Was Christmas celebrated in Old Fullersburg? Were there carolers, sleigh bells and Christmas trees? Did Santa Claus make an appearance, and did the settlers exchange gifts with family and friends? To answer these questions, we must piece together bits of information left by those who lived in the past and use some historical speculation to complete the picture.
In examining the customs of Old Fullersburg, we should first determine whether or not early American settlers of this area recognized Christmas as a Christian holiday. Some early settlers of America did not do so, such as the Pilgrims; they were Puritans and associated the celebration of Christmas with pagan customs. Most of Fullersburg's pioneers arrived in the 1830's, however, more than two centuries after the Pilgrims first landed in America, so religious practices had changed. Letters written by the Torode family (one of the earliest families to arrive in Brush Hill, which became Fullersburg) include many references about their Christian faith. On 11/29/1836, T. Torode writes, "O ther is no such delight on earth as to do the will of our God." J. J. Torode also writes about the importance of childhood religious education within the broader area. In his 5/21/1836 letter, J.J. writes about purchasing around 30 hymnals for children at 3 cents each, and it is likely that these hymnals had at least some songs related to Christmas. (Torode letters courtesy of the DuPage County History Museum.)
There are several examples of music and friendship being part of the settlers' lives, so it is likely that the settlers of Fullersburg sang Christmas carols. A journal for a debate club that met weekly for educational purposes illustrates not only the very social nature of the settlers, but also their musical tendencies. At a meeting on April 8, 1857, the journal states that the "Ladies were then invited to favor the society with a song, to which they responded with a very elegant and appropriate piece," for which they were formally thanked. Also, In his memoir The Fullers of Fullersburg, George Ruchty writes about the talented Morell Fuller, who was a natural musician. Morell played the fife and a drum during his service as a Union soldier in the Civil War, and he also taught himself the violin. Morell's fife and drum are displayed at the Graue Mill Museum in the historic district of Fullersburg; it seems likely that Morell and other settlers celebrated Christmas with music and carols. (See "Journal" section as well as The Fullers of Fullersburg in the "For You" section of this website.)
The settlers used horses for transportation, and evidence indicates that sleighs were used in Old Fullersburg. As sleighs were not able to stop quickly, bells were attached to horses pulling them to warn people in their path. The first sleigh bell factory opened in 1810 in East Hampton, CT, which soon became known as "Belltown" due to the number of bells produced. The popular Christmas song "Jingle Bells" was written in 1850, and its lyrics include the line, ""Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh." In the archives of Fullersburg Historic Foundation is a set of sleigh bells described as "three large round brass bells mounted on a wide double leather strap." At least some settlers of Fullersburg rode in sleighs with bells in the winter, so it is logical to imagine settlers using this mode of transportation around Christmas.
The earliest settlers of Fullersburg probably did not have Christmas trees; the custom had not yet become popular, and there was not sufficient space for a Christmas tree in the rough homes of the earliest settlers, anyway. George Ruchty writes in The Fullers of Fullersburg that the first cabin that housed the close-knit Fuller family was approximately twenty-five feet long and fifteen feet wide, and the children's sleeping quarters were above the log ceiling over the main room. The Torode family also describes limited living space. On 11/26/1838, J. J. Torode writes that they were adding a temporary addition "as our caben is too small for our Family." As Christmas trees were largely a German custom, Frederich Graue and other settlers of German descent could have popularized Christmas trees in Fullersburg after 1850, when Graue purchased the mill that is named after him and subsequently built his home nearby. As the homes of the settlers became larger (such as the Ben Fuller Farmhouse) and the population became more diverse, the custom of Christmas trees is likely to have developed.
Santa Claus probably did not visit the children of Fullersburg, as Saint Nicholas was primarily a Dutch tradition that evolved in the eastern part of the country in the early nineteenth century. "Sinter Klaas" evolved into Santa Claus with the help of American authors and advertisers. In 1822, an Episcopal minister named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem for his three daughters entitled, "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas," which became "The Night Before Christmas." The vision of a jolly elf in the poem helped to inspire the image of our modern Santa Claus created by cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1881. It is unlikely that the children of the early settlers of Fullersburg experienced this tradition, as it had not yet become popularized.
Any gifts exchanged by the early settlers of Fullersburg probably reflected their values, which were centered around friends, family, and faith. Gift giving was undoubtedly limited by economic realities, however. George Ruchty writes that Morell Fuller and the other Fuller children were barefoot most of the year, except for the winter months. "Shoes were scarce and very expensive. When the first ice appeared in the creek in the fall, the younger children would slide on the ice in their bare feet. They would carry a large chip of wood under their arms to stand on when their feet became numb. As soon as the children's feet warmed up, they would go back to their sliding." Nicholas Torode also wrote about his financial situation, "peraps you will think I have spent my money fast I think so myself but I have been saving as I could." The settlers demonstrated good will toward each other, however, including by sharing seeds for crops. Possibly, these resourceful pioneers gave each other presents that were related to survival or that reflected their mutual appreciation for the natural surroundings. As stated by Nicholas on 1/30/1836, "Some times I am almost Discoraged but I believe the Lord in on our side when I feel Discouraged I may walk a few steps around the house and my corage is as good as ever The beauty of the Land is what pleases my eyes."
Sue Devick, M.A.
Fullersburg Historic Foundation