William Steinway and Christmas

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In this German-American household, where the children were educated and tutored in the German language, William Steinway and his family and relatives continued to celebrate Christmas in the familiar German tradition and customs they had known in Seesen, Germany. The family celebrated together by gathering around the tree with songs, enjoying a good meal, exchanging gifts and delighting in the joy of the children. Throughout his diary William noted the preparations and details for this day and the "jolly time" they all had together.

William stated more than once that Christmas Eve, or as William called it "Holy Evg" [Heilig Abend] (Diary, 1888-12-24) was "a very busy day" at his house and for him. In his 1895 essay on Christmas songs he wrote that "Christmas has arrived again, the most beautiful feast the German knows" and that "it cannot be ignored that a religious breath falls upon us in the sound of "Silent Night." (4) In this essay William stressed that the old well-known folk tunes from one's youth should not be replaced by popular music but that "the folk tunes which once sprang from the soul of the German people should be looked upon as a type of sermon" and that we "May remember our German Christmas songs for they can provide ... a beautiful church service in one's own home!" (4) In 1861 he had sung the tenor solo "assisted by sundry LK members" at the "Irish Catholic Church cor. 8th str. & Ave B. at 10.30. A.M. Church." (Diary, 1861-12-25)

Christmas with its traditional tree and songs were so important to William that he wrote a Christmas article (Diary, 1894-12-23) entitled Silent Night. Holy Night! that his friend Oswald Ottendorfer published on the first page of the New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung. Early in the article William pointed out that "the American citizens of German descent have to be filled with pride that over the years the German Christmas tree had almost totally conquered this vast land."(3) In addition to the beloved Christmas tree, William liked to think of Christmas as "something more than a simple opportunity to receive and give gifts; it has to be an ideal, a festival that elevates the soul!" then "someone takes a seat at the piano or harmonium and the warm sounds of "Silent Night, Holy Night" are heard. Only then the hearts can open and only then celebrate the essence of the most noble and giving love in such a way, as it deserves to be celebrated." (3) Even William's beloved Liederkranz "In its old home on 4th Street saw many a Christmas tree shine and many a beautiful Christmas song rose to the heavens." William ended the article with the admonishment: "Therefore gather around the tree and sing with a boastful heart and joyfully: 'Oh, Christmas tree, oh, Christmas tree, how green are all your branches." (3)

For William the Christmas celebration was important and often continued at the homes of the extended family and with friends the next day. At these celebrations as many as 21 people assembled at William's house (Diary, 1879-12-25) which included parents and siblings and even Tretbar for a "nice dinner." Some years the family also celebrated together at Ziegler's house (Diary, 1864-12-24; 1865-12-25) or at Theodore's. (Diary, 1879-12-24) William did not give details of the dinner enjoyed but in 1861 it was goose and did include cold punch or Mosel wine and champagne. (Diary, 1880-12-25) Steinway & Sons Milwaukee agent Rohlfing had "sent a "Hirschkeule" [haunch of venison] which we tasted today." (Diary, 1893-12-25; 1894-12-23)

The Christmas Eve celebration started somewhere between 5 or 7 pm when everyone gathered around the Christmas tree decorated with handmade ornaments, as William remembered it, and with real candles. Everyone participated in lighting them. On his first Christmas with his new wife Regina he wrote "Sophia & Regina fixing up Christmas tree and at 7. P.M. at home, the Christmas tree is lit up and the presentation takes place" and he even had a "Small Christmas tree in my room." (Diary, 1861-12-24) Over the years the tree was variously located in the parlor or front room, even in the guest room upstairs. After his divorce in 1876 he wrote "Georgie & Paula are nearly wild with joy having fixed up a nice Christmas tree for me." (Diary, 1876-12-24) In 1883 "Baby Willi's admiration of the Christmas tree is unbounded, he always says "O die vielen Gucklichter." (Diary, 1883-12-24) Traditionally, children were not allowed to see the decorated Christmas tree until the Bescheerung. (1) The importance of the tree even led to a "Squabble between Ella & Louis v. B. about Christmas tree matter, in which all the ladies of the family take part." (Diary, 1888-12-26) By 1889 "Even our little girl Maud seems to enjoy the lighted up Christmas tree" (Diary, 1889-12-24) and on his last Christmas in 1895 he wrote "The children are overjoyed with the Christmas tree." (Diary, 1895-12-24)

This traditional celebration that began with the lighting of the candles and the singing of songs together was then continued with the exchanging of gifts to which William referred each time with the German word Bescheerung. Those present for this occasion of Bescheerung included Frl. Bernkopf, the servants, cook, coachman and other household and staff members. He gave out checks and cash to immediate and distant family members, friends and acquaintances. (Diary, 1894-12-23)

William detailed not only the presents he gave and received but also the dollar amounts given to family members. And yet for these moments William had even taken time out of his busy schedule to buy gifts: "Wm. in the afternoon goes to Owen & Clark at 25 John St. N.Y. buys Clock." (Diary, 1861-12-24) For Christmas 1871 "I present to my wife a fine broche from Tiffany & Co. She presents me with Thackeray works" and on Christmas 1875 "Gave wife $200 and $100 for herself". In 1877 "The children present me with Schiller's works. Georgie receives from me a fine velocipede [early bicycle], which he handles very dexterously. The children play a duo, and then each a solo quite well." For Christmas 1880 George had drawn "quite a nice Picture "Elephant in the water" and playing piano pretty well, Paula paints very finely and played a solo on the piano beautifully." (Diary, 1880-12-24) In 1885 he selected "a safe as Christmas present for my wife at Marvins" (Diary, 1885-12-19) and at the Bescheerung gave her a "new silver service." Ella and Willie acted as Santa Claus (Diary, 1886-12-24; 1893-12-24). William concluded his descriptions of most every Christmas Eve with "the children are overjoyed and greatly excited." (Diary, 1892-12-24; 1895-12-24)

The Liederkranz gave a Christmas festival party for children (Diary, 1869-12-26) to which William himself took little Bismarck [Alfred Roos] and his nurse Anna. (Diary, 1871-12-24) William had provided small presents for the children at the Christmas tree celebration (Diary, 1895-01-27) for the German class at the Steinway School in Long Island, as was reported in his hometown paper the Seesen Beobachter. (2)

But even on this holiday William did not stay with his family; business was on his mind. Every year he commented on the state of the retail business around this time of year and spent many a Christmas Day at the store, though closed. "Christmas day, walk to store." (Diary, 1871-12-25; 1880-12-25; 1882-12-25; 1884-12-25; 1888-12-25; 1895-12-25)



1. "Holiday Traditions – Christmas around the World – Germany"
http://www.msichicago.org/scrapbook/scrapbook_exhibits/catw2005/traditions/countries/germany.html (Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago) Archives
2. "Seesen", Seesen Beobachter, January 12, 1895
3. Steinway, William. "Eine Weihnachts Betrachtung," New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung,
December 23, 1894
, p. 1
4. Steinway, William. „Weihnachtslieder", New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung, December 24,
, p. 1