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Friday, December 5, 2014

Come on it's Lovely Weather for Sleigh Bells and Skating Parties!

Winter sports have been popular in America for hundreds of years. But in the 1800s and early 20th century, winter pastimes not only provided fun and exercise, they also served as much-anticipated and enjoyed social gatherings. One of the most popular pastimes of all was ice-skating, described in an 1886 newspaper as “Our National Winter Exercise.” Frozen ponds and rivers were always busy in the winter, and nighttime skating parties like those described in Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rose O’ the River were favorite amusements, especially for young people:

“Never had there been . . . such wonderful skating. The river was one gleaming, glittering thoroughfare of ice from Milliken’s Mills to the dam at the Edgewood bridge. At sundown bonfires were built here and there on the mirror-like surface, and all the young people from the neighboring villages gathered on the ice.”

American author Ralph Moody, in his memoirs of growing up in turn-of-the-century Colorado, recalled attending such a bonfire-lit New Year’s Eve party on the frozen South Platte River in Littleton. Some nighttime skaters lit their way with torches; others carried special skater’s lamps that hung from the wrist.

City dwellers were enthusiastic skaters too—places such as New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Jamaica Pond were crowded with thousands of skaters daily when the weather was suitable. In Central Park, a red ball was hoisted on a tower that could be seen from a considerable distance around to signify that the ice was safe for skating that day. For those who were too frail or timid to try on skates, there were even chairs on runners in which they could sit and be pushed around by another skater. A less skilled lady skater—or perhaps just one who wished to remain close to the gentleman of her choice—could hold onto his arm or even his coattails and simply glide while he did the work for both of them!

Ice-skating offered plenty of opportunities for courtship and romance—it provided young men and women with a chance to mingle freely, and perhaps to pair off and enjoy uninterrupted conversation as they glided around the ice together. Skaters, said the New York World in 1870, “can devote as much time as they please to a friend, and enjoy greater freedom of action, can laugh and converse, and thoroughly enjoy life without fear of giving offense to any one.” Those nighttime skating parties, whether held by bonfire light on a wooded river or under the lamps of Central Park, provided a fine atmosphere for romance. “Many a young fellow has lost his heart, and skated himself into matrimony, on the Central Park pond,” declared a guidebook of the period.

No less an author than Leo Tolstoy wrote a scene of skating-rink romance in Anna Karenina, when Constantin Levin goes to the skating rink in Moscow’s Zoological Gardens in hopes of meeting Kitty, the girl he loves, and is torn between delight in her presence and agitation over whether or not he should tell her of his love as they skate together. “Before him opened the skating rink, and at once, among all the skaters, he recognized her . . . On that day of the week and at that hour of the day, people of the same circle, acquaintances, gathered on the ice. Here there were expert skaters who showed off their art, and learners leaning on chairs, moving timidly and clumsily, and young boys, and old people . . . To Levin they all seemed chosen and lucky because they were there, close to her.”

Another popular winter pastime, and another one with a long history, was sleigh-riding—which also provided the basis for winter parties. Concord, Massachusetts native Edward Jarvis recalled such gatherings during his youth in the early 1800s: “Sleigh riding parties were a very pleasant means of winter amusement…I remember in my early life there was a company that was said to include a hundred sleighs…There was a long file stretching as far as the eye could reach, and the many bells on each horse—one string and on some two strings, more than a hundred strings in all—made a great and very exciting sound to the people and children. They went to some taverns…had then some entertainment, lunch or dinner, and returned in high glee…These parties embraced all ages—young and old, the grave and the gay; all [were in] harmony and [there was] high enjoyment.” Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of similar sleighing parties in the Dakota prairie town where she lived in the 1880s, with a procession of sleighs traveling the length of the main street, out onto the snowy prairie and circling back again into town—their occupants sometimes joining in singing a song, such as that classic of all sleigh-riding songs: James Pierpont’s “Jingle Bells.”

Children playing in town streets got in on the sleigh-riding action by rushing after passing sleighs and trying to catch hold of them so they could tie on their own sleds for a free ride, as Booth Tarkington describes in TheMagnificent Ambersons. And for adults, sleigh-riding was of course a favorite winter activity for courting couples. In The Magnificent Ambersons, Georgie Amberson Minafer’s first action upon being smitten with Lucy Morgan is to ask—no, insist that she accompany him on a sleigh ride the next day. But their ride, one of the book’s most memorable scenes, culminates—like a verse of “Jingle Bells”—with a spill into a snowbank!

And in our newest vintage release, The Romance of a Christmas Card by Kate Douglas Wiggin, Dick Larrabee recognizes his childhood sweetheart in a painting on a Christmas card—"A stranger wouldn't have known it for Letty, but if it had been only that cape I should have guessed. She wore it every winter, skating, you know—and it's just the color of her hair."—and decides it's finally time to go home and make amends with his past.

The Victorians and Edwardians sure knew how to make the most of a snowfall, and though times have changed and we're not likely to see a sleigh riding party go by these days, we still know how to have fun in the snow. What's your favorite winter activity? (Besides curling up by the fire with a good book, that is!)

POSTED BY:  Elisabeth Grace Foley

The Romance of a Christmas Card by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Professionally edited and formatted for today's e-readers, and featuring chapter artwork, a glossary, and the touching Christmas poem "Das Krist Kindel." Download the Legacy Vintage Collection Enhanced eBook Edition today for 99