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Christmas in Early Columbus: the First 50 Years

As Christmas is nearly upon us, I thought it might be interesting to look at the way Christmas has been observed in Columbus, starting with our earliest settlers up through the mid-19th century.  We are fortunate to have several personal accounts of Christmas celebrations from as early as 1798, when Franklinton was still a new settlement and Columbus had not even yet been established.  Jumping ahead, we have the boyhood recollections of William Green Deshler, who grew up in in a prominent family in early Columbus during the 1840s. 
William Simmons, an early settler of Franklinton kept a diary in which he chronicled his first Christmas after moving here from near Wheeling, West Virginia (then Virginia).  His diary entry for December 24th, 1798 reads as follows: ..."We often talk of fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, left behind, and wish they were with us here.  And as the holiday season draws near, we send them our best wishes and prayers, for it is all that we can do.  There is no mail or carrier pigeon crossing this great wilderness that can take anything else."
..."Today I set apart for procuring Christmas supplies from nature's abundant storehouse, the woods.  Moose, bear, and wild turkey abound here.  ...My faithful dog Jack and I set out early in the morning and returned by noon with two fine birds, wild turkeys.  Two was one more than we really needed.  So, I made up my mind that one should go to the wife of the man who was hurt the other day by a falling tree.  I, therefore, dressed the bird and delivered it to her door.  She was profoundly grateful.  Returning home, it occurred to me that our good minister, Rev. Mr. Crane, seldom hunted, and that he would probably like a fine bird for his table tomorrow.  So, I delivered to him the other one."
Christmas Day, 1798
 "I rose early this morning and Jack and I made another trip to the woods, to get a turkey to grace our own table.  It was not long before I returned with a good 20-pounder, and soon my good wife had it roasting on a wooden spit before the fire.  Just before dinner, several guests, neighbors, whom we had invited for dinner arrived.
The time before dinner was spent in reviewing army scenes and discussing the political, social, and religious prospects of the people who doubtless before long will come to this wilderness and make it habitable.  The guests all had at some time filled important positions in the general government, and a jollier or more intellectual company never assembled.  Several were natives of New York, while one was an Englishman who had formerly lived in London.  And another was a native of Dublin.  The chief charm of our Christmas day, I believe, was its simplicity.  The dinner itself was certainly a feast, and the remaining part of the day we agreeably spent in telling interesting anecdotes of our lives in our native lands."
William G. Deshler Recollections of Christmas, 1840
William G. Deshler 1827-1916Forty some years later, Columbus had changed into a small, thriving city.  Log cabins were replaced by more substantial brick and frame houses.  There were banks, churches, mills, a few factories, and some stores.  William G. Deshler was a boy during this period, and his home was at the Northwest corner of High and Broad Streets.  He remembered the time then almost perfectly, and his newspaper interview as an elderly man gave a clear picture of what Christmas was like in Columbus about 1840.
"The Christmas times I used to know when I was a boy are vastly different from the big times they have today.  We had good times then, but no such festivities as you have today.  It was principlally a school holiday.  No observance was made by any of the churches in town with special services, save the Catholic and Episcopal churches."
"Christmas morning we rose up early, long before daylight, and rushed down the hall stairs in our nightclothes to see what Santa had left in our caps.  What we usually found were ginger bread horses and dogs, which, strange to say, bore a suspicious resemblance to those our mother had frequently baked for us on special occasions.  Although we knew, of course, that these particular ones were the product of Santa's bake shops.  Then, there were boxes of raisins, nuts, and always a stick of barber-pole candy, and generally a little picture book or primer."
"Christmas  was no Christmas at all unless we had firecrackers and something to make noise with, so we always counted on finding a couple of bunches of firecrackers.  Christmas trees we never had, nor saw the use in.  The German families down in the South End of town had them for their children, and I can remember seeing them trimmed up in fancy style and placed near their front windows.  It was a great day among the Germans, and they made much of it.  On Christmas Eve, they gave large dancing parties, but our festivities closed for the day with the big dinner we had at noon.  After we had looked over what Santa had left, we hustled on our clothes, caught up on our sleds, and made for the West State Street Hill.  That was the great coasting place, then."  (Interesting to note that the State Street Hill mentioned is still there, between High Street and Front Street.  That would in deed have made a great place to sled.)
If you were celebrating Christmas in Columbus in 1846, you would pay the following for your Christmas dinner: Turkeys, 37 and 50 cents each; Geese, 37 & 50 cents each; Ducks, 10 & 12 cents each; and chicken 8 & 10 cents each.
Back in the 1970s, I remember, as most people my age would attest, Christmas in Columbus was all about going to Lazarus Department Store, downtown.  The store's mechanical display windows were magical, and attracted people of all ages.  Then, there was the talking tree, "Mr. Tree";  they put on periodic marionettes shows,... but the piece de resistance was the Sixth Floor, with Santa Land.  Words fail to describe the magic encountered in Santa Land.  One small momento from those years with Lazarus Santa is at left.  Andy and the Lazarus Santa, circa 1974.
Happy Holidays to all,