Christmas in Early America

ChristmasLanguagesThe first colonists to introduce celebration and merriment to the holiday were the early settlers of Virginia.  The traditions they brought would likely have been reflected in a sixteenth century poem by Thomas Tusser:

At Christmas play and make cheer
For Christmas comes but once a year
Good bread and good drink, a good fire in the hall
Brawn, pudding and souse, and good mustard withall;
Beef, mutton and pork, shred pies of the best;
Pig, veal, goose and capon and turkey well drest;
Cheese, apples and nuts, jolly carols to hear,
As then in the country is counted good cheer.

One tradition brought by the English colonists of Virginia was noise-making with horns, drums and fireworks, which had been introduced in England in the fifteenth century.  In 1486 the first fireworks display took place in celebration of King Henry VII’s marriage.  This tradition continues in the South even today.

In Williamsburg, the Yule log, the foundation of the traditional Christmas Eve fire, was lit and carols were sung.  The Yule log offered a respite of sorts for the colonists, since as long as it burned no one had to work.  One could imagine them going to great lengths to keep the fire going!

On Christmas Day, everyone attended church services, followed by a feast, dances, games and fireworks — all of this merriment sometimes continuing until the new year.  Contrast that, however, with the Puritans of Massachusetts.

FrowningPilgrimMerriment was not much on the minds of the Puritans, going so far as to declare the  holiday celebration illegal.  Christmas, strictly considered a religious event only, was a holy day to be celebrated without pagan rituals.  By the time of the Revolutionary War, restrictions began to be loosened, although Massachusetts did not recognize Christmas as a legal holiday until 1856.

When did St. Nicholas introduce himself to America?  That would be via the Dutch.  On Christmas Day of 1624 members of the Dutch East India Company landed on what we now know today as Manhattan Island and made merry.

As more settlers arrived from Holland, they brought with them their customs of St. Nicholas, bearer of gifts, and stockings filled with goodies.  The Dutch also believed the celebration was meant to bring families closer together.

Swedes settled in Delaware in 1638, whence came the tradition of hanging a pine or fir wreath on the door of one’s home — a sign of both welcome and good luck.  Instead of St. Nicholas, their tradition was gift-giving elves.
The seventeenth century brought some of the first German colonists and with them the tradition of decorating an evergreen tree with ornaments, candles and cookies.  As the country expanded its borders beyond the original thirteen colonies, the French and Spanish would put their indelible mark on the Christmas holiday.

French and Spanish Traditions

The French would attend a midnight mass on Christmas Eve and then partake of a special meal called a réveillon.  Children left their shoes by the crèche hoping to find them filled with gifts from baby Jesus the following morning.  For the French, Christmas was a time of peace and reflection, followed by a New Year’s Eve celebration of  parades and masquerade balls.  Today, the tradition of réveillon is still observed in New Orleans.

The Spanish who settled throughout the Southwest brought their tradition of re-enacting Joseph and Mary’s journey on the first Christmas, called Las Posadas.  Included in the festivities was the tradition of children striking a piñata filled with toys and sweets.

One of the more beautiful symbols of the Christmas season in the Southwest, seen today especially in New Mexico, is the lighting of luminarias or farolitos.  Spanish traders may have originally introduced this custom because of the fascination with a long-time Chinese tradition of paper lanterns, according to Pedro Ribera Ortega, author of Christmas In Old Santa Fe.

By the 1860’s the celebration of Christmas with gift giving, Santa Claus and decorated trees was common throughout the country, and by the Victorian Age such traditions as kissing under the mistletoe had been introduced.  Tree ornaments began to be commercially produced in the 1870’s.

Today we celebrate Christmas with elaborate lighting displays, gifts and gadgets, and over-stuffing ourselves with Christmas goodies.  Of course, those traditions have evolved with the changing culture and technology.  My favorite part of Christmas is just spending time with family and celebrating the real meaning, Christ’s birth.  In a way, it saddens me how commercialized Christmas has become.  I wonder what our ancestors would say about our traditions today like “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday”?

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.

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