Early American Christmas Traditions

Donna Winters began penning novels in 1982 while working full time.  She resigned from her job in 1984 following a contract offer for her first book.winters  Since then, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Zondervan Publishing House, Guideposts, and Bigwater Publishing have published her novels. Donna has written fifteen historical for her Great Lakes Romances® series. Recently, she turned her attention to her hometown on the Erie Canal.  Bluebird of Brockport, A Novel of the Erie Canal, released as a paperback in June. For December 14, and 15, you can download if from Kindle for FREE.  But this offer ends at midnight, December 15th, 2012.

Today, Donna writes about Early American Christmas Traditions

With the approach of Christmas, I wondered how the characters in my latest release, Bluebird of Brockport, A Novel of the Erie Canal, would have celebrated in Brockport, New York, in 1830. After researching the setting and the religious traditions of their faith, I sadly concluded that my characters very well might not have celebrated at all.

Twinters - Bluebird of Brockporthe hero’s family, Congregationalists from New England, came from a long Puritanical tradition of banning Christmas celebrations. This sounds odd to our modern ears but the fact is that early celebrations were often noisy, drunken events. The Puritans ignored such frivolity and treated Christmas like any other workday.

Moving away from the Puritanical influence of the northeast, more southerly areas of Early America celebrated Christmas with feasts, balls, and gifts, traditions that did not focus on children in the years prior to the 19th century.

In Virginia, the observation of Christmas tended towards good fellowship and good eating. The Virginia Almanac for 1772 carried these sentiments on a December page:

This Month much Meat will be roasted in rich Mens Kitchens, the Cooks sweating in making of minced Pies and other Christmas Cheer, and whole Rivers of Punch, Toddy, Wine, Beer, and Cider consumed with drinking. Cards and Dice will be greatly used, to drive away the Tediousness of the long cold Nights; and much Money will be lost at Whist Cribbage and All fours.[1]

In Williamsburg, Virginia, Philip Vickers Fithian’s December 18, 1773, diary entry about exciting holiday events mentions: “the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments. . .” While southern Americans of British heritage seemed to focus on the revelry of the season, the immigrants of the Netherlands and Germany residing in Pennsylvania centered Christmas in the home and within the family circle. [2]

As for gift-giving, Williamsburg shopkeepers of the eighteenth century placed ads noting items appropriate as holiday gifts, but New Year’s was as likely a time as December 25 for bestowing gifts. Cash tips, little books, and sweets in small quantities were given by masters or parents to dependents such as slaves, servants, apprentices, or children. Early on, gifts were not “exchanged” (with children giving to their parents or servants giving to their masters). That tradition developed at a much later time.[2]

The Christmas tree, though originating in Strasbourg in the 17th century, did not catch on in England until a print of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s very domestic circle around a decorated tree at Windsor Castle appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1848. [2] Two years later, the same illustration appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book and spurred the tradition this side of the pond.

No early Virginia sources tell us how, or even if, colonists decorated their homes for the holidays, so we must rely on eighteenth-century English prints.[2] The hanging of greens stretches back before written history. Folktales come down to us of Norsemen pinning evergreen boughs over doorways to ward off evil. The greens were also taken indoors to freshen stale air and to brighten spirits during the long winter months.[3]
[1] http://www.history.org/almanack/life/christmas/hist_inva.cfm

[2]The Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, vol. 16, no. 4, winter 1995-96.

[3] http://www.christmaswithlove.com/c.html

How do you celebrate or decorate for Christmas? Do you hang greens, mistletoe, holly? Attend or host dinners or parties? Please share your favorite way of celebrating in a comment. Merry Christmas!

About Donna’s book, Bluebird of Brockport, A Novel of the Erie Canal

 Dreams of floating on the Erie Canal have flowed through Lucina Willcox’s mind since childhood. Yet once her family has purchased its boat and begins the journey, the family meets one challenge after another. An encounter with a towpath rattlesnake threatens her brother’s life. A thief attempts to break in and steal precious cargo. Heavy rain causes a breach and drains the canal of water. Lucina comforts herself with thoughts of Ezra Lockwood, her handsome childhood friend, and discovers a longing to be with him that she just can’t ignore. Can she have a future with Ezra and still hold onto her canalling dream?

Ezra Lockwood’s one goal in life is to build and captain his own canal boat, but two years into the construction of his freight hauler, funds run short. With his goal temporarily stalled, and Lucina back in his life, his priorities begin to change. Can he have both his dreams — his own boat, and Lucina as his bride?

Here’s the Amazon link:  http://amzn.to/Z4y9AY

Connect with Donna at the following link:  http://greatlakesromances.blogspot.com

6 thoughts on “Early American Christmas Traditions

  1. Thanks, Donna, for offering us a little insite into Christmas in years past. It might do us all well to move back in that direction and away from the more-or-less commercial holiday we now have.

  2. Marja, I can relate to the dogs. We have a couple of mixed breeds. They are older and probably wouldn’t bother a tree but instead of the traditional tree we bought a four-foot tree that hangs on the wall and holds loads of decorations. It also is pre-lit with a timer that puts the lights on at the time you decide, then turns them off after six hours. We love it! It runs on six “D” batteries and after three years of use, these batteries still have juice.

    Our Christmas will also be quiet, with two neighbors coming over later in the day for dinner. Like you, we are fine with a quiet celebration and thankful for good health. Blessings to you this holiday season!

  3. We’ve reached a point where our kids live in other states and we can’t put up a tree because our two young(ish) yellow Labs will eat it. : ) It’s going to be a quiet holiday this year, but that’s not all bad. As long as we have our health and our kids to talk to on the phone, I’m a happy caroler.
    Marja McGraw

  4. Very interesting reminders of how Christmas was once celebrated with more simplicity and time for true fellowship. This year I put little red bows in the barberry bush by the mailbox and hung up some clear acrylic birds which look like cut glass in the bush. It is a replacement for the generic red bow I have always done. God did a new thing on that first Christmas so maybe it is good for us to add a new tradition each year in honor of God’s brilliant idea for salvation!

    • Janice, your concept is a great one – something new each Christmas along with the traditions of the past. We have one new decoration this year for our table, found a year ago after Christmas at a thrift shop. It’s a translucent snowman with a light inside that changes colors, pretty to watch and rather unique. Thanks for stopping by with your comment! Merry Christmas!

  5. Jim, thanks for posting my Early American Christmas findings, and for letting your visitors know that Bluebird of Brockport is a FREE Kindle download until midnight, Dec. 15. Merry Christmas all!
    Donna Winters

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