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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.