Voices from History: A Davis Family Christmas in their own words
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By DDMF Researcher Pat Schley
The celebration of Christmas as a national holiday grew gradually from about the 1840s, continuing throughout the next several decades until, by the end of the 19th century, it had become pretty much the celebration that we all know and love: decorating Christmas trees, gift-giving (and receiving!), a celebratory meal with menu items that are traditional favorites, the singing of Christmas carols, the Christmas eve church service, and, of course, Santa Claus.
In the early days of Bloomington, IL, Christmas celebrations were much simpler, just a bit of visiting:
“Our population is not much given to visiting though they generously indulge themselves a little in the Christmas and New Year’s Holidays…” Bloomington, January 19 1840 (ALPL) DD-WPW
Sarah Davis, having grown up as a Yankee girl in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, had grown up celebrating Thanksgiving rather than Christmas. When the Davises’ 12 yr. old son, George Perrin, was attending school in Lee, MA, he spent Thanksgiving with his Massachusetts relatives. Sarah reminisced about her childhood Thanksgivings in a letter to her son:
“I always think of your Grandparents on each Thanksgiving festival – and the days of my childhood come with that remembrance – My Father in the prime of life, tall erect and dignified sat opposite your Grandmother (who was always in my eyes, the prettiest and pleasantest woman in the world) and then nearest her sat my Grandmother Walker with Sunday cap and gown – with as fair skin and black eyes as you often see, and your great Grandfather sat on the other side of the table always dignified, with a pleasant word and smile for all – There were ranged around in their proper places eight children - each trying to behave with propriety, and as happy as any children could well be – Each was helped in turn – and did ample justice to the good things provided – The older ones conversed and the young ones listened – “ Bloomington, December 5, 1854 (ALPL) SWD-GPD
By the 1840s and 1850s, gift giving was definitely part of the holiday. In 1847, David Davis offered to purchase items for Sarah’s Christmas gift list while he was on the fall circuit. He may have regretted his offer:
“I am really at a loss to tell you what presents I would like to give. I should like to give Cornelia something useful – as she now practices economy – … I think if you feel able – she would like a muslin … dress –… you ought to get 11- or 12 yards [of fabric]. I think for 70 cents [per yard] you could get a good one … I should like a pretty bag for Fanny. I cant [sic] direct you here but I think for $2.50 or $3.00 you can get a pretty one. I wish to give Mother a … lace cap – trimmed with white – enquire for one suitable for a lady 65 years of age … Her head is the common size … It ought not to cost over $2. or 3. perhaps the latter as milliners always charge enough. For little Fanny I wish 6 pairs of white cotton stockings open work - large enough for a child … with good fat feet. … Are you tired of my wants? Dont [sic] read any more – for here comes one larger than all the rest for my own dear self – which you may do as you please about executing. It is a cloak and bonnet- ready made clothing for ladies is common now - … lined with silk and the inside quilted for $30. Those I have seen … were rather more fixy than I cared for … and [a] well made Bonnet … a little delicate pink with the lace about the face. If you see nothing that pleases you then get a comfortable hood that you think will suit me. I should prefer your not getting these articles dear D – if you feel troubled at the commission, As I may be able to get them nearer if I was to try. Georgie would like a knife of all things, as he likes to whittle – dont [sic] get one with sharp point …I have made out a long list have I not – you gave me such a generous offer that I hardly know how far to improve it – but you will do as you think best my love and I shall be well pleased.” Lenox MA, November 28 1847 (ALPL) SWD to DD
In 1850, she also sent him her grocery list for the Christmas dinner:
“Please bring a box of fine table salt – it comes in small round boxes – and enquire the price of Zante Currants – they are 25 cents here – and if they are as low as a shilling please get a few pounds – also a half dozen lemons if fresh. I dont care for oysters = for we have plenty of good meat. Cranberries I wrote you of …Have you become tired of my wants … I hope you have had a new satin vest made. I want you to Spruce up a little.” Bloomington IL, November 28 1850 (ALPL) SWD-DD
Sarah Davis’ gift list wasn’t limited to just family and friends. She also gave thoughtful gifts to those who worked for her:
“If you could get Lena [daughter of a German hired woman] some book in German it would please her. As for Con [Irish hired man who would marry in March 1862] he is so soon to keep house – something useful for housekeeping would be acceptable – half a dozen knives and forks for instance or if you prefer it a …pocket handkerchief – Have I not been very practical and economical too in my suggestions –“ Bloomington, December 15 1861 SWD to DD (ALPL)
Then, as now, the Christmas holidays are a time for reminiscing about the days gone by and the loved ones who are no longer with us:
“… though this should fail to reach you at the appointed time, as I fear it will, you will believe the “wish you merry Christmas” just as heartfelt & sincere, as if uttered in your ear, on Christmas day – A very Merry Christmas, … but I do hope Dear Sarah, there is many a happy New Year in store for you, happy in the very best sense of the word – Does not the return of these seasons recal [sic] the time when we were all “girls together” in Lenox, those times of “giggle & making giggle” … in Mrs Coltons kitchen? Those were happy days, & it would seem a strange Providence by which our circle was so widely dispersed, we who loved each other so well, called to pass through some of the saddest scenes in life uncheered by each other’s sympathy ….” West Stockbridge MA December 17 1848 Harriet Worthington Taft to SWD
In 1868, David Davis heard Charles Dickens himself read The Christmas Carol aloud:
“Mr Dickens is here reading – I went Monday night & heard him read the Christmas Carol … – The Christmas Carol was read touchingly - & brought tears into the eyes of many…” Washington DC, February 4 1868 (APL) DD-SWD
By the 1870s, Christmas with all the trimmings was a tradition and much of it centered around the various churches:
“The Ladies of our church & congregation are getting up a Festival…for the children of the Sabbath School …The cakes are to be donated by the Ladies – and a collection was taken up …and we have bought Candies, nuts, and Raisins – … I offered the evergreen from the small piece of hedge near the large gate, as you go toward the garden from the new house … And [I] am to furnish candles to light up the windows … – I dont know when I have felt so much the spirit of the Season…” Bloomington IL, December 22 1871 (WMS) SWD-FWW
On [Christmas] evening Fanny and I went to [the] Festival for the Children of our Sabbath School - … the Church was very prettily decorated … the windows quite brilliant with candles - The Chandeliers were wreathed and the table filled with Cakes, handsomely iced – and three Pyramids of macaroons covered with a veil of spun candy set off the table handsomely = nuts, raisins & candies & coffee constituted the rest of the refreshments - Some white sugar eggs the size of a hen’s egg with bright taste tied around them looked very pretty - A large evergreen tree in the centre of the church … hung with popcorn strung and hung in festoons – and balls of corn candy wrapped in bright colored tissue paper attracted the children and was robbed by them at the close of the evening- The services opened with prayer - and several pieces were sung by the children aided by the Choir and the Organ. Mr. Maclean our pastor was presented with a Dressing gown & a pair of slippers and received several presents during the day. He says he never was so remembered on Christmas- Bloomington, IL, December 26, 1871 (WMS) SWD-DRW
For David and Sarah Davis, the most desired gift was the gift of being together. When life conspired to keep them apart, it was not a happy holiday for either one of them:
“Lena thinks if you do not come it will be no Christmas for me – … I would rather have you than all the rest – She is not far from right – …” – Bloomington, December 15 1861 (ALPL) SWD-DD
“This is the first Christmas that I have ever been away from you for many years – I woke up this morning thinking of you & the children & wondering whether you had got any Christmas presents for them – My heart is yearning for the sight of you all –“ Baltimore MD, December 25 1862 (ALPL) DD-SWD
In 1879, despite being in mourning for his beloved Sarah, who had died just 6 weeks before, the Judge was still a loving and generous uncle and grandfather to the children in his life:
“My Dear Uncle Your kind remembrance for Christmas arrived safely, and will give us a great deal of pleasure, nice paper is a great treat to me and the boys enjoy the books extremely and will do so every evening for a year to come that being their time for looking at pictures and hearing stories. I wish you could see for yourself the pleasure you have given, and that we could do something toward making your Christmas and New Years happy. Chicago IL, December 25 1879 (ALPL) FMWP-DD
Dear grandpa- I thank you for that prettie [sic] doll you sent me and thank you for Davids book and Mercers book. David asked all questions about the reindeers, and santa claus and did not want to go to sleep and waked up severall [sic] times and asked of [sic] santa claus had come yet. mama told him he did not come until little boys were in bed. Bloomington IL, December 26 1879 (ALPL) ASD-DD
Key for Correspondent Initials and Archives Holding Letters quoted:
DD = David Davis
WPW = William Perrin Walker
SWD = Sarah Woodruff Davis
GPD = George Perrin Davis
Harriet Worthington Taft = paternal cousin of Sarah Davis. Harriet’s mother and Sarah’s father were siblings.
FWW = Frances Mary “Fanny” Walker Williams, younger sister of Sarah Davis.
DRW = Daniel Rogers Williams, husband of Frances Mary Walker Williams.
FMWP = Frances Mary Walker [Mrs. Henry V.] Pierrepont, niece of Sarah Davis, who lived with the Davises from 1863 until her marriage in 1872.
ASD = Alice Scranton Davis, 11 year old daughter of George Perrin & Eliza Ellen Hanna Davis.
ALPL = Abraham Presidential Library
WMS – Williams College, Williamstown MA
 William Perrin Walker (1778-1858), father of Sarah Davis and husband of Lucy Adam Walker; son of William & the late Sarah Worthington Walker; stepson of Mary Hutchinson Parmalee Walker, who was William Walker’s 2nd wife.
 Lucy Adam Walker (1781-1864), mother of Sarah Davis
 Mary Hutchinson Parmalee [Mrs. William] Walker (1760-1838), 2nd wife of William Walker (1751-1831); stepmother of William Perrin Walker. She was Sarah Davis’ paternal step-grandmother, the only grandmother she ever knew.
 William Walker (1751-1831), great-grandfather of George Perrin Davis; paternal grandfather of Sarah Davis.
 The eight living Walker children were: Lucy Forbes (b. 1808), William (b. 1810), George (b. 1812), Sarah Woodruff (b. 1814), Frances Mary “Fanny” (b, 1817), John Adam (b. 1821), Cornelia “Nell” (b. 1823), and Richard Henry (b. 1826). A ninth child, Charles (b. 1819), died in infancy in 1820.
 Cornelia Walker [Mrs. Julius] Rockwell (1823-1895), the youngest sister of Sarah Davis.
 Frances Mary Walker Williams (1817-1901), younger sister of Sarah Davis.
 Lucy Adam [Mrs. William Perrin] Walker-see endnote #2 above.
 Frances Mary Walker, 10 mo. old niece of Sarah Davis, who was a daughter of her elder brother, George Walker and his wife, Harriet Hull Walker.
 George Perrin Davis, who was only 5 years old in 1847!
 Con, Corns? Cornelius O’Driscoll (b. abt.1828), age 32, born in Ireland, literate. He began working for the Davis family in the spring of 1857 and left their employ when he married Eliza, in March, 1862.
 Love Wells [Mrs. Rodolphus] Colton, mother of Wells Colton, David Davis’ law partner from May, 1838 to January, 1845. Colton and his sisters grew up in Lenox MA, and were childhood friends of Sarah Davis and her siblings..
 Harriet Worthington [Mrs.
 Monday, February 3, 1868, is the first night that Dickens was scheduled to appear. It happened to also be the night that President Andrew Johnson attended the reading at Carroll Hall, Washington DC.
 Rev. John Maclean, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Bloomington.
 Halina “Lena” Wertz (1852-1948), one of several women from the Wertz family who occasionally worked for the Davis family.
 David Davis was her uncle by marriage. Fanny Pierpont was the elder daughter of the late George Walker, the elder brother of Sarah W. Davis, and his late wife, Harriet Hull Walker.
 Lawrence Pierpont (b. 1873) and George Walker Pierpont (b. 1875), sons of Henry Villee & Frances Mary “Fanny” Walker Pierpont.
 His wife, Sarah W. Davis, had just died the month before on November 9 1879.
 David Davis III, age 4 ½ years.
 Mercer Davis, age 1 year.