Pittsburgh’s First Christmas

If those who first settled the city and lived at Fort Pitt in the 1750s got in a time machine and came forward to the future at Christmas, they’d be shocked at all the merriment and decorations. In 1758, Pittsburgh’s first Christmas was a particularly bleak one. Just one month earlier, the French had abandoned Fort Duquesne, burning it to the ground, leaving nothing to be found but the charred and smoldering remains for General John Forbes and his troops. The 400 British troops living there were forced to shelter that winter in Mercer’s Fort, a small embattlement that was constructed on the banks of the Monongahela River, until the larger Fort Pitt could be constructed. The new fort and the city itself were named for William Pitt The Elder, the first Earl of Chatham.

Even if Fort Pitt had still been standing when the British took it over and the troops had celebrated Christmas there, it would not be much like the way we celebrate Christmas today. England in the 1700s was still recovering from the tyrant leadership of Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan who outlawed Christmas for nearly two decades in the 1600s. As such, homes would have been modestly decorated with greenery such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe, and perhaps people of means would host feasts of celebration.

But, thousands of miles and an ocean away in America, it is doubtful that there was any decorating or feasting being done. Instead, men were fighting for survival in a harsh unsettled land. However, one historian speculated that perhaps the soldiers would be able to mark the day with an extra portion of rum.

Later Christmases

As decades and centuries passed, the city grew and more people came to the area. With them, they brought their own cultural traditions and observations of Christmas. Christmas trees became popular in the mid-1850s when Queen Victoria adopted the custom of decorating a tree from her Germanic husband, Prince Albert. That tradition eventually made its way to America. In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant made Christmas a federal holiday cementing it on the national calendar. The 20th century brought the Christmas culture that we can all recognize today. The popularity of department stores, Christmas lights, and the rise of a more prosperous middle class has pushed Christmas celebrations into a commercial and cultural phenomenon that seems to start earlier and earlier every year.

Although Christmas at Fort Pitt in 1758 was not celebrated with pretty lights and gifts under a tree, there is a wistful admiration for a simpler, more austere Christmas celebration like those first celebrated in Pittsburgh.

By Janice Lane Palko