Madeira Mondays: Christmas in Colonial America

Merry (almost) Christmas everyone! Last week’s post was about Christmas traditions in 18th century Scotland. Today we’re sailing across the Atlantic to check out how the American colonists would have celebrated the holiday. So grab a glass of mulled wine (or Madeira!) and snuggle up for some seasonal reading…

Who celebrated Christmas in Early America?

In short: some people did and some didn’t.

America was a diverse place from the very start and how/if you celebrated Christmas depended on several things. Firstly, it depends on when exactly we are talking about here. In 17th century Puritan Massachussetts, for example, Christmas celebrations were actually banned entirely because it was such a raucous holiday. These laws were later repealed.

But whether you celebrated Christmas also depended on who you were and where you lived. Some people might not celebrate it simply because they weren’t Christian (New York City, for instance, already had a Jewish population around the time of the Revolution). But many Christians didn’t observe it either. In Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home, author Jane C. Nylander explains that for some in protestant New England, where values of stoicism and hard work reigned, festive Christmas celebrations were considered too Catholic and ‘an emblem of popery’. Yikes, not ‘popery’! So even if celebrating Christmas was technically not banned where you lived, you might still choose not to celebrate it. As historian Mary Miley Theobald writes: ‘Many early European-Americans didn’t acknowledge Christmas at all, let alone celebrate or decorate for it. These included the Puritans in New England and various denominations throughout the middle and southern colonies like Amish, Baptists, Congregationalists, Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quakers.’

But for some, like people of Dutch heritage in early New York, for instance, Christmas was absolutely celebrated. It was marked with the giving of gifts to children on St Nicholas Day (December 6th) and with sweet breads like Duivekater, a Dutch holiday bread baked throughout the month of December until the Epiphany (January 6th). This is a buttery, lemon flavored bread that I read all about in Peter G. Rose’s book Food, Drink and Celebrations of Hudson Valley Dutch. I even attempted to bake this delicious bread this year (see photographic evidence!).

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That time I tried to make a Dutch holiday bread and it turned out enormous (but also pretty tasty!)

What did they do to celebrate?

For those who did actively celebrated Christmas in the 18th century – which was mainly people from the middle and southern colonies – it was a season of merriment and visiting friends and family. This was the same over in Great Britain. It’s a party time! I’ve read about people in early New York going on fun sledging parties during the winter, but there were also feasts, balls (especially on Twelfth Night, January 5th) and in general it was a time of socializing and celebration. As well as attending Church, of course. The Christmas season was also a popular time to get married in early America, so you see a lot of weddings popping up too.

Was it a holiday for children?

Not really. Even though we might think of Christmas as a special time for kids now (visiting Santa at the mall, putting stockings by the tree, nativity plays etc.), that wasn’t the case in the 18th century. This article by Emma L. Powers from The Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter talks about how no 18th century sources highlight the importance of children at Christmastime. People in colonial Virginia, for example, talk about Christmas balls, feasting and parties, but these activities weren’t really kid friendly. ‘The emphasis on Christmas as a magical time for children came about in the nineteenth century,’ Powers writes. More on that below!

What about presents?

Gift giving wasn’t a major part of the holiday either and if it did take place it might have happened on New Years rather than Christmas Day. Sometimes small gifts were exchanged from masters to dependents (e.g parents to children, employers to servants etc.) such as a little bit of extra money or sweets.

How did they decorate?

Similar to their British counterparts, the colonists would bring in pieces of the outside to decorate their homes. We’re pre-industrial revolution, so nobody is buying mass-market Christmas decorations. You’d be making your own. Evergreens like mistletoe could be placed around (it already had the associations with kissing, by the way!), or maybe sprigs of holly or bay. Christmas trees weren’t around in the 18th century – that was a Germanic tradition that came in later!

What did they eat?

This again would vary regionally and certainly depended on class. In Virginia, beef, goose, ham and turkey would have had a place on a holiday table. And the Dutch, as I talked about above, were famous for their confectionaries and would have had gingerbread and other sweet treats served at Christmas. In fact, many aspects of our modern Christmas in America come directly from Dutch traditions. The hanging of stockings by the mantelpiece to be filled with sweets and gifts for children by St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas) was a Dutch practice. Even centering children at all in the celebrations was a Dutch thing. And speaking of St. Nicholas…

Did the colonists have Santa Claus?

They wouldn’t know our modern Santa, no. People in colonial times would not be familiar with our large, jolly fellow dressed in red and white who comes down the chimney to deliver presents and lives with the elves up at the North Pole. They might feel very perplexed if you told them about Santa (and rightfully so! He’s a pretty strange dude).

Our modern, secular Santa Claus is an American invention, inspired by the Dutch Sinterklaas and other traditions. There’s no singular origin of our Santa, but one key source that cemented the idea of Santa in the public consciousness was a poem written by New Yorker Clement Clarke Moore called ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas’ in 1823. You probably know this poem by the title ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’! This is the poem where we first see Santa as a ‘right jolly old Elf’ with ‘dimples so merry, and nose like a cherry’, coming to visit homes with all of his reindeer in tow. The poem gained wide popularity and inspired what we now think of as Santa Claus.

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Moore’s poem featured in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in December 1857

(As a side note, it is a myth that Santa Claus’ red and white outfit was created by Coca-Cola for their advertisements. Coke definitely did use this image, but it was already around. Coca Cola only popularized a version of Santa Claus that already existed.)

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Santa looking quizzically at a bottle of Coca-Cola

So there you have it: some of the different ways that Christmas was celebrated and observed in early America! Did any of it surprise you? Hopefully now you’ll have some fun historical anecdotes to share over the holidays to impress and/or annoy your friends and family (welcome to my world)!

I hope that you’re having a peaceful and restorative end to the year and thank you very much for joining me for this seasonal ‘Madeira Monday’. I’ll be doing a wrap-up next week of all the ‘Madeira Mondays’ from 2019 and next year will be back with more explorations of early American history and historical fiction!

Sources Used

Books:

Food, Drink and Celebrations of The Hudson Valley Dutch by Peter G. Rose (Rose is a food historian and has several great books on the early Dutch settlers and their cuisine)

Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home, 1760-1860 by Jane C. Nylander

The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum

Sites:

‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (poem) by Clement Clarke Moore

”Christmas Customs’ by Emma L. Powers’ on the Colonial Williamsburg site

‘Did Coca-Cola invent the modern image of Santa?’ on Snopes

Image of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine comes from: ‘From the Stacks Holiday Edition: Clement C. Moore’s ‘A Visit from St Nicholas” on the Miami University’s Libraries’ Special Collections website

‘Revisited Myth #101: Colonial Americans decorated their homes at Christmas’ on History Myths Debunked blog

‘When Americans Outlawed Christmas’ on Mental Floss

Further Christmas Reading/Listening

Ben Franklin’s World podcast Episode 281: Peter G. Rose, Delicious December: How the Dutch Brought us Santa, Presents and Treats

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

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