Events | Life

Christmas traditions in Old Detroit: Pigeon pie, horse racing, tapers on trees

By Bill Loomis / Special to The Detroit News

Celebrations of Christmas in Detroit over the centuries have been highlighted by feasts and charity, toys and trees — and fires caused by lighted candles on those trees.

Although Protestant churches in Detroit did not embrace the Christmas holiday until the 1840s, it was long celebrated in the French Catholic Churches such as Detroit’s oldest parish, St. Anne’s.

Before Christmas trees became the rage, the French holiday tradition in Detroit was represented by yule logs, reveillon feasting, and horse races. Yule logs were enormous logs or sometimes entire tree stumps that filled the hearth along with a half cord of wood to get it started. Holiday feasting began on Christmas Eve in a tradition called reveillon (pronounced Ray-veh-yon), which is still celebrated in Quebec and New Orleans (at least for the tourists).

In Detroit, families would carry a lantern to midnight mass and leave it with a beggar at the church door. When the Christmas mass was over, they would pick up their lantern and give a Christmas tip to the beggar. They then would go home for the feast that would last until 8 a.m.

The reveillon supper was a sumptuous menu that included la tourtiere — a meat pie made with pigeons in the 19th century and later with pork, veal or other game. Other dishes might include a stew of meat balls and pork, minced pork pie, turkey, pumpkin pie, mince pie and new cider.

If turkeys were available, they were cleaned, seasoned, suspended from a cord over the hearth fire, and then slowly turned and basted. They were wild turkeys and not nearly as big as current birds. “Too much for one, not enough for two” was a quote recorded by city historian Friend Palmer in his book “Early Days in Detroit.”

The men raced their French ponies up Michigan Avenue when there was snow. In 1851, Ulysses S. Grant was a lieutenant stationed in Detroit after the Mexican war. He was frequently seen racing horses during the holiday on the streets or on the frozen Detroit River.

In the French homes, small gifts for children were put in shoes. Indians were also welcomed and exchanged gifts and food with Detroiters on both Christmas and New Year’s Day. Prominent early Detroiters Joseph Campau, Antoine Dequindre and Peter Desnoyer were among the generous contributors to the festivities of the day.

Santa hands out gifts in Detroit in early 1900s

Groups of children line up for a gift and a bag of peanuts from Santa, in this photograph from the early 1900s. (Detroit News Archives)


Much later in Victorian days, Detroit hotels competed for locals and it became a custom for Detroiters to spend holiday dinners at the hotel restaurants.

The following is the bill-of-fare from the famed Russell House Hotel in 1888. The meal was enjoyed with rousing Christmas music from the Russell House Orchestra:

Millponds (oysters) on the half shell

Green turtle


Kenebec salmon broiled a la maitre de hotel

Filet of beef larded with fresh mushrooms

Sweetbreads braised with French peas

Pineapple fritters, glace a maraschino

Roman punch

Christmas beef with horseradish

Turkey stuffed with chestnuts

Cranberry sauce

Hubbard squash. Green peas. Sweet potatoes.

Chicken salad. Boned turkey in aspic. Pate fois gras.

Currant jelly. Apple jelly. Apple butter.

Prairie hen. Mallard duck. Partridge. Quail.

Cauliflower. Boiled potatoes. String beans.

Christmas pudding. Brandy sauce.

Apple pie. Mince pie.

Fruit cake. Angel food. Charlotte russe.

Madeira jelly. Tutti frutti ice cream.


Roquefort. Stilton. Pineapple cheese.

Bent crackers. Coffee.

Fire hazards

The hotel most likely had a Christmas tree, which was becoming a tradition in the latter half of the 19th century. Prior to electric tree lights, people used candles. They were attached to the tree using melted wax, glue, special pins, or small metal cups. People also put candles on wreaths and roping.

Open flames on a real Christmas tree was perhaps the most dangerous Christmas idea ever conceived, especially when the tree began to dry out. On top of this, people decorated the floor beneath the tree with cotton batting sprinkled with silver-colored confetti to look like snow. Sometimes they surrounded the candles with cotton sprinkled with sugar to make it look like snow was on the tree.

It was popular to use highly combustible, sometimes exploding, ornaments made from aniline dye, discovered in 1856, which produced a rich purple color. It also produced toxic fumes when burning. Celluloid ornaments were popular as well, also extremely flammable.

On top of this, many homes from the Civil War until the 20th century were lit with gas. The gas lighting system was done through thin pipes that came out from the wall about one foot and angled upward. At the pipe’s end was a jet nozzle, which emitted an open flame.

Families loved to loop pine roping around the pipes of the gas jets. Once the tree was lit, the gas light was turned down for dramatic effect, then, after experiencing the beauty of the Christmas tree lit with candles in a darkened room, the gas was cranked way up to bathe the room in bright light and “capture the spirit of Christmas” — and occasionally catch the roping on fire. Disasters were inevitable, as these reports from Detroit newspapers indicate:

1902 : “… 213 East Palmer Street was damaged to the extent of $200 by fire at five o’clock yesterday afternoon. The blaze was caused by a Christmas tree catching fire from a candle.”

1902: “A Christmas tree loaded with inflammable ornaments and candles caused a six story building to burn down the Alexander Student building…”

1904: “A false beard worn by Burritt M. Tuttle, judge of the town court, who was enacting the part of Santa Claus at the Christmas Celebration at the Methodist Church, caught fire from the Christmas tree candles and Judge Tuttle was severely burned. The church was threatened by fire and a panic was prevented with great difficulty.”

Holiday decorating had grown so dangerous that it became an annual Christmas tradition for the Detroit Fire Marshal to issue fire warnings about trees.

In 1909, Detroit Fire Chief James Broderick summed up his views succinctly: “Don’t have a Christmas tree at all! … The worst of it is they go up like tinder once they get a good start.”

The first Christmas tree lights

The first known electrically illuminated Christmas tree was the creation of Edward H. Johnson, an associate of inventor Thomas Edison. While he was vice president of the Edison Electric Light Co., he had Christmas tree light bulbs made especially for him. He proudly displayed his Christmas tree, which was hand-wired with 80 red, white and blue electric incandescent light bulbs the size of walnuts, on Dec. 22, 1882, at his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Local New York newspapers ignored the story, seeing it as a publicity stunt. However, it was published by a Detroit newspaper and the rest of the nation picked up on the story. Johnson became widely regarded as the father of electric Christmas tree lights.

Hudson's building at Christmas, 1962

Christmas lights decorate the Hudson’s building in Detroit in December 1962. (Detroit News Archives)

Electric lights on trees did not become widespread until the 1930s. Giant municipal Christmas trees appeared because electric lights made them possible. Detroit’s first municipal tree appeared in 1912, ordered by Mayor Oscar Marx. It was set up on Woodward Avenue opposite City Hall, and the tradition for three years was to have Mayor Marx’s son “Junior” throw the switch to light up the tree.

Finding a Christmas tree in Detroit in the 19th century wasn’t always easy. Forest fires had ravaged landscapes and harvesting trees in big quantities on reforested land was restricted. This led to an enterprising idea by Detroit businessman G.S. Ferguson in 1909: a Christmas tree farm. He formed the Evergreen Tree Company and planted fir trees in Alcona County near Lake Huron on 80 acres of land.

His initial reason for doing so was not to grow and sell Christmas trees. On a trip to Paris in 1900, he learned that a Parisian pharmaceutical company would pay $16 a pound for evergreen fir sap. It was later that he began getting requests from around the United States for small trees for Christmas. Business was so good he immediately expanded from 80 to 600 acres. He claimed he could never meet demand and encouraged others to open Christmas tree farms.

Demand for Christmas trees grew every year, especially at the start of the 20th century. In 1908, 15,000 trees were reported sold; in 1910 30,000, and by 1912 Detroiters bought 75,000 trees. At that time Detroiters preferred spruce trees over pines.

From wooden toys to rifles

Then as now, the charm of Christmas came from children. The earliest purchased Christmas toys were described as sugar roosters, gingerbread horses or Indians, and bobsleds. By the 1840s Detroit stores advertised wooden toys for boys, such as wooden guns, sabers, rocking horses, whips, soldiers with gold helmets and toy horses with real manes. Girls had dolls advertised in the paper with “white satin robes, real shoes, genuine hair, round faces, snow white cheeks touched with spots of red, pinched up mouths, and large blue eyes…”

By 1882, toy kitchens were marketed with something new — a tin stove. Boys could get locomotives, toy velocipedes (bicycles) and the usual guns, knives, whips, swords and cannons. Toys and soldier uniforms corresponded to the current conflict, so in 1899 it was the Spanish American war. One toy was a cannon that shot rubber balls at a Spanish fort so when the fort was hit a waving American flag sprung up.

By 1892, toys had become more mechanical, at least for boys: iron toy banks, wind-up painted tin toys of monkeys churning butter, slithering snakes, tricycle-riding Uncle Sam, and a wind up naphtha launch, which was a toy version of a nationally popular, ultra modern aluminum body sail boat.

In 1902, batteries that lasted six months drove a new toy that began to appear: toy automobiles. There were battery-driven farm yard chickens that really pecked grain, flying vessels (no airplanes yet — the Wright Brothers first flight was in 1903), soldiers dressed like Rough Riders and a new game based on the Boer War. Boys could get “miniature rifles that shoot real bullets to bring down sparrows,” which perhaps might have given birth to the parental admonishment, “You’ll put somebody’s eye out.”

Christmas store displays of toys and adult gifts could be magnificent. One unique Christmas display at Edward W. Alexander’s umbrella shop on Monroe Street featured umbrellas surrounded by pretty plants, colored lights and live alligators. In December 1890, J.L. Hudson’s advertised silk and bowler hats for the gents, and for the ladies fur muffs “in black lynx, natural lynx, Japanese monkey, opossum, beaver, or cape seal.”

Shoppers crowded downtown streets in the tens of thousands in the 1900s. The large department stores on Woodward Avenue were mobbed to capacity. In 1903 it was necessary to wait in line to even get into the stores.

Making gifts for orphanages and hospitals

A Department of Recreation class makes Christmas gifts for orphanages and hospitals in this undated photo. (Detroit News Archives)

A tradition of giving

Nothing captures the spirit of Christmas in Detroit better than the virtue of generosity. Detroiters annually supplied dinners, presents and good cheer for thousands of people, such as a dinner given for 200 to 300 wounded Civil War soldiers convalescing in Detroit in 1863, as reported in the Detroit Free Press:

“The Christmas Dinner given to invalid soldiers at Fireman’s Hall was in all respects a success. … the old and established character of the citizens did not fail in this emergency; enough and more was brought in with tables loaded with luxuries which usually abound on those of first class hotels. … The Detroit City Band furnished the music for the occasion. The good old air of Yankee Doodle was played and caused visible commotion among the feet of the guests making even the cripples and crutches keep time to its lively notes. … Not even those (soldiers) whose (tendency) to sin brought them to the guard house were omitted from the festivities … Both the giver and receiver are equally blessed.”

In 1881, more than 6,000 Christmas dinners were served. Christmas dinner for 2,000 people was served in Cadillac Square in 1899. Men at the Detroit House of Corrections, Wayne County Jail, and 200 men at the McGregor Mission on Brush Street got Christmas dinners in 1902. Campfire girls provided dinner and gifts for 200 children younger than 8 years old in 1921.

The Old Newsboys’ Goodfellow Fund was started in 1914 by James J. Brady with the sole mission of bringing Christmas to poor children. Brady, along with about 300 Detroit businessmen, sold newspapers on street corners to raise money to purchase gifts for kids. By 1922, the Goodfellows were serving more than 17,000 children with food, baseballs, dolls, infant nursery needs, gloves, mittens and more. Other civic organizations also contributed food baskets, clothing, Christmas parties and Santas. The total number of people taken care of in 1922 was 35,000.

In some years, three tons of coal was handed out in small amounts to go along with dinner gift baskets so that people had a way to cook their dinners once they got them home. Shoes, stockings and underwear were regularly given out along with toys to children. The tradition continues today.

The notion of helping and sharing was deeply ingrained, as this 1847 newspaper exhortation indicates:

“You that delight in doing good — and who is there that should not — search out a destitute family and by the small donation of a turkey, pig or some such thing make a “Merry Christmas” for those who otherwise would return to their beds hungry and starving.”