blame of the youthful members of the establishment; but at there was an evident “misunderstanding” of some description, I forbear from further dwelling upon a topic so very delicate and mysterious.
Thus with mime and jest, and game and song, the days sped onward, and the Christmas eve came in with joyful uproar The very genius of mirth seemed to have taken up his abode at “The Pines; and from the highest to the lowest – from the oldest to the youngest – every one seemed to revel in the glory of the time, and cast all sorrow to the winds.
It was a great old English Christmas which we promised to have – with a Yule-log, box of presents, stockings hung up for the gifts of Santa Claus, and the Christmas-tree was not forgotten. An immense cedar was procured, and paper baskets worked; tapers were fashioned, and the magical tree decked out in splendor.
Of course, this is but one example of what we might see in Virginia, in the 1850s. I’ll be sharing more examples in upcoming posts.