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September 12, 2005

Christmas was no holiday for some colonial Virginians, Feast of Nativity observed as a holy day

For many colonial Virginians, the Christmas season presented a time of celebration. For many more, the seasonal workload was anything but a holiday. Unlike the modern holiday celebration of Christmas, colonial Virginians observed the Feast of the Nativity as a holy day, an important religious occasion and a major event on the Anglican Church calendar. Many colonists spent the day quietly in their homes and at the parish church, where attendance for Christmas morning communion was expected.

From Christmas Day through Twelfth Night – the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6 -- gentry houses filled with visitors. Neighbors, friends, and kinsmen gathered for parties, dances and fox hunts. Home entertaining emphasized feasting as varied and plentiful as pocketbooks would allow. Virginians continued the traditional holiday foods from England -- roast beef and goose, plum pudding and mince pies -- and the colony contributed additional delicacies. Native wild turkeys, ducks, and venison became important items on Yuletide tables with a Virginia ham claiming a place at the center. Local waters yielded a wide variety of fish and shellfish for the holiday feasts. In wealthy households, dinner offerings were surpassed only the variety and quantity of beverages, with imported wines such as sherry, Madeira, and clarets among the favorites with meals. Punch made with rum or arrack, rum flip, and other mixed spirits made frequent appearances, while French brandy and locally brewed beer, ale, peach brandy, and cider were immensely popular throughout the period. Eggnog did not become a seasonal favorite until the very end of the century.

These gentry celebrations required considerable labor to accomplish – labor supplied by the hands of domestic slaves and indentured servants, although many plantation owners provided several days of rest to their field hands during a season when agricultural work was less labor-intensive. Household slaves and servants might receive time off at a later date in return for their work during the holiday season.

The middle class and the poor probably displayed fewer outward signs of the season, but everyone tried to have special things to eat and drink at this time. While working people could not celebrate for days on end, stores and shops were closed at least for Christmas Day.

Yet, for family members entrusted with running the household, even the simplest of celebrations required additional work to make the season a celebratory success.
Virginia woods abound with holly, cedar, live oak, mistletoe, ivy, bay, and other plants for holiday decorating. With greenery all around them, Virginians most likely followed English custom by decking their homes and churches with evergreens, but contemporaneous sources offer no description. Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area decorations are adaptations in the colonial style.

Besides feasting and a few greens, there were not many seasonal customs during the 18th century. The Yule log is not mentioned in any colonial records currently researched, but Virginians had at least one distinctive way of celebrating. Colonial boys followed the custom of “shooting in the Christmas”--firing their guns on Christmas Eve and morning. This practice extended into the 19th century and survives today as Christmas fireworks. Although a definitive explanation of this custom is lacking, the association of noise with joyous occasions may be the reason for the “Christmas guns.” Another way of raising a joyful noise was with music, especially group singing of holiday carols.

The Christmas tree did not come to Williamsburg until 1842 when Charles Minnigerode, classics professor at the College of William and Mary and a political exile from Germany, trimmed a tree in the German tradition with candles and fancy paper decorations for the children at the St. George Tucker House. There are earlier instances of Christmas trees elsewhere in the Atlantic states, though none dates from before 1800.

Like the Christmas tree, most of the modern favorite holiday practices had their origins in the 19th century. Christmas cards were unknown in colonial Virginia, though good wishes for the season often were extended in letters. Gift giving was not widespread, and superiors gave gifts to inferiors (parent to child, master to apprentice, or owner to slave or servant) but not vice versa. Children, the poor and slaves welcomed some small luxury like a book, sweets, gloves or a few coins. New Year’s Day appeared just as likely a date for bestowing presents as Christmas Day.

The following verse from The Virginia Almanack published by Joseph Royle in 1765 captures the festive spirit of a colonial Christmas:

Christmas is come, hang on the pot,
Let spits turn round and ovens be hot;
Beef, pork, and poultry now provide,
To feast thy neighbours at this tide;
Then wash all down with good wine and beer,
And so with Mirth conclude the Year.

Media Contact:
Lorraine C. Brooks
(757) 220-7280