Holiday Traditions in Colonial America and the Early Republic
Updated: Feb 16
Traditions are tricky things. We often think that they have been in existence for a long time, but when we start tracking them, we often find that they do not extend as far back in history as we thought. Many of the things Americans do today to celebrate the Christmas holidays came about in the nineteenth century, but we're extraordinarily attached to our traditions and feel sure that they must be very old and supremely significant. In other cases, people find a single mention of some activity and assume that it was a tradition. In today’s post we are going to try to stay away from speculation and try to see how Colonial America and the early-Republic celebrated the Christmas season.
Observance of Christmas
New England Colonies
The first thing to understand is that Christmas was not universally celebrated throughout the colonies. In New England, Christmas celebrations were illegal during parts of the 17th century and were culturally taboo or rare in former Puritan colonies from foundation until the mid-18th century. The Puritan community found no scriptural justification for celebrating Christmas and associated such celebrations with paganism and idolatry. In the early years of the Plymouth Colony, non-Puritans trying to make merry troubled the Governor, William Bradford, and Church Leaders, and the government acted to reprimand offenders. During the English Interregnum (the period following the execution of Charles I, the English Civil Wars, Cromwell, and the Protectorate), the Puritan-controlled Parliament enacted laws suppressing the holiday. However, after the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, those laws were repealed. The Puritan view of Christmas and its celebration, however, had gained cultural ascendancy in New England, and Christmas celebrations continued to be discouraged despite being legal.
Eighteenth century New Englanders viewed Christmas as a representation of royal officialdom, external interference in local affairs, dissolute behavior, and an obstacle to their holy mission. During the tenure of Anglican Sir Edmund Andros as the Royal Governor of the Dominion of New England, the royal government closed Boston shops on Christmas Day and drove the schoolmaster out of town for a forced holiday. Following Andros' overthrow in the 1689 Boston Revolt, the Puritan view reasserted itself and shops remained open for business as usual on Christmas with goods such as hay and wood being brought into Boston as on any other workday.
With such a burden placed upon Christmas, non-Puritans in colonial New England made no attempt to celebrate the day. Many spent the day quietly at home. Anna Green Winslow, a young schoolgirl 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."
Notice how she states, “the Pope ordained it”, indicating the view that Christmas was a Papist celebration.
New England officials continued to frown upon gift giving and reveling. Evergreen decoration, associated with pagan custom, was expressly forbidden in Puritan meeting houses, and discouraged in the New England home. Merrymakers were prosecuted for disturbing the peace.
By the mid-18th century, Christmas had become a mainstream celebration in New England, and by the beginning of the 19th century, ministers of Congregational churches, the church of the Puritans, called for formal observance of Christmas in the churches
The early history of the Delaware Valley and William Penn’s inclusive policies created an ethnic and religious mix not found in the other twelve colonies. Swedes, Germans, French Huguenots, and Welsh among others settled and celebrated their traditions.
Swedish settlement in the Delaware Valley preceded William Penn, and they remained an important part of the colony. They brought over their pre-Christmas festival of St. Lucia, its saffron bun (Lussekatter) and simple woven decorations. Although there is little hard evidence that the Christmas tree was used by other than Germans in the colonial period. They also decorated with boughs of greens, made pretzels (praying hands) and several cookies that have become American traditions
There were several religious denominations, found in the middle colonies, which were opposed to the celebration, and continued to exclude themselves, among them the Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists, at least at first. Eventually, the prosperity of Pennsylvania led even Quaker families to decorate their homes with greens and dine on the bounty of the colonies.
Things continued to change as time went on, but it was “hit or miss”.
In 1734, Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanac, 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.
Like their English counterparts in the south, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Moravians celebrated the traditional Christmas season with both religious and secular observances in cities such as New York and Philadelphia, and the Middle Atlantic colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
In 1749, Peter Kalm, a Swede visiting Philadelphia, noted in his diary that the Quakers completely dismissed the celebration of Christmas, writing:
"Christmas Day. . . .The Quakers did not regard this day any more remarkable than other days. Stores were open, and anyone might sell or purchase what he wanted. . . .There was no more baking of bread for the Christmas festival than for other days; and no Christmas porridge on Christmas Eve! One did not seem to know what it meant to wish anyone a merry Christmas.
He also noted that at “first the Presbyterians did not care much for celebrating Christmas, but when they saw most of their members going to the English church on that day, they also started to have services."
Speaking of the Catholic Church he noted:
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)
In the Anglican churches, 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, chosen partially because they were aromatic, acted as 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."
In discussing Christmas celebrations in the Southern Colonies (Virginia southward) one must consider location as well as religious affiliation. Along the coastal or Tidewater areas, primarily settled by Anglicans, there was great celebration and merriment.
The interior, settled mostly by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and Baptists, was an entirely different story. Philip Fithian, a Presbyterian missionary working among the Virginia Scotch-Irish in 1775, found Christmas among these folks much different than what he had experienced 2 years earlier when working as a tutor for the children of Robert Carter III at “Nomini Hall” on the Northern Neck of Virginia. He remarked in his journal:
"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."
While the celebration of Christmas was subdued among the Scotch-Irish, there was some recognition of the season, although it tended to be religious, as evidenced by another entry in Fithian’s Journal. On Christmas Eve in 1775, Philip Fithian wrote from Staunton, Virginia:
The Evening I spent at Mr. Guy's--I sung for an Hour, at the good Peoples Desire, Mr. Watt's admirable Hymns--I myself was entertain'd; I felt myself improv'd; so much Love to Jesus is set forth--So much divine Exercise.
Fithian sang the hymns of Isaac Watts (1674-1748), an English Congregationalist minister and theologian. Watts's hymns, and his hymn book, were a favorite of many Virginians including the slaves. Watts's most famous hymn, written in 1719, is "Joy to the World," a beloved Christmas carol. In the late 1700s Joy to the World was printed together with music several times, however, the tunes did not resemble and were not related to the one used today. The tune usually used today is from an 1848 edition by Lowell Mason for The National Psalmist.
To simplify things a bit, for the rest of this article we will look at Tidewater Virginia but almost all of this can be applied to the other Anglican areas of the southern colonies. Christmas in Tidewater Virginia was very different from our twentieth-century celebration however, the Tidewater and other “Anglican” areas of the southern colonies celebrated Christmas with gusto.
Eighteenth-century Anglican customs don't take long to recount - church, dinner, dancing, some evergreens, visiting--and more and better of these very same for those who could afford more. Eighteenth-century Anglicans prepared to celebrate the Nativity during Advent, a penitential season in the church's calendar.
Advent is the beginning of the Christian liturgical year and a separate season from Christmas. For most of Virginia’s devout Anglicans, the season of Advent was a time of penitence, reflection, anticipation, and expectation for the coming of Christ. This spiritual preparation was reflected most clearly in the liturgy and prayers of the church during Advent. Fasting, the consumption of only one full meal (often meatless) during the day, was recommended as another form of self-examination in preparation for Christmas. The Advent season emphasized the timeless dialogue between darkness and light, evil and good. Perhaps at a time of the year when daylight is at an ebb, the joy of the expectation of the holiday became even greater for our Colonial Ancestors.
December 25, with its Christmas feast, began a festive season that lasted well into January. The twelve days of Christmas, the season of parties, balls, festive dinners, and other holiday merry making, began on December 26th and lasted until January 6, also called Twelfth Day or Epiphany.
December 27 is the feast of Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist. Saint John is one of the two patron saints of the Masonic order (along with Saint John the Baptist). Throughout Europe and the English colonies members of the Masonic order celebrated Saint John’s Day with special activities in towns and villages. In Virginia, it was customary for the Masons (dressed in full Masonic regalia) to hold a procession from their lodge building to the local parish church on Saint John’s Day. The Anglican liturgy for Saint John’s Day was observed at church but the Masons usually heard a special sermon that invoked the blessings of love, unity, fraternity, wisdom, and brotherhood. These are the qualities associated with Saint John. The sermons were often delivered by Anglican clergymen who were themselves members of the Masonic order. After the service the Masons continued to celebrate Saint John’s Day by attending a special ball and supper with their wives and friends. A fellow brother was assigned to organize the evening celebrations that were often held in local taverns or in private homes.
There seems to have been no special notice of New Year's Eve in colonial days although New Year’s Day was often marked with the firing of guns, mainly by those of German or Dutch descent and by Moravians. Those involved would travel in groups and made noise on Christmas, Second Christmas (the day after Christmas) and New Year's Eve/Morning and were called the fantasticals or fantastics. On New Year’s Day, the group was specifically called the New Year's Wishers party. Members sometimes dressed in costumes and masks and marched or rode from house to house in a group with all sorts of noisemakers. The New Year’s Wishers would set out at midnight on New Year's Eve to the homes of friends and neighbors. The party would stop outside a window, call out the homeowner's name and ask permission to grant the family a wish. Once permission was granted, the spokesman for the group would chant a wish for a happy and prosperous New Year and then the group would fire their guns. Afterward, the party would be invited inside to warm up, have a drink of brandy or rum and enjoy some refreshments such as mince pies or cakes before moving on to the next house. Needless to say, as the party progressed from one house to the next, they became rowdier and the event more dangerous due to the effects of alcohol.
This was mostly done in smaller villages and is like traditions practiced by Mummers in England. What was the reason for these traditions? With Old World customs came superstition and folklore, tales of witches and spirits. It was believed that the loud noises would drive out demons, witches, and other non-desirable entities on the property and bless the land and the people of the house for the upcoming year.
Colonial Virginians thought Twelfth Night (January 5th) a good occasion for the most prestigious balls, over-the-top parties, and weddings. (We will have more about Twelfth Night and its traditions in a future post.)
Although today, Christmas is mostly seen as a children's holiday, no eighteenth-century sources highlight the importance of children at Christmastime--or of Christmas to children. The Diary entry of Philip Vickers Fithian's on December 18, 1773, talking about exciting holiday events mentions: "the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments. . ." None of this was meant for kids, and the youngsters not invited to attend. The emphasis on Christmas as a magical time for children came about in the nineteenth century. We must particularly thank the Dutch and Germans for moving the focus of Christmas celebrations to the home and within the family.
Virginia shopkeepers of the eighteenth-century placed ads noting items appropriate as holiday gifts, but one was most likely to receive a gift on New Year's instead of December 25. Cash tips, little books, and sweets in small quantities were given by masters or parents to dependents, whether slaves, servants, apprentices, or children. This seems to have been a one-way exchange as children and others did not give gifts to their superiors. Gift-giving traditions from several European countries also worked in this one-way fashion. We must attribute the exchange of gifts among equals and from dependents to superiors to good old American commercial influences in the twentieth century.
Decorations for the midwinter holidays consisted of whatever natural materials looked attractive at the bleakest time of year--evergreens, berries, forced blossoms--and the necessary candles and fires. No early Virginia sources tell us how, or even if, colonists decorated their homes for the holidays, so we must rely on eighteenth-century English prints. Of the precious few--only half a dozen--that show interior Christmas decorations, a large cluster of mistletoe is always the major feature for obvious reasons. Otherwise, plain sprigs of holly or bay fill vases and other containers of all sorts or stand flat against windowpanes.
Although today residents in the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area spend countless hours creating those beautiful natural decorations, admired, copied, and sold everywhere, 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.
Decorations in Anglican, Catholic, and Moravian churches were also quite common as we have previously mentioned. 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.
Christmas trees, unfortunately, were not a part of our Colonial Christmas in the southern colonies. German in origin, Christmas Trees gained acceptance in England and the United States only very slowly. The first written reference to a Christmas tree dates from the seventeenth century when a candle-lighted tree astonished the residents of Strasbourg in what is today Austria. I have been unable to find anything recorded in the eighteenth century about holiday trees in Europe or North America. Around 1848, Charles Minnegerode, a German professor at the College of William and Mary, trimmed a small evergreen to delight the children at the St. George Tucker House as was reported in the remembrances of Martha Vandergrift, in the Richmond News Leader on December 25, 1928.
At Christmas time, everyone wants good food and drink for their celebration, but finances nearly always control the possibilities. In eighteenth- century Virginia, the rich had more on the table at Christmas but even the gentry faced limits in winter. December was the right time for slaughtering, so fresh meat of all sorts was available, as well as some seafood. However, preserving fruits and vegetables was problematic for a December holiday. As a result, beef, goose, ham, and turkey counted as holiday favorites; some households also insisted on fish, oysters, mincemeat pies, and brandied peaches. However, there was no one dish that epitomized the Christmas feast in colonial Virginia.
Wines, brandy, rum punches, and other alcoholic beverages went plentifully around the table on December 25, and throughout the post-Christmas season, in well-to-do households. Some slave owners gave out portions of rum and other liquors to their workers at Christmastime, partly as a holiday treat and partly to keep slaves at the home quarter during their few days off work. People with a quantity of alcohol in them were more likely to stay close to home than to run away.
What about Christmas Carols and Caroling? Christmas music, carols, and hymns were very popular in the Tidewater. As we have already shown, the Christmas season in the southern colonies was filled with festive entertainment, which included singing and dancing to the accompaniment of musicians. Traditional carols and contemporary hymns were sung in the company of friends and family. During the Christmas season Virginians enjoyed singing popular English carols. Among them were "The Snow Lay on the Ground," "The First Noel," "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen," "The Holly and the Ivy," "I Saw Three Ships," and, appropriately sung on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, "Lully Lullay" ("The Coventry Carol"). During the eighteenth-century carols were not sung in the liturgy of the Anglican Church. Rather, the congregation joined with the parish clerk and priest in the metrical singing of psalms and hymns based on the psalter. One interesting bit of information is that most music historians agree that the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas," with all its nonsense about lords a-leaping and swans a-swimming was meant to teach children their numbers and had no strong connection to the birth of Christ.
Finally, let’s address Nativity Scenes. American crèche traditions started in the 18th century with a small group of Protestant immigrants who brought their Christmas customs to their new homeland in the New World. The United Brethren from Herrnhut, commonly called the Moravians, was founded in Bohemia during the 15th century (in what is now the Czech Republic). On Christmas Eve in 1741 a group of Moravians founded the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. These immigrants and others who came after them brought their crèches and their crèche traditions to Bethlehem. Neighbors began to copy their traditions, and eventually, they spread to other German, and later English communities. To this point in time, I have been unable to find any evidence for Nativity Scenes, outside of the Moravian groups in the Southern Colonies in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries.
So, there you have it folks, Christmas in the Colonies and Early America was like our modern celebration in some ways, but very different in others. So, however you choose to celebrate the Holidays in this season, we at the Norfolk Town Assembly wish you and your loved ones a very happy Christmas season and a prosperous New Year.
Daniels, Bruce Colin. Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England. New York: Macmillan, 1995.
DeSimone, David. "Another Look at Christmas in the Eighteenth Century." The Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, Vol 16, Nr. 4 Winter 1995-96.
Fink, Joshua A., “History Highlights – 275th Anniversary Begins.” 2016. 08 December 2019. http://jwsunionchurch.org/History-Highlights---275th-Anniversary-Begins.htm
Kalm, Peter. Travels into North America, Vol 1. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2003. PDF.
Nissenbaum, Stephen W. "Christmas in Early New England, 1620-1820. Puritanism, Popular Culture, and the Printed Word." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, Vol 106, Nr. 1 (1996): 79-164.
Powers, Emma L. "Christmas Customs." The Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, Vol 16, No. 4 Winter 1995-96.
Restad, Penne L. Christmas in America: A history. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Williams, John Rogers, ed. Philip Vickers Fithian Journal and Letters 1767-1774. Princeton: Princeton University Library, 1900.
Wise, Rusty. History of the Cherryville New Years Shooters. n.d. 07 December 2019. <http://www.cherryvilleshooters.com/History-Chant.php>.