Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Colonial Christmas (with a brief history of how our Christmas came to be)

 ~ ~ ~ Showing that many of our colonial ancestors did indeed celebrate this glorious holiday - from New England to the South - ...
...and how they celebrated ~ ~ ~

The arguments continue on of whether or not Colonial America celebrated Christmas. More and more, it seems, I read in newspapers and from people who believe Facebook memes about how the founding generation absolutely did not welcome that holiday into their 18th century homes. But as I research Christmas history for my own knowledge sake, I continuously find the opposite to be true, in more cases than modern historians would lead one to believe.
What I have here in this posting is only a part of the material I have found through various written and especially primary sources (it's hard to argue against primary sources, and yet, people still do), and one would hope for it to be enough to convince my readers that, yes, a great many who lived in colonial America, north and south, truly did celebrate the Christmas tide, and they and their observances should not be cast aside.
In fact, I would venture to say that most, in the very least, acknowledged December the 25th, especially in the mid-to-late 18th century. But...well, let's switch on the time machine to the colonies of 250 years ago and see for ourselves:
Merry Christmas from 1760 
(Daggett House at Greenfield Village)
Welcome to my home.
Come in for some Christmas chear. 
How does your father, old fellow?
Every year there are discussions about the colonial celebration of Christmas - not only how the colonial Americans observed Christmas, but if they even celebrated at all, for there are those who, for some reason, feel as if the keeping of Christmas didn't begin until the 19th century.
In 17th and 18th century Colonial America, the observances of Christmas varied throughout the colonies, from the Puritans in New England who *mostly* did not celebrate Christmas, to the Southern Anglicans whose revelries most closely match modern Christmas celebrations. 
It is true that Christmas during America's colonial period was not celebrated by everyone - especially in the 1600s and early 1700s. In fact, in some areas it was actually outlawed; the Puritans in England, under Oliver Cromwell, outlawed the celebration of Christmas, calling it "Popish" (Roman Catholic) and considered the secular celebration a continuation of pagan beliefs: " (anyone) found observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting, or any other way, any such days as Christmas day, shall pay for every such with offense five shillings." 
In 1659, the ban became official for the people of Massachusetts; the General Court banned the celebration of Christmas and other such holidays at the same time it banned gambling and other kinds of 'lawless' behavior, grouping all of them together. The court placed a fine of five shillings on anyone caught feasting or celebrating the holiday in another manner.
"The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those holidays (as they are called) after an holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth ..."
- Reverend Increase Mather, 1687
 
I am very glad, my Dear, that we did not choose to live in Massachusetts

(Giddings House in Greenfield Village)

Upon hearing of this non-celebratory outlawing of Christmas, many here in the 21st century take it to mean that Christmas was banned throughout the colonies, that there were no observances whatsoever.
Increase Mather
This is simply not so; there was plenty of mirth and joy along the East Coast on the 25th of December (and for weeks beyond) during the good old colony days, for there were still those who insisted on celebrating, as Increase Mather found out. In his diary of December 18, 1664, Increase felt it necessary to deliver an anti-Christmas sermon. The following day he then wrote that three wealthy members of his own church had quite a discussion - an argument, it seems -  about his previous day’s sermon: “Discoursed much about Christmas, I Con, they Pro.”
The ban was revoked in 1681 by an English-appointed governor, Sir Edmund Andros, who also revoked a Puritan ban against festivities on Saturday night. But, according to THIS site (a site which seems to perpetuate more myth and half-truths than facts), after the ban had been lifted, "Christmas had simply been forgotten, and wouldn’t catch on again until the mid-19th century."  
I don't think so.
In fact, that's not really the case at all. Yes, it is true that many colonists were not happy and did not approve of the lifting of the ban and of the celebration of Christmas; it seems that a large number of New England colonists still abstained from celebrations. Samuel Sewell, whose diary of life in Massachusetts Bay Colony was later published, made a habit of watching the holiday each year—specifically how it was observed. In 1685 (one year after the ban was lifted) he wrote, "Carts came to town and Shops open as is usual. Some, somehow, observe the day; but are vexed, I believe, that the Body of the People profane it, and, blessed be God! no Authority yet to compell them to keep it."
But, according to Sewell, "some, somehow, observe the day."  
So, as you can see, the myth of Christmas being totally forgotten is not at all true, and the reveling of the holiday did continue, and it grew in acceptance. In 1711 Boston, Cotton Mather, son of Increase, marked from his pulpit, "I hear of a number of young people of both sexes, belonging, many of them, to my flock, who have had on the Christmas-night, this last week, a Frolick, a revelling feast, and Ball.
The Feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty...by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling."

Bringing in the Yule Log
Most everyone in our modern times knows that Jesus was not born on December the 25th, and that His birth more than likely occurred in either the spring or the autumn of the year. 

And this was suspected in the colonial period as well.
But to get to the root of "the problem," we must travel back further in time...like nearly 1500 years before the 18th century, for a very brief account of how our Christmas celebrations came to be...
The date we now call Christmas Day - December 25 - was a celebrated public holiday in the family home. It was a time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. But it wasn’t Christmas. This was Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival. Saturnalia originated as a farmer’s festival to mark the end of the autumn planting season in honor of Saturn (satus means sowing).  
Dice players from a wall painting in Pompeii
The first-century AD poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described Saturnalia as ‘the best of times’: dress codes were relaxed, small gifts such as dolls, candles and caged birds were exchanged. Saturnalia also saw the inversion of social roles; the wealthy were expected to pay the month’s rent for those who couldn’t afford it and masters and slaves to swap clothes. Also, family households threw dice to determine who would become the temporary Saturnalian monarch.
As far as the date of our modern Christmas, this may have derived from early ecclesiastical "number-crunchers" who figured that the nine months of  Mary’s pregnancy following the Annunciation (the announcement by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary of her conception of Christ) on March 25th would produce a December 25th date for the birth of Christ.
So, though Christmas more than likely took celebratory ideas from Saturnalia, it's chosen date might not have had anything to do with that holiday at all.
But Christmas itself as a holiday apparently started – like Saturnalia – in Rome, and spread to the eastern Mediterranean. The earliest known reference to it commemorating the birth of Christ on December 25th is in the Roman calendar of AD 354. 
It is in my opinion that the blending of the two - Saturnalia and Christmas - along with a third contender from a "civil" Roman holiday - Sol Invicta (the Persian god of light or the sun) - probably gave us the makings of what would become our modern Christmas celebration.
Once Christmas itself had been established as the main holiday (or holy day), gifts were exchanged, families and friends gathered to feast, and the Birth of Christ was celebrated.
And there it has stood for centuries, with many of our traditions evolving over time.
Mummers: Men that would disguise themselves in garish costumes during special times of the year, especially at Christmas, and put on skits, sing carols, and were general merrymaking pranksters.They would gather together with a large wooden bowl and move throughout the village to people’s homes singing songs of good health and happiness to the homeowners as well as to their servants and animals - not unlike our modern caroling. The villagers, in turn, would fill the bowl with the spicy ale or money or both. Whoever did not give the drink or money, or whoever gave too little, the mummers (also known as wassailers) would wish ill will on them. Or…maybe would push their way into the home where they would find food or drink and take it for themselves of their own free will, their faces hidden from the masks and costumes they were wearing.
Many carols have been written about mumming (or wassailing), most notably The Glousestershire Wassail from the medieval period that tells the tale of mummers/wassailers as they reach the door of one of the wealthy landowners of the village (like the photo above shows):

Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.

Here's to the mare, and to her right eye,
God send our mistress a good Christmas pie;
A good Christmas pie as e'er I did see,
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.
 
Here's to the horse, and to his right ear,
God send our master a happy new year:
A happy new year as e'er he did see,
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.


Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all.

Be here any maids? I suppose here be some;
Sure they will not let young men stand on the cold stone!
Sing hey O, maids! come trole back the pin,
And the fairest maid in the house let us all in.

Then here's to the maid in the lily white smock
Who tripped to the door and slipped back the lock
Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin

To let the jolly wassailer walk in!

 Click HERE to see a video of this song (I hope it works for you):

Things were about to change...and this leads us to - - -

~Christmas in the Colonies ~
From the diary of Long Island resident of Mary Cooper:
Thursday December 24, 1772 –
Warme but snows very very fast in the after noon. I and Frances very buise cleaning the house. Frances gone. I am up all this night cooking and boileing meat for mins pyes.

Christmas, December the 25 day, Friday (1772)
Warme, the sun shines bright and warme. I and Salle huured away to meeten and staide to the night meeten. A very greate white  frost and very cold coming home.
Off to find Christmas in the colonies...(photo taken at Colonial Williamsburg by Fred Blystone)
We learned earlier about how Oliver Cromwell outlawed the Christmas Holiday in England, and that Increase Mather banned it in Massachusetts, only to have the ban revoked a couple decades later
But that was in the 1600s; in the 1700s, the times they were a-changing.
As time went on, more and more churches throughout New England added Christmas sermons to the date of December 25 and began celebrating this holy day of Christ’s birth, and by mid-century it was well on its merry way. In 1772, the Baptist church of Newport, Rhode Island observed Christmas for the first time in its history, and Congregationalist minister, Reverand Ezra Stiles was in attendance. “It is probable,” he wrote shortly after, “this will begin the Introduction of Christmas among the Baptist Churches…” In his December 25, 1776 diary, Stiles wrote, “This day the nativity of our blessed Savior is celebrated through three quarters of Christendom…but the true day is unknown.
And, as president of Yale, Stiles permitted his students to attend Christmas services, despite the Congregationalist’s official rejection of the Holiday.
I was welcomed into the Saltbox Farm House of Samuel and Anna Daggett with much kindness, just as long as I kept my Christmas celebration to myself! Ayethey were strict Congregationalists and many from this denomination did not celebrate the holiday.
Anna Daggett, a staunch Congregationalist, spoke to me about Christmas as well as about life in general on a cold winter's night while I visited at the 1760 home of she and her husband, Samuel:

We'll spend the long nights in cheerful delights
    To drive the cold winter away

Although Christmas was no longer banned in New England, several religious denominations, mostly found in the middle colonies, were opposed to the celebration, and continued to exclude themselves, as you have heard Mrs. Daggett say in the clip. In 1749, a visitor among the Quakers in Philadelphia noted that: "Christmas Day. . . The Quakers did not regard this day any more remarkable than other days. Stores were open. . . There was no more baking of bread for the Christmas festival than for other days; and no Christmas porridge on Christmas Eve!"
Philip Fithian, a Presbyterian missionary working among the Virginia Scotch-Irish in 1775, remarked that: "Christmas Morning - Not a Gun is heard ­Not a Shout - No company or Cabal assembled - To Day is like other Days every Way calme & temperate."
At first the Presbyterians did not care much for celebrating Christmas, but when they saw most of their members going to the Anglican Church on that day, they also started to have services.
Things continued to change as time went on. As is written in the book The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum, “After 1760 it was exceptional not to name Christmas (in Almanacs)."
Poor Richard's Almanac 1739
In the year 1734, Benjamin Franklin, in the second number of his almanac, Poor Richard, placed between the dates of December 23-29: "If you wou'd have Guests merry with your Cheer / Be so yourself or so at least appear," and for the same time in 1739: "O blessed Season! lov'd by Saints and Sinners / For long Devotions, or for longer Dinners." 
Franklin's verse makes it clear enough he was no hater of Christmas.
The last major almanac printer holdout, Nathaniel Ames, named Christmas in 1760, and when he did so he added an explicit religious verse (This is a time for Joy and Mirth / When we consider our Saviour’s Birth).”
Nissenbaum also states that Connecticut almanac maker Roger Sherman published a series of almanacs from 1750 to 1761, and every one of these listed Christmas and the saints’ days, even though there were some who disliked his almanac because of it.
Written in Martha Ballard’s diary on December 29, 1796, “Daniel Livermore made a present of an Almanack to my Son Cyrus.”
The almanac would have certainly noted that December 25 was Christmas.

Let's hear from others and their opinions about this Holiday: 
Anna Green Winslow, a young school girl of Boston, wrote in her diary on December 24, 1771: "The walking is so slippery and the air is so cold, that aunt chuses to have me for her scoller these two days. And as tomorrow will be a holiday, so the pope and his associates have ordained, my aunt thinks not to trouble Mrs. Smith with me this week."
Then the next day, December 25, Miss Winslow writes, "This day the extremity of the cold is somewhat abated. I keept Christmas at home this year, & did a very good day's work, aunt says so."
This does not mean young Anna celebrated the holiday, but she did take note of it and hinted that there were those who did.
The pope ordained it!
My good wife and I enjoyed a quiet day of peaceful celebration on this Christmas tide.
The celebrations of this glorious holiday was celebrated quite fervently in (Colonial) Williamsburg, Virginia, where the excitement began to build as the month of December went on. Missionary Philip Fithian, on December 18, 1773, wroteNothing now is 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...which are to continue til twelfth-day. Everyone is now speaking of the approaching Christmas----The young Ladies tell me we are to have a Ball, of selected Friends in this Family---But I, hard Lot, I have never learned to dance!""
Awaiting to dance...
The first sign of the festivities was on Christmas Eve, when guns were fired into the chill Virginia air. Christmas Day, however, was a quiet holy day marked by going to church, where a few sprigs of holly in the deep windowsills were the only decorations for the season.
But this was only the beginning: Scattered throughout Virginia and elsewhere, relatives and friends had come for long visits of weeks or months. The women and the house servants were busy planning and preparing great feasts - sometimes up to 20 or 30 different dishes might be served, carefully arranged on the table for a great afternoon meal.
A grand ball would commence afterward, where, after hours of dancing, revelers could partake in a fine dessert feast. As one girl from the gentry wrote on December 26 (I believe the year was 1776): "Mama made 6 mince pies & 7 custards, 12 tarts, 1 chicken pye, and 4 puddings for the ball."

Like their English counter-parts in the south, there were some in the northern communities who ate and drank their way through the Christmas holiday. To the Anglicans, Roman Catholics (as Anna Green Winslow noted), and Lutherans, the Christmas season was embraced and celebrated, though mainly by the Church of England and the Roman Catholics. However, there were some Dutch and Germans in New York that celebrated Christmas not only with religious services, but, at times with the excitement of the southern colonies.
And John Adams, our 2nd President, noted the holiday in a letter penned to his "Dearest Friend" (wife Abigail) in a letter dated "Christmas Day 1794" - a Thursday - and speaks of attending church where he heard "a good sermon."

There's a wonderful old carol written in the late-17th century that gives a great first-hand account of Christmas celebrations during this early period:

All You That Are Good Fellows 
All you that are good fellows come hearken to my song 
I know you do not hate good cheer or liquor that is strong
I hope there is none here, but soon will take my part
Seeing my master and my dame say welcome with their heart.

This is a time of joyfulness and merry time of year 
When as the rich with plenty stored do make the poor good cheer
Plum porridge, roast beef, minced pies stand smoking on the board
With other brave varieties our master doth afford.

Our mistress and her cleanly maids have neatly played the cooks 
Methinks these dishes eagerly at my smart stomach looks
As though they were afraid to see me draw my blade
But I revenged on them will be until my stomach’s stayed.

Come fill us of the strongest, small drink is out of date 
Methinks I shall fare like a prince and sit in gallant state
This is no miser’s feast although that things be dear
God grant the founder of this feast each Christmas deep good cheer.

This day for Christ we celebrate who was born at this time 
For which all Christians should rejoice and I do sing in rhyme
When you have given thanks unto your dainties fall
Heaven bless my master and my dame, Lord bless me and you all.

Here we have Simply Dickens (in their Victorian finery) performing "All You That Are Good Fellows"

I am certainly glad we are not in Massachusettes!
I hear many still refuse to observe Christmas there!
(Photo taken in Colonial Williamsburg by Fred Blystone)
Like the carol suggests, the celebration of the Christmas season consisted of parties, hunts, visiting, feasts and church services. Christmas decorations generally consisted of holly and ivy strung throughout the house, with a sprig of mistletoe or a kissing ball prominently displayed. A great effort was made to decorate the churches with laurel, holly, and other garlands.
Something that was common was the "sticking of the Church" with green boughs on Christmas Eve. Garlands of holly, ivy, mountain laurel, and mistletoe were hung from the church roof, the walls, and the church pillars and galleries. The pews and the pulpit, and sometimes the altar, were bedecked with garlands. This scene is described by Peter Kalm, a Swede who visited Philadelphia in 1749. On Christmas Day he wrote: 
Nowhere was Christmas Day celebrated with more solemnity than in the Roman Church. Three sermons were preached there, and that which contributed most to the splendor of the ceremony was the beautiful music heard to-day. . . . Pews and altar were decorated with branches of mountain laurel, whose leaves are green in winter time and resemble the (cherry laurel).
Bruton Parish - Colonial Williamsburg (photo by Charlie Wilson)
Lavender, rose petals, and pungent herbs such as rosemary and bay were scattered throughout the churches, providing a pleasant holiday scent. Scented flowers and herbs were chosen partially because they were aromatic and thus were considered an alternative form of incense. The Reverend George Herbert, an Anglican clergyman from Maryland, urged "that the church be swept, and kept clean without dust, or cobwebs, and at great festivals strewed, and stuck with boughs, and perfumed with incense.
Virginians decorated homes in the same way, but they most likely reserved one or two main rooms in the house for the Christmas observance. 
(In our modern day, residents in Historic Areas spend countless hours recreating what they believe to be beautiful natural decorations of fruits. Though greatly admired and copied far and wide, they are an inaccurate re-creation of eighteenth-century customs and materials. Citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, and limes would never have been wasted on any form of decoration. A pineapple was considered a precious commodity in the eighteenth century and would not have been used as a door or mantel centerpiece.) 
No Christmas Trees in Colonial times...
...except maybe in a German home.
The Christmas Tree, by the way, was a staple in many German homes in the colonies, for it had a long history in Germany, with documentation dating back to the early 1500s. The tradition of cutting down fir trees to be used in their holiday celebrations was brought over with them as they immigrated to North America. The decorations on these trees were elaborate - candles, sweets and dolls - but they did not gain wide popularity to non-German America until the mid-19th century.
The traditional Christmas feast varied from household to household (depending on how wealthy the family was and where they were located) but generally consisted of hams, beef, goose, turkey, oysters, mincemeat pies, wines, rum punches, and various other treats. The season was considered a grown-up celebration, but presents would sometimes be given to children.
Southern plantation families usually supplied rum and presents (often candy) to their slaves on the first of the year.
Chocolate was also quite a treat for the colonists.
Though chocolate had been in North America for quite some time, it was in 1773 that the demand for it in the colonies resulted in the importation of over 320 tons of cocoa beans. Drinking chocolate was affordable to all classes of people and was available in most coffee houses, where colonists would gather to talk about politics and the news of the day.
And it could be transported in solid blocks without spoilage
Overseeing the chocolateer
Drinking chocolate was said to have a variety of medical benefits. It was purported to promote weight gain to restore flesh to emaciated patients, especially to those who suffered from tuberculosis. It was used to stimulate the nervous systems of feeble patients, and also to calm patients who were over-stimulated such as soldiers fresh from battle. It could improve digestion, and was used to bind to medicines to make them more palatable to patients.
In 1785, Thomas Jefferson predicted that chocolate would become the favorite beverage in North America over coffee and tea. This prediction came after the Boston Tea Party and the rejection of tea by the colonists, and prior to the widespread consumption of coffee in North America.
Chocolate remained exclusively a drink until the mid-19th century when advertisements for solid eating chocolate first appeared.
Here we see a chocolateer working his craft and explaining the importance and fondness of this treat to the colonists that we now take for granted:


And here is an additional bit about chocolate in the colonial period:
I would love to try original chocolate, just to find out what it tastes like, wouldn't you? But it was for the more wealthy folk such as the Giddings.

Something else I found interesting is that in mid-18th century Boston, newspaper “carriers” (boys who delivered the local papers to homes) expected a tip on Christmas. In fact, in the 1764 Boston Evening Post was a poem with the heading “The News-Boy’s Christmas and New Year’s Verses” which began with: 
The Boy who Weekly Pads the Street
With all the freshest News he meets,
His Mistress and Masters greets.
Christmas and New-Year, Days of Joy,
The Harvest of your Carrier Boy,
His hopes you’ll not his Hopes destroy… 
Three other carriers addresses wished their recipients “a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,” and asked for a “few shillings, some pence, and a lib’ral hand.”

One hardly ever thinks of war and battles playing a key role in our country's history during Christmas, but George Washington's ragtag army's defeat of the Hessians in December 1776 was such a pivotal moment in the history of America. On Christmas eve in 1776 some of the 30,000 German mercenaries (Hessians) hired to aid the British troops, were in a joyful mood for two reasons: they were close to defeating George Washington's troops and it was Christmas Eve, a time of enthusiastic rejoicing with food, songs and decorated trees, thus not much attention was being paid to their military duties. Early on December 26th Washington and his army attacked and were able to defeat their usually well prepared foes.
Battle of Trenton, December 26, 1776:

It was said the Hessian soldiers had a little too much Christmas "nog" in their blood from their celebration, which helped Washington's army to defeat them.
One of Washington’s staff commented, "They (the Hessian soldiers) make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt (they) will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance to-night. They will be sleepy to-morrow morning.”
However, this may not have been the case. Patriot John Greenwood, who fought in the battle and supervised Hessians afterward, wrote, "I am certain not a drop of liquor was drunk during the whole night, nor, as I could see, even a piece of bread eaten.”
Historian David Lengel wrote: The Germans were dazed and tired but there is no truth to the legend claiming that they were helplessly drunk.

The Revolutionary War had its share of highs and lows for Christmas. The lowest point was undoubtedly Christmas at Valley Forge, where many soldiers were near freezing and near starvation, eating meager rations of mutton and cabbage with no whiskey or wine.
Christmas 1776 at Valley Forge
But George Washington would probably cite Christmas 1783 as his best.  That’s when he rode up to Mount Vernon to celebrate his first holiday at home after eight years of revolution.  He had resigned his commission just days before and was determined to surprise his family with his presence. They, in turn, surprised him with a feast fit for a king.
As described from Mt. Vernon: Christmas Pie, which was a traditional British dish with a sturdy crust and layers of meat, including a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge and pigeon, and seasoned with nutmeg, cloves, mace, pepper and salt and slathered with four pounds of butter, all cooked together for at least four hours.  
Then there was Martha’s recipe for “great cake”—40 eggs, 4 pounds of butter, 4 pounds of powdered sugar, 5 pounds of fruit and a half pint of wine and brandy thrown in for good measure.  Add in Washington’s extended family and a few select friends, at it was a welcome respite after nearly a decade on the run in more than 200 encampments.
Christmas at Mt. Vernon with family and friends
Martha hoped that “from this moment [they] would grow old together, in solitude and tranquility.”  Alas, her Christmas wish was not to be. But the intervening years were as close to a domestic idyll as Washington ever experienced.
George Washington was known to splurge on diversions for his family and guests. Irena Chalmers notes that in 1759, with this being his first Christmas with his new wife, Martha, gave the following presents to her children: a bird on Bellows; a Cuckoo; a Turnabout Parrot; a Grocers Shop; an Aviary; a Prussian Dragoon; a Man Smoking; a Tunbridge Tea Set; 3 Neat Books, a Tea Chest, a straw parchment box with a glass and a neat dress'd wax baby. Once, during the war, he hired a band on Christmas Day.
In the winter of 1787, a travelling salesman brought an Arabian camel up to Mount Vernon for the equivalent of $77 today to entertain and educate the extended Washington family.
And in 1797, with less than two years left in his life, he wrote a note to the husband of Martha’s granddaughter which could serve as a Christmas coda from the original founding father: “We remain in Status quo and all unite in offering you, & yours, the compliments of the season, and the return of many, many more, and happy ones.”
 
On the Southern frontier some of the old Christmas customs continued on into the 20th century. Visitors to Appalachia and the highlands of North Carolina found that the practice of "Old Christmas" with bonfires and the firing of guns, along with fireworks still exist.
One visitor noted: "In some parts of this country it is the custom to observe what is known as 'Old Christmas.' "
Opinion on the date of Old Christmas varies: Some believe it is the 5th and some the 6th of January. This day is believed by these people who keep it to be the real date of the birth of Jesus. They say the Christmas we observe is a "man­made" Christmas." 
Life on the American colonial frontier was, as it would be expected, quite different from the well established east coast.

The frontier at that time was heavily populated with the Scotch-Irish. They organized their lives by the events of the Christian calendar, but differed greatly from the rest of British America. They have preserved some of the ancient Christian rituals which had lingered along the border lands between England and Scotland decades after they were abandoned in other regions of the British Isles.

Our frontier people seemed to have kept a day which they called "Old Christmas," on January 5th or sometimes the 6th. On that day, even in the poorest of homes, feasts were common, and they lit bonfires that night. They also celebrated by continual discharging of their muskets.
 This had been the custom in the British borderlands, now brought to North America.

Music of Christmas: the Christmas Carol~~~~~
We hear songs of Christmas almost daily from November through the end of December and, many times without even thinking, we may find ourselves humming or singing along.
But have you ever given thought to just how old some of these tunes actually are?
Christmas canticles of some form have been around for millennia, and, believe it or not, a few from the ancient times still remain in our midst. For instance, from 12th century Ireland comes The Wexford Carol, medieval England gave us The Boars Head Carol and The Gloucestershire Wassail. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is from the 15th century, Bring A Torch Jeannette Isabella and Coventry Carol are from the mid-1500s, with the mid-to-late 1600s bringing us All You That Are Good Fellows, I Saw Three Ships, The Huron Carol, and The First Noel. The Holly and the Ivy is from around 1710, Joy To the World was written in Virginia in 1719, Hark! The Herald Angels Song was written in 1739, and O Come All Ye Faithfull is from the 1750s - all being a very few examples of the many carols from the 12th through the colonial period.
By the mid-18th century, most of these Christmas hymns began showing up in New England hymnals, and beginning in 1770, a new set of Christmas songs were appearing in these music books, which were written by New England composers, including William Billings of Boston, who wrote eight new carols between 1770 and 1794, one of which is still known today - "While Shepherds Watched Their Flock By Night."
On a fun side note, The 12 Days of Christmas actually began around 1780 (or earlier) as a sort of parlor game where one person would begin by saying "On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree."
The next person would add his or her own line: "On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree." The third person would add their own line then must remember to repeat, in descending order, the two who went before. The same with the fourth person, fifth person...all the way up to twelve different gifts. Now, there were many other gifts that we no longer say (or sing): seven deer a-running, nine cocks a-crowing,  eleven bears a-beating, and many other variations.
Fun fact: for the 4th day of Christmas, the line was originally written as four colley birds - not the more modern calling birds.
We still play this parlor game in my living history group, by the way, only we don't allow the popular song gifts - everyone must come up with their own.
Christmas was indeed alive and Christ's birth celebrated during the 18th century.

From what I've been able to find out (thanks to History Myths Debunked), the phrase Merry Christmas is indeed the greeting one was more likely to use in colonial times. "Different sources trace the origin of the phrase back to different dates, but in each case, they all pre-date the 18th century. The casual use of 'Merry Christmas' in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" seems to suggest that it was already well-known to the English by the early to mid-19th century."
Though I know some do not celebrate Christmas, I shall repeat the well-known phrase from the kindness of my heart to all of our acquaintances:
“Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!”
Speaking of New Year's, here is a video explanation from the Giddings House (now located in Greenfield Village) of their New Years celebration:
 
Looking into the future, the 19th century saw additional customs and traditions added to Christmas celebrations by such notables as Washington Irving, Clement C. Moore, Mr. Dickens, Thomas Nast, and even Queen Victoria, all of whom helped directly or indirectly to form the modern Christmas we know today. 

For nearly two millennia folks have been celebrating the birth of Jesus in one way or another, but upon hearing of the banning & outlawing of Christmas in America during colonial times, my interest in the subject was piqued, for I felt there was more to the story than what I read.
And as you have just seen, there really is much more to the story; unless we dig deep in our research beyond the fluff, modern trendy slants, and news tactics "to sell papers," so we can understand its history beyond the headlines, we cannot fully appreciate and understand history in the way it was.
Yes, though the colonial Christmases were not as we have them today, the day was still a holiday for many. As “Battle for Christmas” author Stephen Nissenbaum describes it: “Then, as now, there was no single Christmas. For some it was probably (just another day). For others it was a time of pious devotion that could range from mirthful joy in the Savior’s birth to angst over personal failings, and from stately prayers to ecstatic hymns. For others still it was a time for feasting---accompanied or not by a supply of alcohol.”
So when and if you hear or read about how Christmas was not celebrated in the colonies, you can now disprove those myths and let them know that, though there was a large population that did not acknowledge the date set for the birth of the Savior in any way, it was still celebrated fervently by many (not just a few) throughout the colonies - even during the short time it was against the law.
So, with that, as I did with my colonial neighbors, I shall wish you all a very Merry Christmas in the truest sense of the word!

My time here is nigh as I fade into the shadows and head back to the future…

All of the information for this posting has come from the numerous sources listed here:
The website of Colonial Williamsburg
as well as the Christmas in Williamsburg book
The All About Jesus Christ website  
"Inventing Christmas" - by Jock Elliott
The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum
The Diary of Anna Green Winslow
The Diary of Mary Cooper
American Christmases by Joanne Martell
An article by Donald N. Moran that was originally printed in a Sons of Liberty newsletter back in 2001.
The earliest Christmas celebrations came from History Today
Christmas in the 17th and 18th Centuries website
A History of Christmas blog
And the dictionary information under Christmas in Colonial America
The written information about chocolate came from HERE

~A major THANK YOU goes to Charlie Wilson and Fred Blystone, two men who take beautiful photographs at historic Colonial Williamsburg (their credits are listed under their photographs included.). Their pictures greatly helped me to tell of the colonial Christmas celebrations.
The rest of the photographs you see here were either taken by me or, if I am in the pictures, were from the keen artistic eye of my daughter.




 








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5 comments:

Mrs. G said...

How interesting, Ken. Thanks for taking the time to write it!

historiccookery said...

This whole subject drives me nuts every year! It was not just the Puritans or New Englanders who were opposed to celebrating Christmas. Any other Calvinistic religion did, as well, including Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists, etc.
Also, the Anglican Church, which is but one step from Catholicism, was the state church of the colony of Virginia. In fact, Presbyterians living there had to petition the State/Parliament to allow them to be able to hold services (or "meetings") and to do so in a building (and not, say, in a home) of their own. But they still had to follow all the rules, such as pay taxes to the Anglican Church.
I know of three sources that state the Dutch in New York did not celebrate Christmas, particularly St. Nicholas Day. Each says there is no documentary proof of it. In addition, there were strict laws in New York against Catholicism, which weren't repealed until 1806. No one would be foolish enough to mark a "popish" celebration such as Christmas!
This country was settled, by and large, by Protestants, aka protesters against Catholicism. Thus, I believe Christmas was largely ignored by a majority of people in most colonies (excepting Virginia and Catholic Maryland, of course; well, and any persons who had no religion at all, but their reasons for celebrating were pagan-based and certainly NOT biblical in any way).
Anyway...just my two cents worth!

Historical Ken said...

I don't know...the more research I do, and the deeper I dig, I'm finding that Christmas celebrated by more colonials than originally thought.

Evelyn said...

Up here in New Brunswick we follow the traditions of the loyalists and were told and believe to be true, that many religious denominations such as Baptists, Wesleyans and Quakers did not celebrate Christmas. Actually most of what I have read indicates Christmas took second place to New Years. It wasn't until the Victorians that Christmas came into its own, especially for children. I beleieve Christmas was not banned but the riotous celebrating of it was. It was more a time for spiritual quiet reflection.

Historical Ken said...

Enough of all Christian denominations must've celebrated or there would not have been so many preachers from said denominations preaching against it to their flock.
As I said, the more research I do, and the deeper I dig, I'm finding that Christmas was celebrated by more colonials than originally thought.