Winter in South Reading, 1858-1859

by Nancy Bertrand

A 19th Century Journal describes what may have been the town’s first Christmas tree.

The custom of Christmas trees originated in Germany and was popularly introduced in England after Queen Victoria’s marriage to the German Prince Albert. In 1848, an image of the Royal Family with their Christmas Tree was presented to the British public. In 1850, a copy of the image was published in America in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the leading lifestyles and fashions magazine available at the time.   The image would be reproduced in 1860 and in the 1870s.


The Christmas tree custom caught on slowly in America, not becoming truly fashionable until the 1870s.

Here in the small town of South Reading, Massachusetts, a contemporary journal reveals the delighted excitement of a family experiencing the novelty of their first Christmas tree.

Those who study local history know that some of the richest sources of information about life in local cities and towns can be contemporary journals or diaries. Wakefield was fortunate to have been the home of James F. Emerson, whose diaries, now in the collection of the Wakefield Historical Society, have yielded tantalizing views of the past.

James F. Emerson was one of the sons of Thomas Emerson, whose shoe factory on the corner of Yale Avenue and Main Street was one of the town’s leading employers. James F. Emerson, born in 1830, started working for his father in the shoe business in the 1840s.   He initially learned to cut and stitch shoes together, rising to full partnership with his father and brothers in the 1850s.


Emerson’s Shoe Factory in 1868, on the corner of Main and Yale Avenue, where Artichoke’s restaurant now stands.

Dashing, brave and literate, James Emerson (below) was one of the founding officers of the Richardson Light Guard. His beautifully hand-written journals detail daily life in the small town of South Reading in a way that ordinary history books cannot reveal. In the excerpt contained here, Emerson gives us a priceless view of his town.


James Emerson’s Journal:

“December 1, 1858.

            Pond frozen over – good skating.

Saturday, December 25th – Christmas –Day.

            I am surprised with a present of a pair of elegant gold studs (for shirt bosom) from the beloved partner of my life. Also we received a present from Father and mother of a beautiful picture of themselves, and it seems just a perfect as perfection itself.

            Harriet also received a… from Pamela as a present but most of the presents for the children are reserved for New Year’s Day when Thomas Emerson’s family (consisting of about, or rather just 21) dine with us, when we intend to have a Christmas Tree.

            Good day for skating, and many enjoying it.

Saturday, January 1st, 1859

            This New Year’s day will long be remembered by our family, by Father and Mother … by their children, and Grand-Children, and some of our neighbors’ Children, for the good time they had. Few are the Fathers & Mothers who have lived to the age of mine who have so little reason to mourn for those of their family, who have gone to the “Land of the Hereafter.” Of a family of twenty-four children and grand-children only three have been taken away, and those Grand Children in their infancy.

            Myself and Wife gave the family a grand dinner party, at 5 o’clock this afternoon and as all are in the enjoyment of good health all were present. Rising from the table about 7 o’clock we received an addition to our party by the presence of another invited neighbor. At about fifteen minutes before eight o’clock the parlor door was opened and disclosed to the delighted children a good fir tree whose branches were lighted up with a little more than 30 small various colored candles fastened on the end of the limbs with wire, also two Chinese lanterns made of fancy colored paper. And then on almost every branch were presents from the Parents to the Children & relations and neighbors’ children, and then there were more or less presents for the older folks.

I took from the tree a pair of mittens for Father which caused some merriment and there was something for everyone present, but the children seemed to be overloaded as there were many books around the bottom of the tree that could not be placed on the branches, also toys. After all had been distributed, the windows of the parlor were illuminated, after which the company expressed themselves high satisfied and wishing prosperity & health to each other for the year 1859, they retired to their homes and we to bed.”

It is the first tree the family ever had a tree to hang presents on.

Winter sports, especially skating, were exceptionally popular in town. Skating, in particular, was the rage, and even the ladies were able to enjoy it:

“Friday, February 18, 1859

For the last two weeks Skating has seemed to excite the public more than anything else, and the ice has been smooth and in good condition for those who enjoy it. The amusement is exhilarating and fascinating. We have had bon-fires on the Pond every night for a week past, and as it has just began to be fashionable for the ladies to Skate, of course it is all the rage, and all full of enthusiasm in relation to it.”

For more information about Wakefield’s history, follow the Wakefield Historical Society, on our website and our Facebook page, or support us by purchasing a membership or donating to support our Museum at the West Ward Schoolhouse, 39 Prospect Street.

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