George Washington’s Christmas list for his stepchildren in 1758 was ambitious: “A bird on Bellows, A Cuckoo, A turnabout parrot, A Grocers Shop, An Aviary, A Prussian Dragoon, A Man Smoakg, (a man smoking?) 6 Small Books for Children, 1 Fash. dress’d Baby & other toys.”
Children in colonial America might be given sweets or books, but most colonists wouldn’t have been this extravagant. Usually people of means gave one gift to their servants, apprentices, and children, but didn’t expect anything in return. These gifts were highly treasured and as commonly exchanged on New Year’s Day as on Christmas itself.
Christmas in colonial America bore faint similarity to the gala holiday we cherish today. The Puritans and Quakers (among other Protestant churches) banned celebrations altogether, claiming the holiday was popish and tied to pagan traditions. Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans introduced Christmas celebrations to colonial America, comprised of church services, dinners, dancing, visiting, and more of the same for wealthy folk.
The music featured at balls and parties was the dance music of the period, much imported from across the Atlantic. Religious carols were also sung. “Joy to the World” became popular in my home state, Virginia. “The First Noel,” “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen,” and “I Saw Three Ships” are several more carols still beloved today.
Rather than the fervor leading up to December 25th that dies out almost as soon as the last gift is opened now, Christmas Day in colonial America began a season of festivities that lasted until January 6—thus the “Twelve days of Christmas.” Twelfth Day, January 6, was the perfect occasion for colonists to enjoy balls, parties, and other festivals.
Our emphasis on Christmas as a special holiday for children didn’t come about until the mid-nineteenth century, brought to America by the more family centered Dutch and Germans. Christmas in colonial America was predominantly an adult oriented holiday. The Southern colonies were the root of many celebrations (less Quakers/Puritans in the South and more Anglicans) and these included parties, hunts, feasts, and church services. Children were tucked away in bed or left behind, neither seen or heard. One sign of entering the adult world was the honor of attending your first holiday ball. Think how exciting that must have been for young ladies awhirl in taffeta and lace.
Plantations and other colonial homes, even churches, were decorated with holly, laurel, garlands and sometimes lavender. My garden club used to decorate a colonial era home/museum and we were restricted to natural materials and native fruit like apples that might’ve been used in that day. Mistletoe, an ancient tradition and the centerpiece of every colonial home, was hung in a prominent place. Romantic couples found their way under the green leaves and white berries just as they do now. Light was of vital importance at this dark time of year. Yule logs blazed and candles were lit, the wealthier having more to light.
A key part of colonial Christmas celebrations were the large feasts. What foodstuffs were served and the amount set before the guests all depended on the provider’s income. The menu was similar to ours. Among the offerings at a colonial dinner might be ham, roast, turkey, fish or oysters, followed by mincemeat and other pies and desserts/treats like brandied peaches.
Wines, brandy, rum punches, and other alcoholic beverages were consumed in abundance in well-to-do households. Slave owners gave out portions of liquor to their workers at Christmastime, partly as a holiday indulgence and partly to keep slaves at the home during their few days off work. Intoxicated workers were less likely to run away or make long trips to visit distant relations.
One of our most cherished traditions was unknown to colonists. The Christmas tree traveled to America from Germany in the nineteenth century. Christmas cards originated in London and didn’t gain popularity until the nineteenth century. Santa Claus is a combination of Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas from Dutch and English traditions. As Americans absorbed new people and cultures, the holiday traditions expanded. Today, Christmas is an ever-changing blend of the old and new.
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