Madeira Mondays: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Book Review)

It is officially autumn, which means time to crack out the ghost stories and gothic tales (For a brilliant ghost story anthology, by the way, I’d recommend Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh!). Last week I decided that I’d check out Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for the first time and, let me tell you, this story was a delight and a surprise.

The Headless Horseman, as you probably know, is the tale of a superstitious schoolteacher called Ichabod Crane who moves into a village in rural late 18th century New York (right after the Revolutionary War). It’s a dreamy place and, when people visit, the ‘witching influence of the air’ makes them ‘begin to grow imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions’. One of the apparitions that is known to haunt the town is the spirit of a Hessian soldier who lost his head to a cannon ball in a battle during the Revolution and rides out nightly looking for it. But who, or what, is the headless horseman? And what are the chances that Ichabod might have a run in with him, before this story is done?

Legend of Sleepy Hollow U.S Postage Stamp, from October 1974. Image accessed via Wikipedia

I knew a little bit about Sleepy Hollow before reading it, but what I was so surprised by was the lighthearted tone of it. I expected it to be quite serious and gothic, but I’d mostly call it a playful and affectionate satire of the New York Dutch community that Irving was raised around. In fact, by the time he wrote Sleepy Hollow, Irving, who grew up in New York, had already written A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker.‘Diedrich Knickerbocker’ (amazing name!) was a character that Irving created – a crusty old Dutch-American historian. Writing under the name of Knickerbocker, Irving’s A History of New York, lightly satirized self-important local histories and politics (which, you could say also applies to Sleepy Hollow!). It also chronicled Dutch-American traditions, including those surrounding Christmas. I talk about this in my blog post about the history of Christmas in America, but lots of our modern Christmas traditions come from the Dutch. Irving’s A History of New York is significant because it captures some of the Dutch traditions that would later become Christmas staples (hanging stockings by the fire, for instance, is a Dutch thing!).

Diedrich Knickerbocker, as a character, appears here in Sleepy Hollow too, in the framing story. The entire tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman is presented as something that Knickerbocker overheard. It’s a fun and quite modern (or even post-modern?) device to have a humorous fake persona like this. Irving (the cheeky fellow!) even tried to stoke controversy and interest in his work by putting ‘missing persons’ ads in local newspapers – looking for Diedrich Knickerbocker!! People really believed that Knickerbocker existed and even offered a reward for his return. This kind of play with authorial personas and invented ‘found’ histories actually makes me think of something like His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, a novel which came out a few years ago and tells a story using fictional historical documents. (Burnet told me in an interview once that many people read the novel and thought it was real!)

In any case, this is a very playful way to create a story – such an unexpected delight. Another delightful aspect was all the autumnal descriptions in Sleepy Hollow:

As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn. On all sides he beheld vast stores of apples; some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees; some gathered into baskets and barrels for market; others heaped up in rich piles for the cider press.

Doesn’t that description just make you smell and feel the sights of autumn? There are ‘yellow pumpkins’ lying around and ‘turning their fair round bellies to the sun’. You can also find plenty of scrumptious descriptions of autumnal treats (the New York Dutch were known for their desserts) including ‘the doughy doughnut’, ‘apple pies, and peach pies, and pumpkin pies’ and ‘delectable dishes of preserved plums’. Irving is clearly a man after my own heart – I can never get enough descriptions of food in books.

So I’d definitely recommend Sleepy Hollow for a very fast and pleasant autumn read. It’s a short story, not a novel, so you could easily blaze through it in one sitting. It’s available online through Project Gutenberg, free and easy to access! I printed it off and read it with a cup of tea – which I’d highly recommend.

I hope that you’re having a nice start to the season and let me know what you think of Sleepy Hollow. Have you read it before? Does it seem like your type of thing? Have you seen any of the adaptations of it? I’m considering watching the Tim Burton version now – let me know what you think of that film, if you’ve seen it!

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane’ by John Quidor (1858).

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Writing Poetry about the Salem Witch Trials

In last week’s post, I shared part-one of my poem ‘The First Afflicted Girl’, from my upcoming poetry pamphlet Anastasia, Look in the Mirror. This week, I wanted to look more closely at the story behind the poem. And I don’t just mean the historical story that inspired it, but also how I wrote the poem itself. But first: if you’ve not read last week’s post, you might want to take a look at that one first and have a wee read of the poem (this post will probably make more sense if you do!).

‘The First Afflicted Girl’ is a persona poem. A ‘persona poem’ is a poem that adopts the voice of a specific character (maybe a historical character, a fictional character, etc.). In this case, the poem adopts the voice of Betty Parris who was one of the ‘afflicted children’ during the Salem Witch Trials, who accused others of being witches. Her short entry on Wikipedia says that she, alongside her cousin Abigail, ’caused the direct death of 20 Salem residents: 19 were hanged…(one) pressed to death.’ But Betty was a child – can we really say she caused those deaths? A nine-year-old child didn’t hang those women, a community did. What I’m saying is, that’s pretty harsh, Wikipedia!

But, nevertheless, Betty played a key role in this tragic episode, and several years ago I became curious about her life after reading A Delusion of Satan by Frances Hill (a very gripping nonfiction account of the Salem Witch Trials). Hill describes Betty as ‘impressionable’ and ‘steeped in her father’s Puritan theology that made terrifying absolutes of good and evil, sin and saintliness and heaven and hell.’ Hill also writes that: ‘Unsurprisingly, (Betty) was full of anxiety.’ These descriptions drew me to her, perhaps because ‘anxious’ and ‘impressionable’ were probably two words that could have been used to describe me as a kid, alongside imaginative (we’ll get to imagination in a moment).

Frances Hill

Who was Betty?

For starters, Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Parris was the daughter was the daughter of Salem Village Reverend Samuel Parris. In 1692, she lived in Puritan Massachusetts in her father’s home with her eleven year old cousin Abigail (who plays a part in my poem). She also lived with an enslaved couple of Caribbean origins, Tituba and John Indian. It was unusual for a New England family at the time to keep slaves, and, at least from Hill’s account, it seems that Tituba was a constant presence in Betty’s life (maybe even more so than her mother, who I chose to make absent entirely from my poem). Betty would have known Tituba since infancy. It’s impossible to know the complex dynamic between little Betty and Tituba, but both Betty and Abby were certainly dependent on her – which is why Tituba’s presence is woven subtly throughout the poem. She’s always there, usually doing household chores to keep the home running (in part-one, for instance, she’s blowing air from the bellows into the fire).

What was Betty’s life like?

The days were quite monotonous for young Puritan children. Endless chores (sewing, helping with the cooking, spinning etc.). Families were mostly self-reliant (making many items there at home, like candles and clothes). Hill writes about how there was ‘little play or amusement’ for kids and, as they grew older, no entertainment or hobbies. The only books they had were religious ones. Most strikingly to me, there were few outlets for the little girls to imagine. Hill writes:

Young women of that time and place had nothing to feed the imagination, to expand understanding or heighten sensitivity. There were no fairytales or stories to help order and make sense of experience. Were was no art or theatre (…) boys enjoyed hunting, trapping, and fishing, carpentry and crafts. For girls there were no such outlets for animal high spirits or mental creativity.

This made me wonder: what would it have been like to be a little girl like Betty? What might the mind conjure up, if you had no outlet for your imagination? What might I have done, if I had been born in this environment?

So how did that research contribute to the poem?

The monotony of Betty’s existence is something I wanted to convey with the language of the poem, which uses frequent repetition (‘days and days and days/of lighting fires’). And if a young girl like Betty were to feel anything but content with these days of boredom and drudgery, then they would probably have interpreted these feelings as sinful and wicked. That’s why I bring in Betty’s repeated thoughts: ‘I am not wicked/I do not want to be wicked.’ These lines come immediately after she talks about ‘wanting/to be in bed instead of/sewing, washing, sweeping.’ ‘I do not want sunshine’, she tries to assure herself, but already, from a few stanzas back, we know that she ‘dream(s) her cheeks are burned by sunlight’.

A few lines later, when Betty says the ‘outside is not different/from the in’, that line refers to the house being dark inside and out because it’s the dead of winter. But, on another level, it’s also her hope that her internal world and what she presents outwardly are the same. Of course, they’re not the same. Inside, it’s tumultuous and full of conflicting desires and self-chastisement, even if on the ‘outside’ she’s playing the part of an obedient child who doesn’t ‘want sunshine’.

The final three lines of part-one, ‘We burn the candles/and keep them/burning’, also works on two levels (I hope!). This is a physical description of the setting meant to convey just how dark it was during those bleak winter months, but also ending that section on the word ‘burning’, and isolating the word like that, on its own line, is suggestive of the witch trials that are to come (keep them burning). Although no women or men were burned alive in Salem, this imagery does evoke witch trials generally, I think. It’s a sinister note to end on, suggesting bad things to come, and the poem definitely takes a turn for the increasingly more sinister and strange in parts two and three, as Betty becomes more physically, emotionally and psychologically distressed. In the poem, as in life, she begins speaking incoherently, having violent convulsions, and eventually causing everyone around her to conclude that she has been ‘bewitched’.

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‘Witchcraft at Salem Village’ engraving from 1876, accessed here

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Of course, each reader will get something different from the poem, and just because I intended for something to be read a certain way, that doesn’t mean that it will be! Overall, in the first section, I really wanted to convey Betty’s fear of being ‘wicked’, the physical discomforts of her life, and the fervent religion beliefs of her time. Section two explores Betty’s dabbling with fortune telling (and her increasingly morbid thoughts) and finally her descent into ‘hysteria’. My poem ends before the Witch Trials actually begin. (I won’t say exactly how it ends! For that, you’ll need to read the full poem in the book!)

In reality, what happened was that Betty and Abby accused three (vulnerable) women of being witches: Sarah Good, a homeless woman; Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman and (perhaps most tragically and most predictably) the woman who had cared for them, Tituba.

Tituba survived, but many people did die as a result of the ensuing witch trials (nineteen hanged and one man pressed to death). I don’t have an answer as to ‘why’ the real historical Betty behaved the way she did. There were probably numerous contributing factors that led to her odd behavior. There are certainly many factors that led to the Salem Witch Trials generally, including long-standing superstitions (witch trials had been going on in Europe for years) and complex relationships and rivalries between members of Salem Village and Salem Town. As for the girls’ affliction: there’s a theory (put forward by psychologist Linnda Caporael in the 1970’s) that blamed their abnormal behavior on the fungus ergot, which can be found in rye and might have caused hallucinations. But this theory is not really supported by historians, as explained very well in this blog post from a history student and tour guide in Salem.

In any case, my poem is not trying to explain exactly what happened to the girls, and it’s certainly not delving into the complex origins of the trials themselves. What I am trying to do is explore a certain state of being, a state of boredom, fear and anxiety that might have taken hold of this ‘impressionable’ nine-year-old girl. Hill also notes, and I agree with this argument, that this is a time when women weren’t allowed any sort of public voice, and had little to no power in their homes, so even feigning this kind of ‘affliction’ would have given the girls a kind of power. People would have listened to them, taken them seriously, an intoxicating prospect for a Puritan girl, even if it had deadly consequences.

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Examination of a Witch (1853) by T.H. Matteson, accessed via Wikipedia

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Within my book, this poem is also positioned right before a poem about my own experience of ‘Abstinence Only’ sexual education in a Texas public high school, very much an anxiety-inducing experience and one more aimed, in my experience, at scaring young people than educating them. Through this ordering of poems, I’m trying to draw (unsettling) parallels between past and present, and to raise questions about how young people are ‘educated’ then and now. 

So that’s a bit of insight into the research and thinking behind this poem! (There are much cheerier poems in the pamphlet too, I should add! The aforementioned ‘Sex Ed’ poem is actually really funny – I hope!). If you’d like to read more, the whole poem is in Anastasia, Look in the Mirror (available for pre-order here).

And if you’d like to learn more about Salem generally, here are a few ideas:

Recommended Further Reading/Listening/Viewing:

Books:

Movies:

  • The Witch directed by Robert Eggers (one of my favorite films! I wrote about it last Halloween here)

Podcasts:

‘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!

 

Madeira Mondays: Discovering an 18th Century Energy Drink

Those who have been reading this blog for a while know that I like to try out historical recipes. Sometimes, my culinary experiments go pretty well: like the time that I tried to make a frothy whipped syllabub. Sometimes, they don’t go well at all: like the time I made an absolutely vile warm rum drink called ‘flip’. And, sometimes, these experiments succeed wildly, and this wild success was what I experienced when I made ‘switchel’ for the first time yesterday. Damn! This drink was excellent. A refreshing, invigorating, slightly tart and slightly sweet, healthy and easy-to-make historical drink that I’m thrilled to have stumbled across.

I made this drink in part as a celebration of some goods news: the historical fiction novel that I’ve been working on was long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Award! For those who might not be familiar, Mslexia is a popular magazine in the UK, and they run an international competition every two years for debut novel manuscripts by female authors. It was a tremendous honor for my manuscript to be long-listed. Some amazing novelists, and in particular historical novelists, have won or been long or short-listed for this award in previous years (Imogen Hermes Gowar who wrote The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, for instance), so it was a real thrill to have my manuscript long-listed. As a poet who has been transitioning to fiction writing these last few years, it was also a major confidence boost to be recognized for my fiction, as well.

And speaking of poetry…I also made switchel to celebrate receiving the first copies of my brand new poetry pamphlet – Anastasia, Look in the Mirror – which will be published by Stewed Rhubarb Press next month on July 2nd! I can’t wait to share this book with you, and I have several posts lined up already focused on: what it’s about, how I researched and wrote it, etc. So stay tuned for that! For now, back to switchel. 

What exactly is ‘switchel’?

‘Switchel’ is a summery drink that was widely enjoyed in 18th century America, but versions of it date back much, much earlier. It’s made typically with water mixed with apple cider vinegar and ginger, and then sweetened with something (like molasses or honey or maple syrup). It’s a drink that thirsty American farmers would enjoy after a hot day harvesting the hay, thus its nickname of ‘haymaker’s punch’. It’s a drink meant to quench the thirst and revive the body, which is why I think of it as an historical ‘energy drink’.

It goes by several other names besides ‘switchel’. You could call it: aqua forte, ginger-water, haymaker’s punch, Yankee beverage, or (my personal favorite) swizzle.

How do you make it?

This is one of the best things about switchel: it’s super easy to make!

The version that I made combines two recipes: this recipe from the Townsend’s YouTube Channel (a favorite channel of mine, as frequent readers of this blog will know!) and a recipe from Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England by Corin Hirsch (a very fun book if you’re interested in food and old New England-y things).

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Here’s what I used:

  • 5-6 cups of cold water
  • Quarter cup of maple syrup
  • Quarter cup of lemon juice
  • Half a tablespoon of powdered ginger

I mixed all of those together in a pitcher and that’s it.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s often made with apple cider vinegar, but I didn’t have any of that on hand and Townsend had recommended that you could use lemon juice instead. But I’d be eager to try it out with apple cider vinegar. And for the maple syrup, you could also use honey or molasses.

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I poured some into a jar with a slice of lemon and there you go!

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What does it taste like?

In a word: refreshing!

I was very uncertain about adding the ginger, but honestly this tastes like a delicious mixture of ginger-beer and lemonade. It would be an incredibly refreshing drink after working outside on a hot day. My partner and I drank all of it very quickly and it’s so simple to make that I might make more very soon. (It would also make for an excellent mixer to go with vodka, I think, or rum…).

I’m not at all surprised that its popularity is apparently on the rise! According to this article from The Guardian, modern versions of this drink are becoming popular with: ‘the types of people who ride vintage bicycles, raise chickens and keep bees on their roof.’ I laughed a lot when I read that because while I don’t do any of those things – I have no bike, I don’t eat chickens, and I’d be too scared to keep bees – I probably fall loosely within that ‘hipster’ demographic.

Whether switchel is actually ‘threatening to dethrone kombucha as the next hip health trend’, as the article predicts, remains to be seen. But if it does become as popular as kombucha, I think it is deserved!

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Have you ever heard of switchel? I would not be surprised if it is already a trend in America and I just haven’t heard of it! Here in the UK, I’ve not seen it anywhere. But I would definitely buy it if I did.

If you try making your own switchel, I would be so delighted to hear about it! (As you can see from the recipe above, it’s extremely simple to make and you could maybe even rustle up a version of it with things already in your kitchen!).

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Harvest Rest’ by George Cole c. 1865

‘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!

 

 

 

Madeira Mondays: 18th century fashion on RuPaul’s Drag Race

Every Saturday morning, I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race.

I look forward to it all week and the campiness, silliness and joy that the show brings has really given me a lot of happiness during this difficult time. My partner will attest to this, but I get very into the show as I am watching it – usually curled up with a blanket and a cup of coffee – cheering on my favorite queens as they ‘lip sync for their lives’. These performers can sing, dance, act, design clothing, write song lyrics etc. etc. And one of my favorite aspects of the show is seeing all the clothes! So imagine my happiness when one of my favorite queens, Gigi Goode, rocked not one but TWO 18th century inspired outfits this season!

In this post, I wanted to take a closer look at these outfits and reflect a bit on how Gigi’s fashion interprets the 18th century for a modern drag/theatrical context. (Also I just want to talk about how cool these outfits are!!)

For those who haven’t seen it, RuPaul’s Drag Race is an American TV show where drag queens vie for the title of ‘America’s Next Drag Superstar’. The contestants have to compete in a series of challenges including singing challenges, acting challenges, fashion and design challenges etc. It’s at once a parody of other reality TV shows (e.g Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model), or at least that’s how I’ve always read it, AND very much its own thing.

Now drag as an art form has a rich history and while it’s something that I’m interested in, I don’t pretend to have a vast knowledge of modern drag culture (I did take a class during my undergrad degree which was mostly about drag and gender on the Renaissance stage though, so if you want to talk drag in SHAKESPEARE’S day, I can do that!). But Drag Race combines lots of elements I love: theatricality, humor, sly satire, etc. It’s deeply fun while at the same time deeply subversive. And it often references pop culture and occasionally history, which brings me back to Gigi’s outfits!

Gigi is known as a ‘look queen’ which means her strengths lie primarily in her fashion choices (although she is a very multifaceted performer, as we’ve seen throughout the season). I knew from the moment that she appeared on the show in a chic pirate outfit, complete with tricorne hat, that I was going to enjoy her theatrical style.

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Gigi reprises her pirate outfit on last week’s episode

Gigi’s outfits always have a sense of drama and story about them. In fact, her mother is a costume designer and they often collaborate on Gigi’s looks. Gigi’s inspiration comes not only from the fashion world but from elsewhere too, as she discusses in this Vulture interview:

I like to think that my drag is inspired by things that aren’t necessarily in the world of fashion. I’m really heavily inspired by intangible women, cartoon women like Daphne from Scooby Doo, who I just did a look on. Things like careers, and household objects, anything can inspire me.

And apparently the Revolutionary era provided one of those inspirations. In Season 12’s Episode 9, ‘Choices 2020’, on the runway Gigi strutted out dressed like an 18th century redcoat soldier. In her voiceover, she says: ‘I’m giving you head-to-toe Quaker Oat’s fantasy’ which made me chuckle (she’s referencing, I presume, the label of this brand of oatmeal). ‘My hair is period, historically accurate,’ she adds. ‘I’ve got a red velvet coat. Bitch, I am it.’ The judges made their quips. The fabulous Rachel Bloom, guest judge for that week, said: ‘Talk about a John Hancock. Or lack thereof.’ ‘She’s crossdressing the Delaware,’ Ru remarked.

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Gigi in Season 12, Episode 9: ‘Choices 2020’

Bloom also wondered, during her critique at the end of the show, if Gigi was dressed as an American officer or as a redcoat. ‘Maybe you’re Benedict Arnold,’ she mused, referencing the infamous American officer who defected to the British.

These are the sorts of outfits that Gigi’s look is alluding to, and I’m guessing you can see the resemblance! (The fellow on the left is not in military regalia, whereas the guy on the right – British General Burgoyne – is. But you get the overall look!)

I enjoyed so many things about Gigi’s outfit, but in particular the enormous white feather sticking out of the tricorne hat. In general, I think it was quite cool that Gigi designed the outfit based on 18th century men‘s fashion, not women’s, because this was a time period when much more flamboyant, colorful and ornate outfits were the norm for men, as opposed to now, when the black and white suit still reigns supreme. Why can’t we bring back looks like these for men’s fashion, I ask?

I also liked the little nods to period details in Gigi’s look, such as the ribbons tying up her stockings (that’s really how people kept their stockings up) and, of course, the white wig. Men at this time would have often worn wigs and, as Gigi notes, this one perfectly suits the period style. I also liked the enormous red bow tying back the wig. An 18th century gentleman probably wouldn’t have worn an enormous red bow like that, but rather a simple black ribbon tying back his wig, but it all contributes to the sense of heightened theatricality (an 18th century gentleman wouldn’t have worn black stiletto boots either!).

Seeing Gigi’s outfit also made me think of the time that I crossdressed to give an academic presentation at Trinity College Dublin last year, on representations of John Adams in popular media.

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My ‘John Adams’ outfit last autumn for Trinity College’s HistoryCon 2019

Anyways, I tip my three-cornered hat to Gigi, for making this history nerd’s day, and if my historical fiction ever gets adapted into film, I think that Gigi should play everyone.

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Any other fans of Drag Race out there remember this outfit? Which has been your favorite outfit (or favorite Queen?) of the season? Who are you rooting for in the finale? (I think it’s obvious who I’m rooting for!)

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

‘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!

 

Madeira Mondays: Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow (Book Review)

On the cover of Celia Garth, there is a beautiful blonde woman peering out at you serenely. Behind her, there’s a harbor front (presumably Colonial Charleston, where this book is set). The woman on the cover is lovely, but she also has a definite Mean Girls vibe – she knows she is good-looking and well-dressed and there’s a strong possibility she’s not gonna invite you to sit at her lunch table. But she also looks sharp and observant, like she sees things.

I love this cover, because to me it incapsulates what I liked most about Celia Garth – the titular main character. Celia Garth’s main strength is its characterization, particularly its depiction of Celia herself who, as this cover image suggests, is attractive, vain, serene, and intelligent. An interesting young woman who proves an captivating viewpoint character as we explore the turbulent final years of the Revolutionary War in British-occupied Charleston.

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My copy of Celia Garth

Celia Garth was published in 1959 and it follows the story of Celia, a young orphan in Colonial South Carolina who comes from money but finds herself needing to work in a dress shop to pay the bills. She’s a talented seamstress and, wanting to prove her worth, she accepts a commission from a Mrs. Vivian Lacy – a glamorous older woman with exacting requirements and expensive taste (I pictured Glenn Close, because that’s who I would cast if I was going to make this a movie!). But soon her career goals are overshadowed by the trauma of the Revolutionary War. The British army arrives to Charleston and some quite grizzly disasters befall Celia and people she loves. The book becomes a story of survival – how to survive mortal danger, but also grief. And there are parts of it that are genuinely quite moving.

As I mentioned earlier, the real strength of this book is the characters. Celia herself is wholly believable and complex from the start. I enjoyed how she takes a lot of pride in her appearance and is judgmental of people who are less conventionally attractive than her (this is kind of unpleasant to read but it’s realistic, especially for a naive, pretty young woman). She’s also whip smart, stubborn, and always making bold choices with consequences (an ‘active’ character, as it were). But her client Vivian was my favorite character by far. She had a very Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey vibe, if you’ve seen that show, and she was always throwing out sassy little aphorisms. To a pregnant acquaintance, Vivian says: ‘I know these nine months seem endless. But Nature takes her time. You cannot hurry a tree, or a baby, or a hard boiled egg.’ Aside from Vivian and Celia, you get a whole host of other colorful characters: the laid-back and good-natured Captain Jimmy Rand (who had ‘an ugly, engaging face, scooped at the temples, bony at the jaw, with a wide mouth and a look of being amused by life in general’), the witty daredevil Luke who fights with Francis Marion’s men in the swamps, and a whole bunch of other people besides.

In fact, one of my main criticisms of the book was that there were simply too many characters. I couldn’t keep track a lot of the time or remember who was related to who. These wealthy southern planter families were often inter-related, sure, but I think a family tree would have been useful to remember everything. That simple addition would have made a big difference.

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A lovely Colonial house in Charleston, South Carolina, taken during a research trip I took to Charleston in 2017

While I had no major issue with the overall historical accuracy of the book (which is saying something, because my whole PhD project looked at the lives of women in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War), it should be noted that slavery simply isn’t a concern in the book at all. There are enslaved characters (Marietta, Vivian’s enslaved maid, is a prominent secondary character and I got a good sense of who she was), but the institution as a whole is simply…there.

Now, that could have been a choice on author Gwen Bristow’s part to show the past through Celia’s eyes, and Celia (a white woman from a wealthy background living in the early South) would have accepted slavery as a fact of life (abolition doesn’t really become a big thing until the next century). But the knowledge of what is happening to these enslaved people hovered just out of sight, like a strange specter, as I was reading the book. There’s one moment when Vivian is meeting Celia for the first time and Celia feels like ‘something put up for auction.’ I don’t think Bristow was trying to evoke slavery here at all, but this line only served to remind me that, just a few streets away, not only were things being put on auction, but people were too. The book just doesn’t address slavery at all, so if that’s a topic that you want explored in more depth, in fiction, then I’d say look elsewhere (look to, for instance, Beloved by Toni Morrison. Or if you want something about this time period, why not try Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, or even the poetry collection I reviewed last year, Mistress by Chet’la Sebree?).

Another aspect of the book I didn’t love is that it majorly glorifies American officer Francis ‘Swamp Fox’ Marion and majorly attacks the infamous British officer Banastre Tarleton. I’ve talked about these figures in my post about the movie The Patriotbut suffice it to say here that Tarleton’s legacy as a ‘butcher’ might be more grounded in legend than in fact. But I was more inclined to accept the Evil Aristocratic British Baddies v. Noble American Farmers dichotomy here than in The Patriot, because this is the war as CELIA sees it. And Celia is furious at Tarleton and psyched about Marion, as many South Carolinian patriots were at the time. So, fair enough.

My final critical comment is that the book kind of peters out, rather than building to a strong climax. I won’t give anything away, but Celia gets involved with helping the rebels and this doesn’t develop in a satisfying way, I thought. But the ending itself (as in, the last few pages) was quite moving.

I would compare this book to one that came out last year – City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. Although that’s set in 1930’s and 1940’s New York City, it also features a young seamstress coming of age during wartime and all the colorful characters she meets.  There are even similar sorts of characters in both books. But books also have fun frivolous moments but also deal with the trauma of war. I would also recommend Celia if you enjoy things like Outlander (which I’ve not actually read, but I’ve seen a bit of the show and I understand that parts of it are set in colonial Charleston!).

It does not surpass Johnny Tremain as my favorite book I’ve read set during the Revolutionary War, but overall I quite enjoyed it. The prose is solid, and the characters are vivid and memorable. It was predictable, but I still cried twice while reading it, which is a testament to Bristow’s characterization. I wanted the best for Celia and her pals. And I would quite happily pick up another historical novel by Bristow, and there are apparently several!

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An iconic South Carolina sight – the live oaks twisting together in a sort of tunnel/roof. I believe I took this photo near Magnolia Planation.

Do let me know what you think about this book. Does Celia sound like something you’d be curious to read? Any other recommendations for historical novels that I should pick up? (Speaking of other novels, I have some exciting news about the one I’m working on, so stay tuned for that, later this month. AND stay tuned for more news about my new poetry book, which will be published by Stewed Rhubarb Press in July!).

PS Today’s Featured Image is from the cover of Celia Garth. If you buy this edition, from the 1950’s, please PLEASE don’t read the book jacket. The synopsis there gives so much away about the plot and even though it’s a fairly predictable story, you don’t want to spoil it!

‘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!

 

 

Madeira Mondays: A cheap and delicious 18th century recipe

I love potatoes. Mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes, baked potatoes, potato chips…they’re all great.

Today I wanted to share with you a super simple recipe for potato pancakes from the 18th century which I discovered on the brilliant YouTube channel Townsendswhere they recreate 18th century recipes. As the host John Townsend says in his introduction to this recipe:

Potatoes were an important part of the diet of the 18th century in Great Britain and in North America. They were important especially for the poorer sort of folks who didn’t have those expensive foods available. 

The recipe Townsend uses is originally from 1732 and, as he mentions in the video, it was a recipe you might use if you were eating a lot of potatoes and wanted to vary up how you cooked them. Or if you had old potatoes lying around. Or if wheat was too expensive. Apparently this recipe shows up in lots of different cookbooks of the time (he quotes from Primitive Cookery from 1767, which was a recipe book filled with inexpensive recipes).

Like everyone else, I’ve been in quarantine and thought now would be the perfect time to give this super affordable and tasty looking recipe a go!

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know that I love making 18th century food and drink, partly for book research and partly because it’s fun! Sometimes that turns out really well, like the time I made syllabub. Sometimes, the results are less appetizing, like the time I made ‘Flip’!

These potato pancakes were a moderate success (I’ll tell you more on that below), but, for now, let’s get into how I made these. This is my version of the recipe, inspired by the 18th century recipe I mentioned above and from Townsend’s video. Enjoy!

Potato Pancakes from 1732

Ingredients:

  • Some potatoes (it really depends on how many cakes you want to make. We used three medium sized potatoes)
  • Salt
  • Milk (about 1/4 cup)
  • Butter

And that’s it. If you think it sounds like we’re making mashed potatoes, you’re pretty much right!

How to make them

Step 1: Peel the potatoes and cut into bite-sized pieces.

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Step 2: Boil the potato pieces for about 15 minutes or until they’re tender. Then drain and let them cool.

Step 3: Mash them!

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Step 4: Add a big pinch of salt and a splash of milk (maybe like 1/4 cup or a teeny bit more, depending on how many potatoes you have). NB Don’t put too much milk here. You want the potatoes to retain a doughy consistency and if you add too much milk, they’re gonna be too runny).

Step 5: Add butter to a hot pan (like you’d do for typical pancakes)

Step 6: Flatten the potatoes into little pancakes.

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Step 7: Then put them into the pan. Flip them like pancakes after a minute or two on each side. They should be golden brown.

And that’s it! Serve hot.

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*

As you can see, they turned out pretty well in the end! They were a bit like hash browns, only more compact. We ate them with mustard, which wasn’t especially period appropriate for a poorer sort of 18th century person’s diet, but it was delicious. You could of course have them with ketchup. Or any sort of dipping sauce. I really wanted to try eating them with apple sauce and I realized that was because they reminded me a bit of latkes which I always ate with apple sauce at a friend’s for Hanukkah.

So the trickiest thing about cooking this, we found, was trying to keep the potatoes together when they were frying in the pan. Now, I grew up in the USA and I’ve had some experience flipping good ol’ American style breakfast pancakes, so I didn’t have as much trouble with this. But if you’re not as used to flipping pancakes, it might take some practice. I’d say: don’t flip too soon. And it’s a process of trial and error (our first few were definitely the messiest).

The real problem is that they don’t have flour to keep them all stuck together and make a heartier dough. But that was ‘authentic’ to the recipe, which was eaten by folks who would have made cakes like these if flour wasn’t something that they could afford. This is not like the sweet, rich and decadent syllabub recipe I made. This is hearty, simple food that will fill you up.

For me, these pancakes were, overall, pretty good. But my partner seemed to really enjoy them. So they’re worth trying out one afternoon if you fancy it and definitely let me know if you do!

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

‘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!

 

 

 

Madeira Mondays: A Forgotten 18th Century Drink

Last week, I received two very good pieces of news. One I cannot talk about publicly yet (ohhhh secret!) but the other I can happily announce is that I have a new poetry book coming out! My second poetry pamphlet will be published later this year with Scottish indie press, Stewed Rhubarb. They specialize in publishing spoken word poetry and as a spoken word poet myself, it was the perfect fit! The book has poems about early American history, about sex, about literature…basically, all the stuff I’m interested in! (Can you tell I’m excited?). I can’t wait to work with Stewed Rhubarb, and with my fabulous editor Katie Ailes, on this book and I’ll share lots more info. when we’re closer to publication day.

But I wanted to celebrate the publication news this week by making an 18th century drink. Since it was a chilly February day, I chose a warm drink called ‘Flip’. I’m not going to include the full recipe here because (spoiler alert) I found this drink pretty vile, BUT I will tell you what it is, how I made it, and here’s a link to an excellent video with step-by-step instructions of how you can make it too, if it seems like your sort of thing (It was definitely not mine!). Jas Townsend, the re-enactor who makes it in the video, seems to really enjoy his though so…maybe it just wasn’t for me?

So, what is ‘Flip’?

The 1890’s had the gimlet. The 1990’s had the Cosmo. In the 1690’s and even the 1790’s, it was the creamy flip that ruled the bar…

Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England by Corin Hirsch

Flip is a hot, frothy drink that is a blend of ale, rum, some sort of sweetener (molasses or sugar) and sometimes eggs and cream. It’s also usually spiced with nutmeg and/or ginger, and it was very popular in 18th century America. It popped up in American taverns in the 1690’s and was still popular during the Revolutionary War. Food writer Corin Hirsch, in the book quoted above, found one instance of a tavern in Holden, Massachusetts, who charged more during the Revolutionary War for their Flip than they did for a bed. A mug of ‘New England Flip’ was 9 Dollars, versus a bed in the common boarding room for women, 2 shillings! Either those sleeping arrangements were really bad, or their flip was really good, or both.

How do you make it?

I have to admit that making Flip was kind of fun because you are meant to pour the drink between two separate pitchers until it is blended. So I mixed an egg and some spices in one bowl, then heated up some ale separately, and then added them together in these two pitchers – pouring back and forth until it was creamy.

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The two pitchers I used to make my (pretty dreadful) ‘Flip’

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Pouring the mixture from one pitcher to another to mix it. (Even the flowers in this picture look sad. They probably don’t like Flip either!)

I was vaguely following along with the Townsend video linked above and also there’s a recipe for it in Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England. In any case, the resulting mixture was creamy-ish, but there were itty bitty chunks of cooked egg inside it, which I suppose I could have strained out. But I also did not like the smell of it: the hot, yeasty smell of the beer, mixed with the nutmeg and ginger, mixed with the egg.

But I think where I really went wrong is that in the 18th century Flip was heated up a second time (after you’d mixed the drink) by plunging a hot fire poker into the middle of it. The poker heated it (of course), but also added burnt flavors. I would imagine this might work better than what I did, which was put the whole thing back on the stovetop briefly, once I’d mixed it all together, just to get it warm again. By not using an actual fire poker, you lose some of that fire flavor, which was probably part of what made the drink special.

What did it taste like?

Not nice, you guys.

Even though I drank it from a fantastic Bernie Sanders ‘Feel the Bern’ mug, that was not enough to save this drink from tasting really, really bad to me.

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For one thing, it was pretty sweet. I tasted the sugar definitely and also rum has its own sweetness…all of that together made for a thick, HEAVY, brownish drink that actually turned my stomach.

Looking back on it, I’m not really sure why I picked Flip in the first place, other than the fact that it looked fun to pour the drink between the two pitchers. I’m not a beer drinker, and I don’t love rum, so I’m not sure why I thought I would enjoy those two things heated up and mixed together with an egg. I would still try it again if someone else made it who knew what they were doing, but I think this experiment was probably doomed from the outset!

Nevertheless, I am glad that I tried it, because now I will know what it is if I ever run across it in a historical source. And my stomach will turn at the memory of making this forgotten concoction from the 18th century. Which I will not be resurrecting again any time soon!

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England: From Flips & Rattle-Skulls to Switchel and Spruce Beer by Corin Hirsch

‘Popular Drink Fallen into Obscurity- ‘Flip’ from the 1820s’ on Townsends YouTube Channel

For an 18th century drink that I definitely did enjoy, check out my recipe for whipped syllabub!

(Today’s Featured Image is an 18th century oil painting, ‘Young Couple in a Rural Tavern’, by Giacomo Francesco Cipper)

‘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!

 

Madeira Mondays: Hamilton Wasn’t Wearing Any Underwear

As a graduation present, my mom took me to go see the musical Hamilton in London’s West End last summer. It was, predictably, fantastic. I had written about the musical as part of my Doctorate of Fine Arts project, which looked at (among other things) how contemporary fiction writers represent the American Revolution. So it was a fitting PhD grad gift! We had fabulous seats and we laughed, cried, and cheered with the rest of the audience. I also managed to keep my singing along to a minimum, which I’m pretty proud of.

Afterwards we got a drink and my ever-tolerant, encouraging mother listened to all my reflections on the show: the set, the costumes, the characterizations etc. I went on and on about how I liked the choice of using mostly period-appropriate clothes and I made a joke about how I hoped they were wearing 21st century underwear though.

‘What do you mean?’ she asked with confused laughter.

It was then that I explained what precisely the real Alexander Hamilton would most likely have been wearing as underclothes and it surprised her so much that I thought I’d do a whole post about it here!

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Me and my mom in seeing Hamilton: An American Musical in London’s West End!

When it comes to visualizing clothing of the past, it’s always helpful for me to look at videos, drawings, and (if possible) real life historical artifacts in museums. But since we can’t all go to a museum together, let me direct you to National Museums Liverpool’s very helpful video ‘Getting Dressed in the 18th Century – Men’.

In this video, you will see that the gentleman’s first layer of clothing is a big white shirt with voluminous sleeves (imagine like a pirate shirt?). Then he puts on white stockings, which go up over the knee. A gentleman might wear drawers (which are like short trousers made of thin linen) but it’s not necessary because the white shirt was really long and you just tucked it between your legs when you put on your breeches (which are short ‘trousers’ for those in the UK, ‘pants’ if you’re in the US) and the shirt acted as modern men’s underwear would!

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Example of Late 18th century man’s shirt. Photo from Pinterest.

So basically, the ‘underwear’ or base garment for men was just a long shirt! The quality and consistency of this shirt of course varied. A gentleman might have ruffles at the wrist, a laborer’s might have had stripes. But basically, as far as I could tell, our modern concept of men’s underwear (i.e boxers, briefs etc.) didn’t come about until around the 1930’s.

So Hamilton would have been wearing something under his outer clothing, it just probably wasn’t what you would have expected!

So what were women wearing as a form of undergarments? Let’s save that for another post…

Further Reading:

‘Underwear in the 18th Century’ from The Macaronis

‘A Colonial Gentleman’s Clothing: A Glossary of Terms’ from the Colonial Williamsburg site

‘Getting Dressed in the 18th Century – Men’, YouTube video from National Museums Liverpool

(Today’s Featured Image is of none other than, you guessed it, Alexander Hamilton! It’s from the 1805 portrait of him by John Trumbull, accessed via the Wikipedia Commons.)

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!

 

Madeira Mondays: Yearly Wrap-Up

Three months ago, I started a series of blog posts all about early American history and historical fiction. I am currently researching and writing a novel set during the American Revolution and, as fiction writers out there will know, writing can be a bit of a lonely and solitary process. You spend a lot of time in your own brain and sometimes it’s nice to reach out and chat to actual people with similar interests! During the research process, you also stumble across all sorts of interesting historical tidbits that don’t really have a place in the book, but are fun to share and discuss!

So that is why I started this blog series. To connect with people who might also be interested in, for instance, the history of Christmas in America or how to make a whipped syllabub. Or people who love historical books and novels as much as I do and want to swap recommendations! I started it to meet those who already had an interest in 18th century America, but also to talk with people who just simply love learning and are curious to explore the past with me.

So thanks to everyone who has read any of these blog posts! I plan on continuing this series into the new year, so any recommendations would be most welcome. You can see a wrap-up below of the posts that I’ve done thus far, but if there’s a particular topic you’re curious about, do let me know! Would you like to see more recipes for early American food and drinks? More book and film reviews? I wrote part of my PhD on the musical Hamilton, so I’d be happy to talk about that! Or perhaps more about my experience as a re-enactor in Edinburgh? Anything to do with early American history or historical fiction, I’d be up for discussing.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading ‘Madeira Mondays’ thus far and have a wonderful start to 2020! x

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Me in costume at The Georgian House in Edinburgh. Photo by Melissa Stirling Reid.

Madeira Mondays 2019

Film and TV Reviews

The John Adams Miniseries Part I (This post goes into the reasons why I think you should watch HBO’s miniseries John Adams, based on the life of America’s 2nd president and his role in the American Revolution!)

The John Adams Miniseries Part II

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Photo from John Adams, featuring Laura Linney as Abigail Adams and Paul Giamatti as John Adams

The Witch Film Review (In this Halloween-themed post, I analyze the atmospheric horror film The Witch, which is about isolation, superstition and fear in colonial New England!)

The Patriot Film Review Part I (I discuss the good things in Roland Emmerich’s melodramatic but fun film about the Revolution in South Carolina.)

The Patriot Film Review Part II (I talk about the things which do not work in The Patriot! I have some issues with this movie…)

Book Reviews

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes Book Review (For this post, I revisited a childhood favorite book about a teenage spy in Revolutionary Boston! This book really withstood the test of time.)

Mistress by Chet’la Sebree (An analysis of a beautiful new poetry collection published this year and inspired by the life of Jefferson’s enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings. The collection was written by Chet’la Sebree, who was a Visiting Fellow the same year as me at Thomas Jefferson’s home: Monticello. This collection is perfect if you want to learn about this mysterious and fascinating woman from American history.)

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Recipes

Syllabub Recipe (Delicious recipe for a colonial era drink, basically like an alcoholic frappuccino!)

History

Christmas in a Georgian Townhouse (All about my experiences as a re-enactor in Scotland and how the Georgians celebrated Christmas.)

Christmas in Colonial America (A very brief history of how Christmas was celebrated in the colonies. Want to learn about the origins of Santa Claus? Or how many of our modern Christmas traditions came to be? This post is for you!)

Visits to Historic Sites or Events

A Visit to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, USA (My trip to the recently opened museum of the American Revolution and recommendations of what to see there if you visit!)

Trinity HistoryCon in Dublin, Ireland (A re-cap of an academic conference at Trinity College Dublin on the intersections of history and pop culture. I presented there on representations of John Adams in pop media!)

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Display of recreated 18th century objects you might find in a colonial shop, at The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia

Thanks for reading and see you next year! x

PS Why is it called ‘Madeira Mondays’?

Madeira is a fortified wine from Portugal and it was hugely popular with the American colonists. George Washington in particular really loved it, but it was also enjoyed by Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. AND it was the wine drunk by the Continental Congress to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Cheers!

 

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!