Revolutionary War Historical Article
Christmas in the 17th and 18th Centuries
By Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the December 2001 Edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter
In 17th and early 18th century Colonial America, a Christmas celebration did not resemble the festivities that we are familiar with today. Christmas was considered the first day in a season of celebration, a season which would last, in some areas, until the end of January. The Christmas Advent season consisted of December 25th, The Nativity of Jesus; December 27th, The Feast of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist (celebrated by the Masons); January 1st, The Circumcision of Jesus; January 6th, The Epiphany of Jesus (The they twelfth day of Christmas); and February 2nd, the Purification of the Virgin. Christmas celebrations varied throughout the colonies, from the Puritans in New England who did not celebrate Christmas at all, to the Southern Anglicans whose revelries most closely match modern Christmas celebrations.
The Puritans of New England outlawed Christmas until the mid-19th century. In the early part of the 16th century, the Puritans in England, under Oliver Cromwell, outlawed the celebration of Christmas, calling it "Popish" (Roman Catholic) and considering the secular celebration a continuation of pagan beliefs. The Puritans in Massachusetts and other parts of New England held on to these beliefs.
In 1659, a law was enacted in Massachusetts to punish anyone who " . . . is 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." The immigration of other religious denominations to the colonies saw this attitude in New England, but weren't able to change it until about 150 years ago.
Although Christmas wasn't outlawed outside of New England, several denominations, mostly found in the middle colonies, were opposed to the celebration. 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!"
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. 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."
To the Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Lutherans, the Christmas season was embraced and celebrated mainly by the Church of England and the Roman Catholics, and primarily in the southern colonies. (One exception is the Dutch in New York who celebrated Christmas with religious services.)
The celebration of the Christmas season in the southern colonies 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 prominently displayed. A great effort was made to decorate the churches with laurel, holly, and other garlands.
The traditional feast varied from household to household (depending on how wealthy the family was) but generally, consisted of wines, rum punches, hams, beef, goose, turkey, oysters, mincemeat pies, and various other treats. The season was considered a grown-up celebration, but presents would generally be given to children. Irena Chalmers notes that in 1759, that George Washington gave the following presents to his 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. Southern families usually supplied rum and presents (often candy) to their slaves on the first of the year.
Traditional symbols of the American colonial Christmas did not resemble our modern Christmas celebration. The Christmas tree originated in Germany in the 16th century, but did not gain popularity in America until after 1842 when it was introduced in Williamsburg.
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. For reasons unknown to us, they seemed to 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 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. On the Southern frontier some of these customs continued to the 20th century. Visitors to Appalachia and the highlands of North Carolina found 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 varies as to the date: 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."
The first Christmas card did not appear until about 1846 in England.
Christmas Carols were sung during the holidays, but most of the popular carols of today had not been written before the late 1700's.
The most enduring hymn that was popular in colonial America was Joy to the World, written by Isaac Watts of Virginia during the 1760s.