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Dixon Then and Now: How the Town Celebrated the Holidays in the Late 1800s

Back then, Christmas trees and gift-giving were concentrated in the churches

To try to recreate what Christmas and New Year’s Eve were like in Dixon in the late 1800s, I again returned to archives. I used the library’s cranky old microfilm reader to pore through page after page, seeking interesting nuggets to pass on. This time, I looked at December and January issues from 1895 through to 1899.

During one December, because Dixon’s streets weren’t yet paved, the Tribune noted that “The mud on our principal street is deep and the annual cleaning is in order” and later, “The town streets are liquid mud.” One January, the city dumped crushed rock in the mud to make wagon and carriage passage easier.

For holiday entertainment, a correspondent from Maine Prairie on Cache Slough reported that “The dance given … by W. McCray was attended by about ten couples who all seem to have had a good time.”

There were holiday dances in Dixon’s opera house (located where the branch is now, and across the street from ). Another time, the Imperial Concert Company appeared there, with the Tribune expecting that “The house will no doubt be crowded.” Tickets were 25 cents for the cheap seats and 50 cents for the better tier. A ball organized by one of the fraternal orders, with music by the popular Newby orchestra, charged men one dollar and women got in free. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was performed in the opera house by a traveling dramatic group, probably using African-American actors.  

An itinerant acrobatic team of a man, a woman and two dogs “drew quite a crowd” outdoors. Collections were taken at the end of every other act, and it was thought that they made out well enough. Down in Binghamton, some watched performances of Professor Bristol’s Educated Horses and in nearby Elmira, “A colored troope gave performances two evenings … but were greeted by small audiences.”

A New Year’s Eve dance sponsored by the Independent Order of Foresters in Dixon competed with “Watch Night” services (in the Methodist Church and Baptist parsonage) that same evening, with the Tribune wryly commenting, “It remains to be seen whether the dance or the sermon will triumph.”

There were many dinner parties and family get-togethers. In Binghamton, “There was a family reunion at the home of J. Blair,” and in Dixon, “W.H. Smith and wife entertained friends for Christmas and a fine turkey dinner was served.”

To wet one’s whistle during holiday merriment, the New Corner Saloon sold brew for five cents a glass, including Buffalo Lager and steam beer. Or, to get a shave to look decent, one only parted with 15 cents. A good meal could be had for 25 cents at the Arlington Hotel in Suisun.     

In Elmira, because of heavy rains one December, “loafing and duck hunting are now in order,” reported the Tribune. Two men from Batavia visited the marshes to the south and shot no less than 83 ducks. The Tribune’s editor was given a number of shot ducks by another hunter, and while de-feathering them in his back yard, and after being temporarily distracted, a neighbor’s dogs made off with them a la "The Christmas Story."

And, not to miss out on the darker side of the season, the Tribune revealed that “Mrs. B.P. Ely had the misfortune of having her pocket picked on the train last Monday night,” and Constable Newby took three vagrants to jail in Fairfield for a 20-day stay. Down in Maine Prairie, some complained about their boats being used without permission by Binghamton folks.

Fortunately, it seemed that Dixon was becoming more civilized because New Year’s eves were now without down-and-out fights between cliques of young men. Parents were worried that kids had taken to jumping on and off moving trains, and were shooting out light bulbs and windows with BB guns.  

The putting up of Christmas trees, the exchange of presents, and Santa’s visit took place mostly in the churches of the time. In the Tremont area, “Santa was rather lavish in his favors … in spite of dull times, dry weather (and) no bridges.” An Elmira correspondent noted, “The Christmas tree in the Methodist Church on Tuesday evening presented a very beautiful appearance and was a source of great delight to the little ones. ... Santa Claus saw that every one was provided with candy and nuts. … In spite of the complaint of hard times, Christmas was this year … more of a season of good cheer than usual. The Christmas trees were well attended. “

In a photo attached to this column (which I used previously with another column) Justice of the Peace Eames sits in front of what appears to be a Christmas tree in a home. Either it’s a large pine branch or a rather scraggly tree. One can see popcorn strung on tread as a decoration (kids in my family strung both popcorn and cranberries on strings for decorations around 1950). These were the days before small electric Christmas tree lights, so candles were often used, with the danger of a disastrous fire. One Tribune store related how a Santa’s costume caught on fire, but it was extinguished without injury. Also, lit candles were often carried by children during church observances, with the danger that girls’ hair could catch on fire.  

One resident was worried that when presents were exchanged at church, some kids are inevitably disappointed that others got better and more gifts.

At the Baptist Church in Dixon, Santa arrived on a bicycle one year, and another time arrived in the mock-up of an airplane. In December of 1895, , who later became a Dixon constable and was killed in the line of duty, played Santa.

When choosing dolls to give to children, a Tribune column recommended German-made dolls as being the most lifelike, but said their string-fastened arm and leg joints could separate. Speaking of things German, the Lutheran Church in Dixon made it clear that the church was primarily for Germans.  

A mother told how to bake a plum pudding with coins set in the bottom, so kids would have to eat the dessert to find the coins.

As for New Year’s Eve in Dixon, it “… was ushered in Tuesday morning with the usual clanging of bells and screeching of whistles. There was an almost entire absence however of a former feature of the celebration, drunkenness.” Dixon resident August Giesecke was famous for taking out an old musket and loudly shooting it into the air numerous times as the midnight hour passed.

The Holiday Season and end of the year was also a fine time to lecture on matters of propriety and morality. Someone from Tremont wrote in December 1896 that “Several of our young men are contemplating matrimony. This is a step in the right direction.”

Another said, “Some of you have wasted much time last year. You spendthrifts! Resolve and act against this for the year to come. … Remember … that you have duties to others. (However,) even rest and recreation have a purpose and a dignity.”

There was a Tribune note directed to boys in January, 1898: “If you are not happy, just look within to see what’s wrong. … What privileges you have to make you happy! A home with all its comforts. … Ask your fathers how lessons were thrashed into them, how hard and monotonous were their schooldays.” I assume that when these boys were married and had children, they said the same things about their childhoods!

And next, schoolgirls were told to take advantage of the equality of men and women. “You have the right to learn all that the boys learn at school (and) … to travel, and observe and work. … But, though you do all these things, do them as women.” Meanwhile, a columnist railed against women wearing long skirts around town, skirts so long that they brushed the dirt on the ground (where men had spit).    

Dixon public grade school children donated a box of gifts to the orphans’ home in Vallejo.

In closing, here’s a holiday item from the Tribune in 1910: “Frank Robben presented Mrs. Henry Robben a turkey for her Christmas dinner, and developments showed that his present was more valuable than he thought, as in cleaning the bird a nice nugget of gold was found in its crop. The question now is, where did the turkey pick up the gold, and Frank is puzzled to know whether he owns a gold mine or only a common every-day ranch.”

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