On December 15, 2010, my very dear friend and John Brown Scholar, Lou DeCaro, posted an intriguing blog entry on his "John Brown the Abolitionist: A Biographer's Blog" entitled "The Christmas Debate and John Brown"
Now I have to admit that I had never really thought about whether John Brown and his family did or did not celebrate Christmas: Christmas just "is" to me and I assumed that all Christians since the time of at least Charles Dickens celebrated it.
As I read the post, I thought to myself, "Well, how silly! Of course, John Brown's family celebrated Christmas. I mean, who wouldn't gather to sing hymns, exchange gifts, enjoy a special feast, and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. I know that I have read about Christmas in conjunction with JB!" Therefore, off I went to peruse my extensive collection of books, papers, research, and articles, in search of the proof that the Brown's celebrated Christmas.
Many days later, I raised my bloodshot eyes toward the ceiling and admitted defeat. I had found no mention of Christmas celebrations, gifts, hymns, or festive dinners, other than the one Lou mentioned in his post. Moreover, I agree with Lou, that this was more of a welcome home feast than a celebration of Christmas. I was still sure that Christmas fit in here somewhere. How could a hero of mine, this man who was so religious and Christian in his deeds and actions, how could he not participate in this important day on the Christian calendar?
I went back and reread Lou's post, and did some research of my own on the celebrations of Christmas in American in the 1850s. Hmm, it seems that many Christians did not celebrate, and December 25 was not a National Holiday until 1870. Before 1870, students went to school, and working class folks went to work on December 25, just like any other day. After the Civil War, women's magazines proved to be the biggest influence on the accepting of the celebration of Christmas as a time with family, food, and gifts.
Still, I was sure that I had examples of John Brown and Christmas, so I kept looking. Nothing on John Brown, but Annie Brown Adams, my great-great grandmother, and daughter of John Brown, wrote of Christmas in a letter to Dr. Alexander M. Ross on January 16 1886:
Rohnerville, Cal Jan 16th 1886
Dr. A. M. Ross
My dear Friend
I received yours of Dec. 2nd also the book you so kindly sent to the children for which please accept their thanks, as it came a few days before Christmas. I laid it away, and put it on their Christmas tree, which caused a good deal of surprise as well as pleasure.
I wish to add my grateful acknowledgement for the book as it is a great help to me evenings. I can keep them entertained by reading aloud the nice stories. It is quite a hard matter sometimes, to manage seven children, all sizes and ages, from fifteen years to eighteen months, these long winter evenings.
I was threatened with another attack of quinsy but thanks for your remedy – soda, I succeeded in preventing it. I never heard of the soda being used for that before. I have been in the habit, for years of using Chlorate Potash for sore throats.
I sent another lot of your papers to the San Francisco Bulletin, and have been waiting to see if he would publish them. But they have not condescended to notice them. The chief editor is a conservative Englishman. It is possible that he might be convinced and converted, if there could only be someone found to convince him.
It must have been quite a pleasant diversion to you after all you have gone through, for then to visit your “refugees” and to know that their children and grandchildren “rise up and call you blessed."
It is well that we sometimes are allowed to reap a rich harvest of gratitude for our labors for others, in this world, if we did not we might sometimes become “weary in well doings.”
With much love to your wife and family I remain as ever
Annie Brown Adams
While I did not find any proof that John Brown celebrated Christmas, I did find proof that the family eventually did embrace Christmas. Annie wrote many letters to Dr. Ross over 20 years, and mentioned Christmas trees and the many gifts that he sent to her and the children. I also have stories of family celebrations involving Annie and her descendants passed on to me by my Great Aunt Alice.
Letter from Annie Brown Adams to Dr. Alexander M. Ross 16 Jan 1886
Original held by The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History