Christmas during Colonial America

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I have had several of you ask me about how true are the wreath decorations of Colonial Williamsburg. So true to form, I did some research to confirm their authenticity. In my research I came across some interesting information on customs and traditions of Christmas within the colonial period.

Book_of_Common_Prayer_(1662)

During the colonial period in Virginia, the Christmas season followed a four week period of Advent. Most Virginians were devout Anglicans and they would have observed a period of fasting, prayers and reflection. They would have read daily from the Book of Common Prayer. Fasting would have been only one full meal, which generally would have been meatless during the day. After the four weeks, they would end with a Christmas meal and the start of the Christmas season.

Puritans

Puritans

Did you know that most of New England didn’t celebrate Christmas during the colonial period? Christmas was outlawed in most of New England because Puritans and Protestants disliked the celebration and likened it to pagan rituals. In 1659 Massachusetts if you were found observing the season in any way, including feasting, you would have been fined five shillings per offense. During the same time, in Connecticut, you were prohibited from reading the Book of Common Prayer, keeping of Christmas and Saints Day, making mince pies, playing cards or performing on any musical instruments. This didn’t change until the early nineteenth century. The Burgermeister Meisterburger from the animated Christmas show “Santa Claus is Comin to Town” would have loved living here during that time!

Burgermester Mesterburger from "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town"

Burgermester Mesterburger from “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”

The Christmas season was a twelve day event during the colonial period. It would have started on December 25th (Christmas Day) and would end on January 6th. During this time, you would have great feasts and meal, attended parties, gone to visit others and would have received guest to your own home.

colonial christmas

Christmas decorations were a common sight during the colonial period. However, those used today in Colonial Williamsburg are inaccurate recreation of the eighteenth century customs and materials. Oranges, lemons and limes would never have been wasted on any form of decorations. Pineapples were considered a precious commodity and you would have never seen them used. What were used were garlands of holly, ivy, mountain laurel, berries, mistletoe or whatever natural materials were available. Lavender, rose petals and pungent herbs like rosemary and bay set the holiday scent for the season. Also during the colonial period, only one or two rooms in the home would have been decorated. The church was general more decorated than the homes. The door would have had decoration, but no Christmas tree. Most Christmas trees didn’t make their debut until the nineteenth century.

colonial-women-1876-h-w-pierce

Christmas meals would have been fresh meats such as beef, goose, ham and turkey. They would have also had fish, oysters, mincemeat pies and brandied peaches. In the well to do households you would have found wines, brandy, rum punches and other alcoholic beverages.

newspaper cabinet2

Christmas gift giving during the colonial period was also a little different than what we know today. Believe it or not but eighteenth century shopkeepers placed printed ads noting items appropriate as holiday gifts. But there wasn’t a special day that it was given on. No real Christmas morning of unwrapping presents. Gift giving was done from masters or parents to dependents such as children, servants, apprentices and slaves. But the dependents didn’t return the gifts. This tradition didn’t come about until later and was a new American tradition. Santa Claus was also an American invention although European countries had their own version of him. In colonial times, Santa Claus or Father Christmas didn’t visit the children as he does today.

mt vernon christmas

Christmas carols and hymns were very popular during the colonial period. During the Christmas season there would have been lots of dancing and singing at the many parties. Hymns were always sung, but beloved songs such as “Joy to the World”, “The First Noel” and “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” were among the songs at parties. However no Christmas carols were ever sung at church.

Our present day customs have been derived from the many immigrants who settled this country with most of our traditions coming out of the nineteenth century. But this look back at the colonial period, when things were truly more simple I hope will give you a chance to really embrace the Christmas season and focus on the true meaning of the time.

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193 thoughts on “Christmas during Colonial America

  1. photog says:

    Really interesting information! Thanks for sharing it, and happy holidays.

    • You are so welcome! We hope you will join us on this wonderful journey opening this historic plantation as a bed and breakfast. Merry Christmas from Brett, Michelle, Hurley and Belle Grove Plantation! Thank you!

  2. Lee says:

    Thanks for giving us this look back. Very interesting!

  3. I liked the look back too and your illustrations were great! I still have trouble wasting food as a decoration instead of an edible, although I’m good if it serves both purposes.

  4. jackcurtis says:

    The season seems to have been celebrated before it was Christian and it seems to be returning to that if enough politicized grinches have their way. Let’s put lumps of coal in all their stockings…

    And keep Christmas.

  5. This was fascinating. Thank you for all the research, and for the story.

  6. I enjoyed this post. Kudos for your research.

  7. artybanana says:

    Excellent

  8. artybanana says:

    Reblogged this on artybanana's Blog.

  9. kiwiskan says:

    A fascinating and informative post. Thanks for that

  10. jericho777 says:

    Reblogged this on Jericho777's Blog.

  11. Fred Fechter says:

    Thanks for the informative tour of your web-site

  12. Fabulous Historical Look Back! Wow! Thank you!

  13. Thanks for visiting House of Bedlam – Have a Happy New Year!

  14. joanspav says:

    Thanks for the compliment. My website is only a way to remember and share recipes I like. Yours is much more professional. Just curious how you found me. So far I have only given my address to friends and family but perhaps wordpress has made it accessible through searches.

    I am a pharmacist by profession (semi-retired at 67), I live in Calgary Alberta Canada, and cooking is one of my favorite creative outlets.

    Joan

    • Nice to meet you Joan! I am Michelle. I found you through a search of wordpress. I am always looking for new ideas when it comes to food. I like to take recipes and make them my own. I made some really good jalapeno cheddar cheese crackers last night that I found on one of the blogs I found. Now I am going to use them in our plantation during our wine and cheese receptions in the evening. I am sure I will find something on yours too. Thank you for stopping by our blog too! We hope you will join us on this wonderful journey opening our historic plantation.

  15. Nativegrl77 says:

    Thank you for stopping by! love a look back in time while living it !

  16. Thanks, your blog is a bit different than the ones I see. Have a happy 12 days of Christmas!

  17. huntfortheverybest says:

    Thank you for the history on Colonial Christmas. I learned a lot!

  18. athenahm says:

    Thanks for visiting Kaffeeklatsch! I was so excited to see who it was, because, you see, my husband’s family and I visited your plantation when we were stationed at Langley AFB a few years ago! We are currently in Southern Turkey, and will soon be moving to Baltimore, but it just tickled me to see a familiar place show up on our radar, especially since we are currently half-way round the world. Hope you had a wonderful holiday!

    • You are so welcome and I am so glad we found each other! I am not sure if you have seen our plantation. It hasn’t been open to the public before. We are just south of Fredericksburg. There is a second Belle Grove in Middletown just south of Winchester. That Belle Grove was built by Isaac Hite and his wife Nelly Madison Hite, sister of James Madison. People get them confused all the time. But we hope someday you might be able to see our Belle Grove. We are just 90 miles south of Baltimore. Have a wonderful New Year!

  19. J M Naszady says:

    Thanks for continuing to visit my blog. This post was a timely look into our collective past!

  20. naveedashaikh says:

    i knew very little about Christmas. It added much to my knowledge. very informative. Thanks.

    And yeah Happy New year. May this year bring much more success and satisfaction.

  21. Thank you for continuing to visit my blog. Christmas must be an extraordinary time for you at Belle grove. Happy New Year/.

  22. sued51 says:

    Very interesting post. I’m from New England and I did not know how harshly it was treated here!

  23. Very informative post with awesome pictures: well done!

  24. kayjayaitch says:

    At the same time (mid 17th C) Britain itself was just coming out of ten years of extreme puritanism under Oliver Cromwell (the first and only time Britain was ever a Republic!) when Christmas was actually outlawed.
    An interesting article. Thank you.

  25. Maxi says:

    Burgermester is really ticked-off. Good article.
    Blessings ~ Maxi

  26. Sandy Allen says:

    I LOVE that pineapple wreath in the top picture. Thanks for the great info.

  27. Very interesting post, and a fascinating look back at how Christmas was celebrated in a simpler time.

  28. Diana says:

    With 171 replies, you hardly need my input ! Just wanted to say thanks for liking/visiting. Very cool entry here (I lived in NC for many, many years, so even though I am a Yankee (a distinction I did not know was still made !), I am also an honorary Rebel. Following you :)
    Diana

  29. Very cool! I love social history, and enjoy the distinctions between regions of Canada, where I come from, and likewise regions of the US. (And it’s ages since I’ve thought about the Burgermeister; thanks for the blast from the past!) :-)

  30. Fascinating, I didn’t know about Christmas being illegal in MA. they don’t tell you that at Plymoth Plantation.

  31. Anita Mac says:

    Quite Fascinating! I had no idea that they banished Christmas!

  32. Any post with the Meisterburgher is a great post. Excellent information. I live in New England and had some inkling of how bad it was up here during the Colonial period, but I didn’t know how bad. Thanks for the information.

  33. Russ Edwards says:

    Good information. Thanks for posting it.

  34. […] I have had several of you ask me about how true are the wreath decorations of Colonial Williamsburg. So true to form, I did some research to confirm their authenticity. In my research I came across some interesting information …  […]

  35. Reblogged this on THE BLATHER BUBBLE and commented:
    I had to reblog this! The Belle Grove Plantation Bed and Breakfast is a ” MUST Do” on my bucket list.I just don’t think I could do a post about this beautiful Bed and Breakfast that would do it justice. Such beauty and history is too awesome to pass up!

  36. Thank you for liking my paintings, especially Puppy Dreams – one of my favorites. I bet it reminds you of Hurley. I love painting dogs and Goldens always seem to be smiling. Your plantation is lovely. I hope you have a happy, prosperous New Year.

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