Many historic sites do Christmas programs, or maybe you just like Christmas. The stylized image of Christmas today tends to be a mish-mash of customs drawn from many countries and religions, with Santa, lots of presents, decorations inside and outside, and Christmas trees. In early America, on the other hand, the so-called “melting pot” had yet to do its work. Customs could be very different in different parts of the country, reflecting the specific ethnic and religious backgrounds dominating in a particular area. In many parts of the United States celebrations were relatively modest, or not permitted at all.
In New England, Christmas celebrations were generally discouraged, or even illegal. Such merrymaking was not, according to the religious views predominating, the “correct” approach.
In the Quaker tradition, Christ should be celebrated every day, so Christmas Day should be nothing special. In the Calvinist Protestant and Puritan traditions, Christmas celebrations were seen as “Popish” (i.e. Catholic) or pagan. The Connecticut General Assembly forbade even reading the Book of Common Prayer, as well as more secular activities such as playing cards, making mince pies, or refraining from the usual labors. As late as the 1870s, “Boston public schools were still open on Christmas Day . . . and missing work on the twenty-fifth of December was grounds for dismissal.” (originally taken from http://www.history.org/almanack/life/christmas/hist_music.cfm, but unfortunately lost in the revision of their website.)
In Philadelphia, where a great diversity of religious views was tolerated, celebrations were legal, but apparently somewhat restrained. Peter Kalm, a visitor to Philadelphia in 1750, writes that
- To-day Christmas Day was celebrated in the city, but not with such reverence as it is in old Sweden. On the evening before, the bells of English Church rang for a long time to announce the approaching Yuletide. In the morning guns were fired off in various parts of the town. People went to church, much in the same manner as on ordinary Sundays . . . . One did not seem to know what it is to hear to wish anyone a merry Christmas. (Peter Kalm’s Travels, pp. 675-676.) https://archive.org/details/travelsintonort00forsgoo
In Maryland and Virginia, where Anglican and Catholic traditions predominated, Christmas celebrations tended to be more festive. In a largely agricultural society, the Christmas season was also a welcome break from the work of farming. Christmas wasn’t necessarily just a day, but often a holiday period extending for many days, from Christmas until Twelfth Night (January 6) when the Three Kings were supposed to have arrived with their presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
It was a time for feasting and socializing, ranging from invitations to dinner or just “dropping by” to elaborate balls, with amusements such as card games, music, and dancing.
Writing in his diary on December 18, 1773, Philip Fithian, tutor to the wealthy Carter family in Virginia, describes how everyone was looking forward to the fun:
- Nothing is now to be heard of in conversation, but the Balls, the Fox-hunts, and fine entertainments, and the good fellowship, which are to be exhibited at the approaching Christmas.
On Christmas day itself, he describes the apparently prevalent custom of firing off “Christmas guns” and giving small presents to enslaved and indentured servants.
- I was waked this morning by Guns fired all round the House. . . . Nelson the Boy who makes my Fire, blacks my shoes, does errands &c. was early in my Room, drest only in his shirt and Breeches! He made me a vast fire, blacked my Shoes, set my Room in order, and wished me a joyful Christmas, for which I gave him half a Bit. Soon after he left the Room, and before I was Drest, the Fellow who makes the Fire in our School Room, drest very neatly in green, but almost drunk, entered my chamber with three or four profound Bows, & made me the same salutation; I gave him a Bit, and dismissed him as soon as possible. Soon after my Cloths and Linen were sent in with a message for a Christmas Box, as they call it; I sent the poor Slave a Bit, & my thanks. I was obliged for want of small change, to put off for some days the Barber who shaves & dresses me. https://archive.org/details/vickersfithianat00fithrich
Frequently there was a “Twelfth Night Ball” to mark the end of the Christmas season. The Englishman Nicholas Cresswell went to such a ball in Alexandria in 1775. Ever the critic of America, Cresswell was not much impressed.
- Last night I went to the Ball. It seems this is one of their annual Balls supported in the following manner: A large rich cake is provided and cut into small pieces and handed round to the company, 53 who at the same time draws a ticket out of a Hat with something merry wrote on it. He that draws the King has the Honor of treating the company with a Ball the next year, which generally costs him Six or Seven Pounds. The Lady that draws the Queen has the trouble of making the Cake. Here was about 37 ladies dressed and powdered to the life, some of them very handsome and as much vanity as is necessary. All of them fond of dancing, but I do not think they perform it with the greatest elegance. Betwixt the Country dances they have what I call everlasting jigs. A couple gets up and begins to dance a jig (to some Negro tune) others comes and cuts them out, and these dances always last as long as the Fiddler can play. This is sociable, but I think it looks more like a Bacchanalian dance than one in a polite assembly. Old Women, Young wives with young children in the lap, widows, maids and girls come promiscuously to these assemblies which generally continue till morning. A cold supper, Punch, Wines, Coffee and Chocolate, but no Tea. This is a forbidden herb. The journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 1774–1777. http://www.loc.gov/resource/lhbtn.30436
One young lady, describing her Christmas in Chester Town in 1786-87, writes as follows:
- This Christmas has afforded the gay ones of Chester Town rather more amusement than was expected from the dullness of the fall. There was a Ball the night after Christmas. . . . They had 16 Couple, and spent a very agreeable evening. The play came next, which afforded a few unexpected incidents. Some Bucks of true spirit, which was increas’d by good Liquor, broke open one of the Windows, to the great dismay of the Ladies. As to the play, it exceeded no one’s expectations. https://archive.org/stream/msa_sc_5881_1_82/msa_sc_5881_1_82_djvu.txt
In addition to dinners, balls, and going visiting, there might be outdoor amusements such as cricket or foxhunts. There wouldn’t be a “Yule log” or a “Christmas tree,” but there might be decorations of mistletoe and sprigs of rosemary, ivy, holly, or other evergreens around the house. Other amusements might include parlor games and card games. Instructions for the popular games Whist and Loo are right here, and links to other games can be found on the Toys and Games page. Instructions for Martha Washington’s Great Cake – a perfect cake for a Twelfth Night party – can be found on the Recipes page.
In Virginia, at least, the emphasis of the Christmas season seems to have been on good cheer and good fellowship, as well as (one hopes) a measure of extra consideration for those more vulnerable. One of the best things about Christmas, for me, is that it encourages this spirit of good fellowship and concern for others – a spirit which, I hope, one that can transcend the differences that sometimes divide us.
For more information on Christmas customs in 18th century America, here are some other interesting articles.
Williamsburg’s Long Christmas, by Michael Olmert
Christmas in Colonial Virginia, by Harold B. Gill, Jr.
Christmas Music in Colonial Days, by John Turner