Let's explore the history of Christmas in Williamsburg and how Colonial Americans celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ!
Each of us celebrates Christmas in our own unique way, and, yet, there are many shared traditions in the U.S. that may seem routine: the twinkling tree...the turkey dinner...the nativity display...the holly jolly Santa Claus.
But Christmas like all rituals and traditions has evolved and changed over the centuries. Our routine favorites have not existed since Christ's birth as if delivered whole and set by angels or decreed by church fathers. If we were to go back to Christmas Day in the American colonies say about 1760 we might not even recognize it as such! There would be no Christmas tree for one, and there might be no great ceremony to signify the day.
Much like today, how past christians celebrated Christmas if they marked the occasion at all was significantly affected by where they lived, their religious affiliation, their social and economic status, and their cultural heritage.
For my Christmas decorations this year I looked to the stylings of Colonial Williamsburg with their lush garlands and wreaths bedecked with fruit and flora. The natural abundance and whimsical crafting has inspired generations of decorators who wanted to capture that traditional old fashioned Christmas spirit. You can see my interpretation in this post. But in doing my research about the Williamsburg displays and Christmas during colonial times, it turns out the decorations aren't so colonial after all!
Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg
The fruit filled wreaths Williamsburg is known for originated in the 1930s out of the imagination of gardener and florist Louise Fisher who at the time was the hostess at the Raleigh Tavern (newly opened 1932) and in charge of the floral arrangements. In 1934, the first Christmas Colonial Williamsburg was open was rather incongruous with its goals of historical interpretation, featuring trees with electric colored lights. Egads! 😱
Then president Kenneth Chorley recognizing the faux pas set the research team to discovering what Christmas celebrations and decor would have looked like in 18th century Williamsburg. As it happens, descriptions of Christmas celebrations and imagery of the events are scarce. The men and women of letters whose correspondence and diaries provide much of the primary source material for the time period devote very little ink to the holiday.
Where Christmas is mentioned, it is common to see remarks about "decking the halls" and churches with greens as well as reports of dancing, feasting, and hunting during the 12 days of Christmas, but these writings forgo details and vivid descriptions. Aside from the Puritans and Quakers who down right forbid Christmas celebrations, many of the upper class elites looked upon Christmas revelry with disdain, seeing it a "commoners" holiday with too much gambling, drinking, and ribaldry.
The Williamsburg historians and Mrs. Fisher turned to English prints and documents for evidence of how colonists might have decorated their homes, concluding many of the colonists brought with them traditions from home. For inspiration the art of Robert Furber's botanical series along with the fruit filled wreaths and garlands sculpted by Italian Luca della Robbia and Englishman Grinling Gibbons was used. Furber's popular prints showed the plants, fruit and blooms particular to each month. Mrs. Fisher used these prints along with colonial naturalists' writings about the floral and fauna native to Virginia to select which plants and fruit could be used in the decorations.
No evidence exists of colonists decorating the exterior of their homes nor would they have thought it acceptable to waste precious fruit and nuts on these displays where the expensive fruit would have been destroyed by the elements or eaten by squirrels. Instead the lush fruit bedecked greenery hung at Colonial Williamsburg since the 1930s is an imagining of an old fashioned Christmas with elements from the past that accommodates our modern expectations of the Christmas celebration.
So what did a colonial Christmas look like?
The type of celebrations depended on what part of the colonies you lived in!
New England's Puritan communities abstained from celebrations of Christmas, and indeed it was illegal to celebrate in some of the Northern colonies, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, for a time.
The Middle Colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware saw more heterogeneity, which led to a mixing of religious and cultural approaches to Christmas.
The Southern colonies, largely Anglican in practice, however, tended to throw open their doors for a hospitable Christmas that mirrored their English brethren and included visiting, feasting, dancing, and fox hunting. As Philip Fithian noted on December 18, 1773,
"Nothing is now to be heard of in conversation but the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments, and the good fellowship, which are to be exhibited at the approaching Christmas."
Fithian was a tutor to one of the wealthiest Virginia families - the Carters - and as such would have been privy to a very lavish celebration.
Celebrations of the birth of Christ transformed during the 18th century!
Over the course of the 18th century, Christmas greatly evolved and began to really show many of the characteristics and traditions we associate with the holiday. It was transforming from a raucous, hedonistic adult only celebration to a more child focused, virtuous holiday with goals of charity and domesticity.
Meeting and mixing of cultures was happening!
The American Colonies were a melting pot of cultures, religions, and languages, which brought diverse approaches to celebrating the birth of Christ from German Christmas trees to British mumming and Moravian Putzes to the Swiss-German Santi-Chlaus.
A quick clarification: By Colonial America I am referring to the 13 Colonies in North America which began roughly in the 1580s with settlements by the English. Remember the Spanish, Dutch, and French had also reached the New World and started colonization efforts in modern day Florida, Canada, New York, Mexico, etc. The Puritans did not arrive until 1620. The Christmas rituals and traditions discussed in this post are largely from the 18th century once colonies were settled, towns flourishing, and the fight for survival in a new land less intense.
8 Things You Didn't Know About a Colonial Christmas:
The 12 Days of Christmas
"All over the Colony, an universal Hospitality reigns, full Tables and open Doors, the kind Salute, the generous Detention.... Strangers are fought after with Greediness, as they pass the Country, to be invited." ~The London Magazine 1746
The 12 days between Christmas to Twelfth Night was the height of the social season in the Southern colonies. Traveling was manageable with the mild weather and the wealthy used this period of agricultural downtime to go visiting. These 12 days were a culminating celebration of the year succeeding the Anglican Advent season, which was a time of penitence, fasting, and reflection in expectation for the coming of Christ.
Hostess vied with each other to throw lavish fetes with abundant feasts, dancing, and musical entertainments. Weddings were particularly common during the Christmas season. In fact, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both married during the season.
These parties were largely adult affairs with children only peripherally involved. Christmas during the 18th century was not centered around creating a "magical" season for children as it is today. That was a Victorian era development.
Only a Dessert Pyramid Will Do
A groaning board with an abundant variety of foods artfully and symmetrically arranged was the focal point of the feast for those in the upper echelons of society. Hostesses took great care in planning the menus and overseeing the presentation of the meal.
The Georgian table could not escape the period's adoration for symmetry, and the table would have been laid à la française with the first course carefully positioned on the table when guests sat down to eat. This course consisted of meat and vegetables, a second course of meat and vegetables followed, and then one or two courses of desserts.
The table would have been laid with a fine linen cloth for the first two courses and then left bare for the dessert courses. Sitting pretty in the center would have been an elaborate dessert pyramid of stacked fruit, cakes, cookies, or sweetmeats (candy). Flowers on the table were more of the edible variety and not arranged as centerpieces. Often an epergne or stack of glass salvers would have been used to serve and show off the desserts.
Forget Not the Mince Pie Nor the Twelfth Cake
Popular foods for the feasting include meats common to the colonies, particularly turkey, beef, duck, ham, venison, and seafood. Mince pies, a traditional Medieval dish, carried into the New World would have been seen on many a table, and by 1796 special cookies baked and decorated just for Christmas were in vogue.
The Twelfth cake held special sway and was part of the Twelfth Night celebrations which occurred on January 5th. Twelfth Night was often a more festive occasion than Christmas day. The cake ingredients varied but most resembled a fruit cake. The cake involved a special ritual with tickets or figurines baked inside or drawn from a hat, which designated a king and queen as well as other Christmas characters for next year's celebrations.
'Get Iuye and hull, woman deck vp thyne house.'
The pressure on women to decorate for Christmas runs deep y'all! As this line from 16th century poet Thomas Tusser attests.
Swaging garlands, arranging holly, and hanging kissing balls has long been a seasonal tradition of dreary winter days. Ivy, bay, holly, laurel, mistletoe, and evergreen's cheery green hues have herald hope and symbolized eternal life in connection to Jesus' birth at least since the Middle Ages when Church records show yearly purchases of greenery for Christmas.
In Colonial America this tradition continued with colonists finding new greenery to gather from magnolia to mountain laurel and new varieties of pine. In homes, greenery was strung across mantels and down banisters and frequently placed in windows. As several 18th century prints show holly or ivy was often wedged into the wooden muntins of each windowpane.
Kissing balls were popular by the middle of the century and often rather elaborate displays with two or four crossed hoops wrapped with greenery and strung with apples, oranges, colored ribbon, and paper flowers. Mistletoe, too, was gathered and strung up for this purpose.
Fresh fruit would have been available in many regions of the 13 Colonies to those who could afford it as merchants imported pineapples from the Bahamas and citrus from Antiqua, Barbados, Jamaica, etc. Apples and cranberries from New England were also plentiful. Ingenious ways of packing and preserving it between layers of moss, ashes, or straw meant it could be kept fresh for travel.
Garden books of the period also attest to the use of "everlastings," which were preserved floral arrangements sometimes dyed and arranged in vases and urns filled with sand. Globe amaranth, purple-cupped sea lavender, hydrangea, rosemary, pearly everlastings, and strawflowers were commonly harvested, dried, and used to decorate the house and bring in sweet smells.
The Christmas Box
The exchange and opening of gifts on Christmas day was not an established custom during the 18th century. Instead many families practiced a top down system of tipping wherein masters and mistresses gave gifts of food, coin, drink, and other necessities to their servants, slaves, apprentices, and other dependents. These gifts were known as the 'Christmas box.'
By the end of the century it was more common to give gifts to children, and one of the most popular gifts was books.
Erect the Putz
A Central European tradition probably brought over by Moravians who establish communities in Pennsylvania and North Carolina erected communal and private nativity scenes flanked by faux pyramid like trees decorated with candles, fruit, and sweets.
The portrayal of the Nativity was a common Christmas tradition in Catholic countries with the oldest known instance occurring in 1223 with Francis of Assisi who directed a "living" scene with real people and animals. Hand crafted nativity scenes were also popular in German areas.
The Moravian Putz tradition continues today, and you can tour the Putzes erected in the community of Bethlehem.
Several Ancient Saturnalia like traditions transformed and popularized in the Medieval period continued into the 18th century, including topsy-turvy rituals that involved the reversal of master/subordinate roles. Feasts of Fools, Lords of Misrule, and masquerades were possible forms of Christmas entertainment that subverted the hierarchy for all or part of the twelve days of Christmas.
Mumming was a form of pageantry dating from the Medieval period engaged in by both royal courts and commoners albeit on very different scales. The basic tradition was to dress in costume and parade door to door banging pots, playing instruments, and singing. Each household was pressed to give food and drink, join in the revelry, and try to guess the true identities of the costumed mummers.
Mumming and other forms of topsy-turvy took place in Colonial America to varying degrees. Records of John Canoeing occurred in slave holding colonies where slaves paraded house to house in masks singing and dancing in return for money or treats. As different cultures mixed in the colonies a lack of understanding of the "rules" of topsy-turvy sometimes led these events to get out of hand and result in robbery or rowdy disturbances.
Here We Come A Wassailing
Here we come a-wassailingAmong the leaves so green;Here we come a-wanderingSo fair to be seen,Love and joy come to youAnd to you your wassail too;And God bless you and send youA Happy New Year
It is likely that wassailing grew out of a toasting tradition drinking to one another's health. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "Waes hael" meaning "Good Health!" wherein a communal bowl of mulled wine or mead was passed around.
By the 15th century, wassailing moved out of doors with celebrants carrying a cup around the village offering toasts in exchange for food, drink, or money. Some accounts also describe the tradition in rural areas as a toast or blessing drank to the orchards and livestock.
By the 18th century, wassailing was intermixed with caroling in many areas and singers usually went out on New Years or Twelfth Night. Some groups brought their own wassail and for a fee shared it with the house. Special bowls for wassail were even created to serve this specialty cocktail.
I hope you enjoyed dipping your tinsel toes into Christmas celebrations during the 18th century in Colonial America. I thoroughly enjoyed researching this post! See how I interpreted the traditional Christmas decor of Colonial Williamsburg in this tour of my living room:
For more sources on how colonists celebrated Christmas check out:
Christmas A Biography by Judith Flanders
Williamsburg Christmas The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation by Libbey Hodges Oliver & Mary Miley Theobald
An Eighteenth-Century Garland: The Flower and fruit Arrangements of Colonial Williamsburg by Louise B. Fisher 1951
"Christmas in Prints" by Michael Olmert
"A Short History of Christmas Greenery" from English Heritage
"Christmas in Colonial America" from Colonial Williamsburg