MARIETTA - Marietta's first Christmas was more like Thanksgiving, according to local historian and author Louise Zimmer.
Zimmer gave a presentation Sunday during the Pioneer Style Celebration at the Campus Martius Museum in Marietta.
By December 1788, the campfires of hundreds of Indian warriors could be seen on the hillsides surrounding the settlement that would become Marietta.
Photo by Sam Shawver
Local historian Louise Zimmer shares some stories about the celebration of Christmas by early pioneers during the Pioneer Style Celebration at Campus Martius Museum in Marietta Sunday.
Zimmer explained that earlier in the year Gen. Rufus Putnam and other founding fathers had sent word seeking a treaty with several Indian tribes, including the Delaware, Iroquois Confederacy, Ottawa, Wyandot and Shawnee.
"Members of those tribes - mostly warriors - began to set up camps in this area as early as September, and by December their numbers were growing," Zimmer said. "It's estimated there were 400-500 warriors encamped around Fort Harmar and the early settlers."
At that time there were about 150 able fighting men and only about 50 women and children who had come to join their husbands and fathers on the frontier, she said.
"The winter nights were dark, and the Ohio River was frozen over, so there was no river transportation or communication available to reach the outside world," Zimmer said. "The early settlers could look out of their windows to see Indian campfires surrounding them. They probably felt trapped."
She said that feeling was likely intensified by December when Putnam declared the 25th of that month as a day of thanksgiving.
"Basically he was saying the settlement should thank God that they were all still alive," Zimmer said.
A feast was declared that, according to a Dec. 30, 1788 letter from pioneer Solomon Drowne to his wife, included a kettle boiled dinner containing turkey, beef, bacon, cabbage, turnips, potatoes, butter, bread and custard.
"And butter would have been a real treasure at that time as there were only about 60 head of cattle and eight yoke of oxen," Zimmer said.
The Christmas celebration, as it is now known, was likely not too widespread on the frontier, she said, adding that some didn't celebrate the holiday at all. But that changed as more settlers of German and Irish descent moved into the area.
"They were big Christmas holiday keepers," Zimmer said. "But I could find no mention of a Christmas celebration in early Marietta newspapers until 1843. After that the local merchants seemed to catch onto the idea. And one gift suggested to give that year was a portrait of the Queen of England."
She noted an 1858 editorial in the Marietta Intelligencer referred to the commercialization of the holiday with "superfluous displays and the corruption of public sentiment."
Zimmer said German settlers would have brought the traditions of Christmas trees and gift-giving into the community, and early gifts would have been practical items like gloves, hats or underwear.
"They also used real candles for tree lights," she said. "One lady recalled her papa would stand by the tree with a bucket of water while the candles were lit."
Contrary to some popular beliefs, the tree candles would not have remained lit for very long as the chance of fire in a dry tree would have been too great.
Sunday's event was the first year for the Pioneer Style Celebration, according to Campus Martius Museum staffer Glenna Hoff.
"Last year we had a mid-winter celebration on the frontier program for children," she said. "But this year we wanted to do something that entire families could enjoy. And we had a steady stream of families throughout the day."