Friday, December 3, 2021

Notes on Christmas in Virginia from visiting New England Tutor Philip Vickers Fithian (1747-1776)


Philip Vickers Fithian (1747-1776) by unknown artist. Image from page 127 of "Philip Vickers Fithian : journal and letters ..." (1900)

New Jersey-born Fithian experienced a religious conversion in 1766 & began attending Enoch Green's Presbyterian academy in Deerfield, New Jersey. In his junior year, he enrolled at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) at Princeton in 1770 & studied under John Witherspoon, the college's president & a prominent clergyman.  

A diarist for much of his life, Fithian is known best for the journal he kept in Virginia from October 1773 to October 1774, while working as a tutor for Robert Carter (1728–1804) at his Westmoreland County mansion, Nomony Hall.  

Back in New Jersey, the church assigned Fithian to a missionary tour of the Pennsylvania & Virginia back-country. Between May 1775 & February 1776 he preached to Scots-Irish Presbyterian congregations along the Susquehanna River & in the Shenandoah Valley.

Fithian's journal entry of Saturday, December 18, 1773: "Nothing is to be heard of in conversation, but the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments, and the good fellowship, which are to be exhibited at the approaching Christmas"? I almost think myself happy that my Horses lameness will be sufficient Excuse for my keeping at home on these Holidays.” 

December 22, 1773, Fithian wrote: "Evening Mr. Carter spent in playing on the Harmonica. It is the first time I have heard the instrument. The music is charming! He played, 'Water Parted from the Sea.' "

Fithian noted on his first Christmas Day at Nomini Hall in 1773 that he “was waked this morning by guns fired all around the house…Before I was Drest, the fellow who makes the Fire in our School Room, drest very neatly in green, but almost drunk…our dinner was no otherwise than common, yet as elegant a Christmas Dinner as I ever set down to.” 

Sunday, December 26, 1773, Fithian and the Carters went to church. The minister "preach'd from Isaiah 9.6 For unto us a child is Born &c. his sermon was fifteen Minutes long! very fashionable—," but few attended. On December 29 of that same year he wrote “we had a large Pye cut today to signify the conclusion of the Holidays.”

On this Christmas Day, 1773, Fithian wrote in his journal that he felt obliged to contribute to the "Christmas Box, as they call it." And so he gave money to the men & women who blacked his shoes, groomed his horse, made his bed, kindles fires in his bedroom & schoolroom, & waited on him at table.

Fithian left Carter's employ to become a Presbyterian missionary among the Scotch and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in western Virginia. On Christmas Eve in 1775, Philip Fithian wrote in his diary from Staunton, Virginia: The Evening I spent at Mr. Guys--I sung for an Hour, at the good Peoples Desire, Mr. Watts admirable Hymns--I myself was entertaind; I felt myself improvd; so much Love to Jesus is set forth--So much divine Exercise. 

His diary entry for December 25, 1775: Christmas Morning--Not A Gun is heard--Not a Shout--No company or Cabal assembled--To Day is like other Days every Way calm & temperate-- People go about their daily Business with the same Readiness, & apply themselves to it with the same Industry.

George Washington's Christmas Gifts for his 2 new Stepchildren

The Colonial Williamsburg website notes that  George Washington's Christmas list for his young stepchildren was ambitious: in 1759, when Washington gave the following presents to his new wife's young 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 & a neat dress'd wax baby."

At the time they married, Martha Dandridge Custis was only 27 years old, owned nearly 300 enslaved people, & had more than 17,500 acres of land— worth more than £40,000. At the end of 1758, Washington resigned his military commission. On January 6, 1759, Martha Dandridge Custis married George Washington at her home, White House, in New Kent County.

When she married George Washington, Martha had 2 surving children with Daniel Parke Custis: John Parke Custis (“Jacky”), who was born in 1754, & Martha Parke Custis (“Patsy”), born in 1756.

 John Parke Custis, known as "Jacky" when younger & "Jack" as he got older, was around 4 years old, when his mother Martha married George Washington. As a result, George Washington became Jacky's legal guardian. On February 3, 1774, Custis & Eleanor Calvert, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a prominent Maryland family. were married. Jack & Nelly lived at Abingdon Plantation & had 7 children, 4 of whom would survive, over the next 7 years. On November 5, 1781, just weeks before he turned 27, John Parke Custis, Martha’s sole remaining child, contracted a fever & died.

Martha Parke Custis was Martha Washington & Daniel Parke Custis's youngest child. Known to the family as Patsy, she was only a toddler, when her mother married George Washington. By the time Patsy was 11 or 12, she was plagued with seizures, which grew worse over time. After a particularly violent episode on June 19, 1773, Patsy died at age 17. In his diary, George Washington wrote simply on June 19th, 1773: "At home all day. About 5 oclock poor Patcy Custis Died Suddenly." In a letter to his brother-in-law written the following day, George Washington relayed the news that Patsy, described as his "Sweet Innocent Girl," had been buried earlier in the day & that the situation had "almost reduced my poor Wife to the lowest ebb of Misery."

See:

George Washington to Burwell Bassett, 20 June 1773," The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, Vol. 9, eds. W.W. Abbot & Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1994), 243-244. Eliza Custis, "Self-Portrait: Eliza Custis 1808," Virginia Magazine of History & Biography 53, ed. William D. Hoyt, Jr. (1945): 92. "Nelly Custis Lewis to Jared Sparks, 26 February 1833," ed. Jared Sparks, The Life of George Washington (Boston: Published by Ferdinand Andrews, 1839), 522.

"George Washington to Burwell Bassett, 20 June 1773," The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, Vol. 9, 243-4.

Wilstach, Paul. Mount Vernon: Washington's Home & the Nation's Shrine. 1916.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Ben Franklin celebrates Christmas with Friends, Nuts, Apples, & Mince Pies

Benjamin Franklin's correspondence gives only a glimpse into his celebration of Christmas. Franklin usually spent Christmas away from his wfe & family.  

He wrote to Isaac Norris in 1763, that he had given,"for customary New Year’s Gifts, and Christmas Presents to Door-keepers and Clerks of the Publick Offices."  

He also noted Christmas Gambols in a letter in 1765, & Christmas dinner in 1766. 

He wrote to his wife that he was spending "the Christmas Holidays" with the friend of a Bishop in 1771; and in a letter to Nathaniel Falconer in 1773, he thanked him for his present of nuts and apples.

The Washingtons celebrate Christmas at Mount Vernon

George Washington & his slave, Billy Lee. 1780, by John Trumbull. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Washingtons were not the only people at Mount Vernon observing the Christmas holiday. Evidence indicates that most servants & slaves had 4 days off from work at Christmas time & utilized the personal time for relaxation & observation. For a particular group of slaves, however, the Christmas holiday did not bring relief from their work. Cooks & house servants were required to work through the holiday.

Religion played a significant part in the observance of the holiday at Mount Vernon, as the Washingtons frequently attended church on Christmas day. In 1770, for example, Christmas fell on a Tuesday. After going to nearby Pohick Church in the morning, the family returned to Mount Vernon for dinner. Similar patterns were followed in 1771 & 1772, when December 25 fell on a Wednesday & Friday.

The Washingtons preferred to spend the holiday with family & friends, & George & Martha frequently had guests over at Mount Vernon to celebrate Christmas. While at Mount Vernon guests were encouraged to make themselves at home & take part in typical seasonal activities. Hunting & foxhunting, for example, were particularly favored activities. Twice in 1768 & 3 times in both 1771 & 1773, George Washington went hunting with visiting friends between Christmas & Twelfth Night.
The Journal of American History relates that in 1783, George Washington retired from the military, and spent Christmas at Mount Vernon with his family and the air was filled with "rousing cheers, song, pistol shots and firecrackers." 


    "The general resigned 
his commission at Annapolis on December 23, 1783; took affectionate leave of his companions in armsand once more private citizen, with Mrs. Washington by his side, and accompanied by Colonels David Humphreys, William Smith, and Benjamin Walker, he rode forward over the familiar Maryland roads toward his beloved Mount Vernon.

The General and Mrs. Washington reached home Christmas EveHis 'people from the various farms gathered at the gate and along the drive to give them welcome.

"They lighted the night with bonfires and made it noisy with fiddling and dancing in the quarters. At the great door of the mansion the home-comers were greeted by a troop of relatives, and next day the neighbors drove in from all directions to add their welcome."

"A letter has been preserved, written by a little girl of the Lewis family of Fredericksburg, describing this joyous Christmas-tide. “I must tell you what a charming day I spent at Mt. Vernon with Mama and Sally. The General and Madame came home on Christmas Eve, and such a racket as the servants made! They were glad of their coming. Three handsome young officers came with them. All Christmas afternoon people came to pay their respects and duty. Among these were stately dames and gay young women. The General seemed very happy and Mrs. Washington was up before daybreak making everything as agreeable as possible for everybody.”


See:
Miller, Francis Trevelyn Editor. Journal of American History. 
    Associated Publishers of American Records, 1917. 
Pryor Sara Agnes Rice ("Mrs. R.A. Pryor, ") The Mother of Washington and Her Times
     Virginia 1903.
Thompson, Mary V. "Christmas at Mount Vernon," Mount Vernon Ladies' Association 
    Annual Report 1990. 
Wilstach, Paul. Mount Vernon: Washington's Home & the Nation's Shrine. 1916

Thomas Jefferson celebrates Christmas at Monticello

 John Trumbull (American painter, 1756-1843) Portrait of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) 1788

Thomas Jefferson was not always jolly at Christmas. Jefferson wrote to John Page on December 25, 1762, "This very day, to others the day of greatest mirth and jollity, sees me overwhelmed with more and greater misfortunes then have befallen a descendant of Adam for these thousand years past I am sure; and perhaps, after exception Job, since the creation of the world."

Jefferson did note the joy of his grandchildren. On Christmas Day 1809, he said of 8-year-old grandson Francis Wayles Eppes: "He is at this moment running about with his cousins bawling out 'a merry christmas' 'a christmas gift' Etc."

And he did seem to enjoy a Christmas Mince pie.  "I will take the liberty of sending for some barrels of apples, & if a basket of them can now be sent by the bearer they will be acceptable as accomodated to the season of mince pies." 
1805 Gilbert Stuart (American painter, 1755-1828) Portrait of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Celebration of Christmas with Thomas Jefferson (Primary Source References)

1762 December 25. (Jefferson to John Page). "This very day, to others the day of greatest mirth & jollity, sees me overwhelmed with more & greater misfortunes then have befallen a descendant of Adam for these thousand years past I am sure; & perhaps, after exception Job, since the creation of the world."

1779 December 25. "Gave Christmas gifts 48/."

1791 January 22. (Maria Jefferson to Jefferson). "Last Christmas I gave sister the 'Tales of the Castle' & she made me a present of the 'Observer' a little ivory box, & one of her drawings; & to Jenny she gave 'Paradise Lost' & some other things."

1796 January 1. (Martha Jefferson Randolph to Jefferson). "We have spent hollidays & indeed every day in such a perpetual round of visiting & receiving visits that I have not had a moment to my self since I came down."

1799 January 19. (Thomas Mann Randolph to Jefferson)"We remained at Monticello after you left us till Christmas day in which we paid a visit to George Divers with as many as we could carry, Virginia, Nancy & Ellen--We passed the Christmas with Divers, P. Carr, & Mrs. Trist, assisted at a ball in Charlottesville on the first day of the year & returned on the 4th. to Monticello where we found our children (whom I had not neglected to visit) in the most florid health."

1808 January 8. "Sister Ann spent her Christmas in the North Garden with Cousin Evelina." (Ellen Wayles Randolph to Jefferson).

1808 December 19. (Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph). "Will there be such an intermission of your lectures about Christmas as that you can come & pass a few days here [Washington D.C.]"

1808 December 20. (Jefferson to Ellen Wayles Randolph). "I have written to Jefferson [Thomas Jefferson Randolph] if there is sufficient intermission in his lectures at Christmas, to come & pass his free interval with us."

1809 December 25. (Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes). "He [Francis Wayles Eppes] is at this moment running about with his cousins bawling out 'a merry christmas' 'a christmas gift &c...With the compliments of the season accept assurances of my constant affection & respect." 

1809 December 29. (Jefferson to Anne Bankhead). "Mr. Bankhead I suppose is seeking a Merry Christmas in all the wit & merriments of Coke Littleton."

1809 December 30. (Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph). "But I presume you have lately seen them [family members] as it was understood you meant to pass your Christmas with them."

1810 December 14. (John Wayles Eppes to Jefferson). "When I parted with Francis I promised either to call for him or send for him at Christmas." 

1813 December 25. (Jefferson to Mary Walker Lewis). "I will take the liberty of sending for some barrels of apples, & if a basket of them can now be sent by the bearer they will be acceptable as accomodated to the season of mince pies." 

1815 August 5. (Jefferson to William Wirt). "You ask some account of Mr. [Patrick] Henry's mind, information & manners in 1759-60, when I first became acquainted with him. We met at Nathanl. Dandridge's, in Hanover, about the Christmas of that winter, & passed perhaps a fortnight together at the revelries of the neighborhood & season."

1817 December 18. (Jefferson to Joseph Cabell). "I have been detained a month by may affairs here [Popular Forest] but shall depart in three days & eat my Christmas dinner at Monticello." 

1819 January 1. (John Wayles Eppes to Francis Wayles Eppes). "The old mode of keeping Christmas seems to be going generally out of fashion. It has changed very much since my recollection. Formerly all classes of society kept it as a kind of feast. It is now merely kept by labouring people. All other classes of society resume their accustomed occupations, after Christmas day. Perhaps no period for mirth & relaxation can with greater propriety be chosen by have ceased & before commencing the new year they devote to mirth & relaxation a few days at the close of the year."

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Christmas for Thomas Jefferson's Slaves

 Portrait of President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) by Revolutionary War hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746-1817)

During the Christmas season, slaves at Monticello sometimes were allowed to visit family members from whom they had been separated by assignments to work at a different Jefferson  location. In 1808, Davy Hern traveled to Washington where his wife Fanny worked at Jefferson's President’s House to be with her for the holidays. Two days before the Christmas of 1813, Davy, Bartlet, Nace, & Eve set out for Jefferson's Poplar Forest possibly to visit relatives & friends but certainly to return with a few hogs for Monticello.

Christmas in the Enslaved Community at Monticello
 (Primary Source References)

1790 December. (Nicholas Lewis, Monticello steward, accounts in Ledger 1767-1770). "To 2 1/2 Gallons Whiskey at Christmass for the Negroes."

1797 December 2. (Jefferson to Maria J. Eppes). "Tell Mr. Eppes that I have orders for a sufficient force to begin & finish his house during the winter after the Christmas holidays; so that his people may come safely after New year's day."

1808 November 17.' (Edmund Bacon to Thomas Jefferson). "Davy Has Petitioned for leave to come to see his wife at Christmass."

1808 November 22. (Jefferson to Edmund Bacon). "I approve of your permitting Davy to come [to Washington] at Christmas."

1810 August 17. (Jefferson to W. Chamberlayne). "I agreed to take them [hired slaves] at that price & they were to come to me after the Christmas Hollidays when their time with him was out."

1813 December 24. (Jefferson to Patrick Gibson). "We shall begin to send [flour] from hence immediately after the Christmas holidays."

1814 December 23. (Jefferson to Jeremiah Goodman, overseer). "Davy, Bartlet, Nace & Eve set out this morning for Poplar Forest. Let them start on their return with the hogs the day after your holidays end, which I suppose will be on Wednesday night [Dec. 28], so that they may set out Thursday morning." 

1818 December 24. (Joel Yancey, Poplar Forest, to Jefferson). "Your two boys Dick & Moses arrived here on Monday night last [Dec. 21]. Both on horse back without a pass, but said they had your permission to visit their friends here this Xmass."

1821 December 27. (Mary Jefferson Randolph to Virginia Jefferson Randolph). "This Christmas has passed away hitherto as quietly as I wished & a great deal more so than I expected. I have not had a single application to write passes or done or seen any of the little disagreeable business that we generally have to do & except catching the sound of a fiddle yesterday on my way to the smokehouse & getting a glimpse of the fiddler as he stood with half closed eyes & head thrown back with one foot keeping time to his own scraping in the midst of a circle of attentive & admiring auditors I have not seen or heard any thing like Christmas gambols & what is yet more extraordinary have not ordered the death of a single turkey or helped to do execution on a solitary mince pie wo you see you lost nothing by being on the road this week."

This research is based on the work of Mindy Keyes Black, Monticello Department of Development & Public Affairs, November 1996; Updated November 2006 with text by Elizabeth Chew & Dianne Swann-Wright. For much more information, click this link.

The Slave Experience of the Holidays in Early America

The Slave Experience of the Holidays

American slaves experienced the Christmas holidays in many different ways. Joy, hope, & celebration were naturally a part of the season for many. For other slaves, these holidays conjured up visions of freedom & even the opportunity to bring about that freedom. Still others saw it as yet another burden to be endured...

The prosperity & relaxed discipline associated with Christmas often enabled slaves to interact in ways that they could not during the rest of the year. They customarily received material goods from their masters: perhaps the slave's yearly allotment of clothing, an edible delicacy, or a present above & beyond what he or she needed to survive & work on the plantation.

For this reason, among others, slaves frequently married during the Christmas season. When Dice, a female slave in Nina Hill Robinson'sAunt Dice, came to her master"one Christmas eve, & asked his consent to her marriage with Caesar,"her master allowed the ceremony, & a"great feast was spread."Dice & Caesar were married in"the mistress's own parlor . . . before the white minister."More than any other time of year, Christmas provided slaves with the latitude & prosperity that made a formal wedding possible.

On the plantation, the transfer of Christmas gifts from master to slave was often accompanied by a curious ritual. On Christmas day,"it was always customary in those days to catch peoples Christmas gifts & they would give you something."Slaves & children would lie in wait for those with the means to provide presents & capture them, crying 'Christmas gift' & refusing to release their prisoners until they received a gift in return. This ironic annual inversion of power occasionally allowed slaves to acquire real power. Henry, a slave whose tragic life & death is recounted in Martha Griffith Browne'sAutobiography of a Female Slave, saved"Christmas gifts in money"to buy his freedom.

Some slaves saw Christmas as an opportunity to escape. They took advantage of relaxed work schedules & the holiday travels of slaveholders, who were too far away to stop them. While some slaveholders presumably treated the holiday as any other workday, numerous authors record a variety of holiday traditions, including the suspension of work for celebration & family visits. Because many slaves had spouses, children, & family who were owned by different masters & who lived on other properties, slaves often requested passes to travel & visit family during this time. Some slaves used the passes to explain their presence on the road & delay the discovery of their escape through their masters' expectation that they would soon return from their"family visit." Jermain Loguen plotted a Christmas escape, stockpiling supplies & waiting for travel passes, knowing the cover of the holidays was essential for success: "Lord speed the day!--freedom begins with the holidays!"These plans turned out to be wise, as Loguen & his companions are almost caught crossing a river into Ohio, but were left alone because the white men thought they were free men"who have been to Kentucky to spend the Holidays with their friends."

Harriet Tubman helped her brothers escape at Christmas. Their master intended to sell them after Christmas but was delayed by the holiday. The brothers were expected to spend the day with their elderly mother but met Tubman in secret. She helped them travel north, gaining a head start on the master who did not discover their disappearance until the end of the holidays. 

Likewise, William & Ellen Crafts escaped together at Christmastime. They took advantage of passes that were clearly meant for temporary use. Ellen "obtained a pass from her mistress, allowing her to be away for a few days. The cabinet-maker with whom I worked gave me a similar paper, but said that he needed my services very much, & wished me to return as soon as the time granted was up. I thanked him kindly; but somehow I have not been able to make it convenient to return yet; &, as the free air of good old England agrees so well with my wife & our dear little ones, as well as with myself, it is not at all likely we shall return at present to the 'peculiar institution' of chains & stripes."

Christmas could represent not only physical freedom, but spiritual freedom, as well as the hope for better things to come. The main protagonist of Martha Griffin Browne's Autobiography of a Female Slave, Ann, found little positive value in the slaveholder's version of Christmas—equating it with"all sorts of culinary preparations"& extensive house cleaning rituals—but she saw the possibility for a better future in the story of the life of Christ: "This same Jesus, whom the civilized world now worship as their Lord, was once lowly, outcast, & despised; born of the most hated people of the world . . . laid in the manger of a stable at Bethlehem . . . this Jesus is worshipped now." For Ann, Christmas symbolized the birth of the very hope she used to survive her captivity.

Not all enslaved African Americans viewed the holidays as a time of celebration & hope. Rather, Christmas served only to highlight their lack of freedom. As a young boy, Louis Hughes was bought in December & introduced to his new household on Christmas Eve "as a Christmas gift to the madam." When Peter Bruner tried to claim a Christmas gift from his master, "he took me & threw me in the tan vat & nearly drowned me. Every time I made an attempt to get out he would kick me back in again until I was almost dead."

Frederick Douglass described the period of respite that was granted to slaves every year between Christmas & New Year's Day as a psychological tool of the oppressor. In his 1845 Narrative, Douglass wrote that slaves celebrated the winter holidays by engaging in activities such as"playing ball, wrestling, running foot-races, fiddling, dancing, & drinking whiskey."He took particular umbrage at the latter practice, which was often encouraged by slave owners through various tactics."One plan [was] to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whiskey without getting drunk; & in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess."

In My Bondage & My Freedom, Douglass concluded that "[a]ll the license allowed [during the holidays] appears to have no other object than to disgust the slaves with their temporary freedom, & to make them as glad to return to their work, as they were to leave it." While there is no doubt that many enjoyed these holidays, Douglass acutely discerned that they were granted not merely in a spirit of charity or conviviality, but also to appease those who yearned for freedom, ultimately serving the ulterior motives of slave owners.

What Was Christmas Like for early America’s Enslaved People?


How did Americans living under slavery experience the Christmas holidays? While early accounts from white Southerners after the Civil War often painted an idealized picture of owners’ generosity met by grateful workers happily feasting, singing & dancing, the reality was far more complex.

In the 1830s, the large slaveholding states of Alabama, Louisiana & Arkansas became the 1st in the United States to declare Christmas a state holiday. It was in these Southern states & others during the antebellum period (1812-1861) that many Christmas traditions—giving gifts, singing carols, decorating homes—firmly took hold in American culture. Many enslaved workers got their longest break of the year—typically a handful of days—and some were granted the privilege to travel to see family or get married. Many received gifts from their owners & enjoyed special foods untasted the rest of the year.

But while many enslaved people enjoyed some of these holiday pleasures, Christmas time could be treacherous. According to Robert E. May, a professor of history at Purdue University & author of Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas & Southern Memory, owners’ fears of rebellion during the season sometimes led to pre-emptive shows of harsh discipline. Their buying & selling of workers didn’t abate during the holidays. Nor did their annual hiring out of enslaved workers, some of whom would be shipped off, away from their families, on New Year’s Day—widely referred to as “heartbreak day.”

Christmas afforded some enslaved people an annual window of opportunity to challenge the subjugation that shaped their daily lives. Resistance came in many ways—from their assertion of power to give gifts to expressions of religious & cultural independence to using the relative looseness of holiday celebrations & time off to plot escapes.

For slaveholders, gift-giving connoted power. Christmas gave them the opportunity to express their paternalism & dominance over the people they owned, who almost universally lacked the economic power or means to purchase gifts. Owners often gave their enslaved workers things they withheld throughout the year, like shoes, clothing & money. 

According to Texas historian Elizabeth Silverthorne, one slaveholder from that state gave each of his families $25. The children were given sacks of candy & pennies. “Christmas day we gave out our donations to the servants, they were much pleased & we were saluted on all sides with grins, smiles & low bows,” wrote one Southern planter. 

In his book The Battle for Christmas, historian Stephen Nissenbaum recounts how a white overseer considered giving gifts to enslaved workers on Christmas a better source of control than physical violence: “I killed twenty-eight head of beef for the people’s Christmas dinner,” he said. “I can do more with them in this way than if all the hides of the cattle were made into lashes.”

Enslaved people rarely made reciprocal gifts to their owners, according to historians Shauna Bigham & Robert E. May: “Fleeting displays of economic equality would have controverted the [enslaved workers] prescribed role of childlike dependency.” Even when they played a common holiday game with their owners—where the first person who could surprise the other by saying “Christmas Gift!” received a present—they were not expected to give gifts when they lost.

In some instances, enslaved people did reciprocate with gifts to the masters when they lost in the game. On one plantation in the Low Country South Carolina, some enslaved house workers gave their owners eggs wrapped in handkerchiefs. Yet overall, the one-sided nature of gift-giving between slaveowners & those they enslaved reinforced the dynamic of white power & paternalism.

For enslaved workers, Christmastime represented a break between the end of harvest season & the start of preparation for the next year of production—a brief sliver of freedom in lives marked by heavy labor & bondage. “This time we regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters; & we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased,” wrote famed writer, orator & abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery at age 20. “Those of us who had families at a distance were generally allowed to spend the whole six days [between Christmas & New Year’s Day] in their society.”

Some used these more relaxed holiday times to run for freedom. In 1848, Ellen & William Craft, an enslaved married couple from Macon, Georgia, used passes from their owners during Christmastime to concoct an elaborate plan to escape by train & steamer to Philadelphia. On Christmas Eve in 1854, Underground Railroad icon Harriet Tubman set out from Philadelphia to Maryland’s Eastern Shore after she had heard her three brothers were going to be sold by their owner the day after Christmas. The owner had given them permission to visit family on Christmas Day. But instead of the brothers meeting with their families for dinner, their sister Harriet led them to freedom in Philadelphia.

For enslaved people, resistance during Christmastime didn’t always take the form of rebellion or flight in a geographical or physical sense. Often it came in the way they adapted the dominant society’s traditions into something of their own, allowing for the purest expression of their humanity & cultural roots. In Wilmington, North Carolina, enslaved people celebrated what they called John Kunering (other names include “Jonkonnu,” John Kannaus” & “John Canoe”), where they dressed in wild costumes & went from house to house singing, dancing & beating rhythms with rib bones, cow’s horns & triangles. At every stop they expected to receive a gift. “Every child rises on Christmas morning to see the John Kannaus,” remembered writer & abolitionist Harriet Jacobs in her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. “Without them, Christmas would be shorn of its greatest attraction.”

These public displays of joy were not universally loved by all whites in Wilmington, but many encouraged the activities. “It would really be a source of regret, if it were denied to slaves in the intervals between their toils to indulge in mirthful past times,” said a white antebellum judge named Thomas Ruffin. For historian Sterling Stuckey, author of Slave Culture, the Kunering reflected deep African roots: “Considering the place of religion in West Africa, where dance & song are means of relating to ancestral spirits & to God, the Christmas season was conducive to Africans in America continuing to attach sacred value to John Kunering.”

Enslaved peopledid exhibit a long memory of Christmastime. They remembered how they used it to mark time around the planting season. They knew they could count on it for a measure of freedom & relaxation. Their inability to participate fully in gift exchange—one of the most basic aspects of the season—helped reinforce their place as men & women who couldn’t benefit from their labor. Some, like Harriet Tubman & the Crafts, saw it as a time best suited to challenge the whole society. 

The adults remembered the gifts. “Didn’t have no Christmas tree,” recounted a formerly enslaved man named Beauregard Tenneyson, in a WPA interview. “But they set up a long pine table in the house & that plank table was covered with presents & none of the Negroes was ever forgot on that day.”

18C Food, Dancing, & Gunshots - Virginia & Southern Celebrations of Christmas

Harold Gill, a retired Colonial Williamsburg historian, tells us that colonial Virginians rarely wrote descriptions of Christmas observations, or, for that matter, any holiday celebrations. We look instead at the writings of visitors who found Virginia customs new or unusual. From their few comments about Christmas, it seems Virginians observed the occasion with balls, parties, visits, & good food. Thomas Jefferson wrote December 25, 1762, that Christmas was a “day of greatest mirth & jollity.”

Nicholas Cresswell, an Englishman who spent years in Virginia & kept a journal, wrote while in Alexandria on December 25, 1774: “Christmas Day but little regarded here.” Cresswell did, however, attend a ball on Twelfth Night:  There was about 37 Ladys Dressed & Powdered to the like, some of them very handsom, & as much Vanity as is necessary. All of them fond of Dancing. But I do not think they perform it with the greatest elleganse. Betwixt the Country Dances they have What I call everlasting Jiggs.

"A Couple gets up, & begins to dance a Jig (to some Negro tune) others comes & cuts them out, these dances allways last as long as the Fiddler can play. This is social but I think it looks more like a Bacchanalian dance then one in a polite Assembly. Old Women, Young Wifes with young Children on the Laps, Widows, Maids, & Girls come promsciously to these Assemblys which generally continue til morning. A Cold supper, Punch, Wine, Coffee, & Chocolate, But no Tea. This is a forbidden herb. The men chiefly Scotch & Irish. I went home about Two Oclock, but part of the Company stayd got Drunk & had a fight."

The Encyclopedia of Virginia by the Virginia Humanities Council notes that “Country” dances were the prevailing social styleat Virginia dances at this time.. A manual containing the most famous series of country dances, John Playford’s The English Dancing Master (later simply The Dancing Master), was published in London. Over eighteen editions, published from 1651 to 1728, the book collected more than one thousand distinct dances, both steps & music. These dances were often written to accommodate “as many as will” & were performed in two long lines, partners facing one another in what was called a longways set. Unlike the minuet, country dances did not reinforce the established social hierarchy—in fact, they were democratic. They were “progressive” dances, meaning that the dancers moved up & down the long lines & danced with every other couple. Dancers embellished with elaborate steps as they knew them. The different skill levels within country dancing allowed it to be a widespread pastime among the gentry and, increasingly as the century progressed, among the “middling sort.”

The most loosely structured dances were jigs & reels, the first derived from the traditions of African slaves & the second from those of the Scots. Jigs involved two dancers at a time, while reels were more flexible, accommodating 3 to 6 participants, depending on the style. Both dances were regular features of “Virginia hops,” informal dancing parties frequented by lower-class whites or slaves that featured a fiddler responding to the whims of the crowd. Landon Carter‘s daughter Lucy Carter attended a hop at a tavern in 1772. Such gatherings seem to have been a Virginia tradition, and, even when held in other colonies, featured dances particularly associated with Virginia. Jigs & reels also infiltrated formal events. Nicholas Cresswell, an Englishman visiting Alexandria in 1775, described one such event in his journal. He dubbed jigs “everlasting” because fresh dancers frequently cut in to continue the dance until the musician was exhausted.

The following Christmas, Cresswell was in Frederick County where he noted “Christmas Day but little observed in this Country except it is amongst the Dutch.”

Philip Vickers Fithian of New Jersey, tutor to the Carter family of Nomini Hall in Virginia, recorded his first Virginia Christmas experience December 18, 1773: “Nothing is now to be heard of in conversation, but the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments, & the good fellowship, which are to be exhibited at the approaching Christmas. I almost think myself happy that my Horses lameness will be sufficient Excuse for my keeping at home on these Holidays.” On Christmas, Fithian noted that “Guns are fired this Evening in the Neighbourhood, & the Negroes seem to be inspired with new Life.”

Christmas day was spent quietly, but Fithian said he “was waked this morning by Guns fired all round the House.” He gave slightly more than 3 shillings to the servants for a “Christmas Box, as they call it.” He thought the dinner was “no otherwise than common, yet as elegant a Christmas Dinner as I ever sat Down to.” On December 29th Fithian reopened his school after a five-day holiday, & he recorded that they had a large pie “to signify the Conclusion of the Holidays.”

Gifts were usually given to children & servants. Jefferson recorded in his 1779 account book that at Christmas he spent 48 shillings for Christmas presents. Some advertisements in colonial newspapers offered toys for Christmas treats for children.

Christmas was observed in most southern colonies in much the same way. William Stephens described the holidays in Savannah in 1742. He wrote: "How irregular so ever we may be in many things, very few were to be found who payd no regard to Xmas Holy days, & it was a slight which would ill please our Adversaries, had they seen what a number of hail young Fellows were got together this day, in, & about the Town, at Crickett, & such kinds of Exercise, nor did I hear of any disorders there guilty of over their Cups in the Evening."

In 1805, when James Iredell of North Carolina was attending college at Princeton, he was surprised to learn not everyone observed Christmas. He wrote that Christmas, at home “welcomed with so many demonstrations of joy, is here regarded almost with perfect indifference & passed over as but little more than an ordinary day.”

The Virginia observation of Christmas tended towards good fellowship & 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 & other Christmas Cheer, & whole Rivers of Punch, Toddy, Wine, Beer, & Cider consumed with drinking. Cards & Dice will be greatly used, to drive away the Tediousness of the long cold Nights; & much Money will be lost at Whist Cribbage & All fours."

In 1772, the Virginia Gazette published a letter from “An Old Fellow,” who lived in England. He complained about the “Decay of English Customs & Manners.” After describing the old English Christmas when the kitchen was “the Palace of Plenty, Jollity, & good Eating,” he wrote: "Now mark the Picture of the present Time: Instead of that firm Roast Beef, that fragrant Pudding, our Tables groan with the Luxuries of France & India. Here a lean Fricassee rises in the Room of our majestick Ribs, & there a Scoundrel Syllabub occupies the Place of our well-beloved Home-brewed. The solid Meal gives Way to the slight Repast; and, forgetting that good Eating & good Porter are two great Supporters of Magna Charta & the British Constitution, we open our Hearts & our Mouths to new Fashions in Cookery, which will one Day lead us to Ruin." The “Old Fellow” should have come to Virginia.

Timeline of Judaism/Christian History to Colonial America


Timeline of Judaism/Christian History

Judaism developed among the ancient Hebrews. Judaism is characterized by a belief in one transcendent God who revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, & the Hebrew prophets & by a religious life in accordance with Scriptures & rabbinic traditions. Judaism is the complex phenomenon of a total way of life for the people, comprising theology, law, & innumerable cultural traditions.  The history of Judaism can be divided into major periods: biblical Judaism (c. 20th–4th century BCE), Hellenistic Judaism (4th century BCE–2nd century CE), Rabbinic Judaism (2nd–18th century CE), and modern Judaism (c. 1750 to the present).

c.2100 BC Calling of Abraham - the Father of the nation.

c.2000 BC Birth of Jacob, Israel. 12 tribes of Israel are named after Jacob's sons.

c.1900 BC Joseph slavery Egypt. Israelites become captives in the land.

c.1446 ?      Exodus begins by Moses, Israelites leave Egypt & settle in Canaan.

c1010 BC David becomes king of Israel, making Jerusalem his capital.

c970 BC David's son Solomon becomes king & builds a temple in Jerusalem..

c930 BC Kingdom is divided into 2 sections: Northern (Israel) & Southern (Judah).

753 BC Traditional date for the founding of Rome.

722 BC Fall of the kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians.

586 BC Babylonians take Jerusalem & destroy  temple. Jews taken to Babylon.

c538 BC Return of some of the exiles. Start of reconstruction of the temple.

c512 BC Completion of the temple.

c330 BC  Conquest by Alexander the Great. Rise of Hellenism (Greek culture).

c.250 BC  Translate the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. 

63 BC Roman rule of Israel begins.

Christianity is a faith tradition that focuses on the figure of Jesus Christ. Christianity is more than a system of religious belief. It has generated a culture, a set of ideas & ways of life, practices, & artifacts that have been handed down from generation to generation, since Jesus first became the object of faith. The agent of Christianity is the church, the community of people who make up the body of believers.


c.4 BC Birth of Jesus Christ, in Bethlehem.

c30 AD Death of Jesus Christ.

c33    Pentecost & the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2).

c33 Stephen - First Christian martyr (Acts 7).

c.48 Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Gentiles included

c.60 First Gospel published (often thought to be that written by Mark).

62 Martyrdom of James, "The Lord's Brother."

c.67-68 Apostles Peter & Paul martyred in the reign of the Roman emperor Nero.

70 Judaism rebellion on Roman empire ends. Destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

Fr 70 Christianity moves to Antioch, Alexandria & Rome.

c.90 Book of Revelation & Gospel of Saint John written.

161-80 Persecution of Christians by Emperors Marcus Aurelius. Decius & Diocletian.

301 Armenia becomes 1st country to adopt Christianity as the state religion.

312 Rome emperor Constantine envisions a flaming cross "By this sign conquer." 

313 Edict of Milan by Constantine - Christianity is religion in the Roman empire.

325 Nicene Creed declares "Begotten, not made; of one being with the Father"

367 Saint Athanasius is the first to list all 27 New Testament books

381 Ecumenical Council at Constantinople revises Nicene creed to current form.

c.382 Saint Jerome begins translating the Bible into Latin.

397 Synod at Carthage ratifies the 27 books of New Testament as sacred.

431 Ecumenical council at Ephesus where Mary is declared "Mother of God"

449 At Ephesus, Pope Leo I defends orthodox belief & claims Papal supremacy.

589 Insertion of  "and the son" into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

597 St. Augustine becomes the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

664 Synod of Whitby ratifies the authority of the Pope in England.

731 Bede writes his Ecclesiastical History.

800      Charlemagne is crowned emperor of Holy Roman Empire by Pope Leo III.

988 Conversion of Prince Vladimir to Christianity in Russia.

1054 Great Schism - Eastern Orthodox & Western Catholic churches separate.

1095 Pope Urban II orders the 1st Crusade to recover the Holy Land from Moslems.

1099 Crusaders conquer Jerusalem.

1182 Massacre of Latin inhabitants of Constantinople.

1187 Jerusalem recaptured by a Moslem army.

1189 Third Crusade led by Richard the Lionheart of England.

1204 Sack of Constantinople during the 4th crusade.

1216-23 Papal approval of the Dominican & Franciscan orders.

1266-73 Thomas Aquinas writes of systematic Theology: Summa Theologiae.

1305 Papacy moved to Avignon following a dispute with Philip IV of France.

c.1376 John Wycliffe writes for reform of the church.

1378 Return Papacy to Rome, Antipopes emerge. Ends in 1417 with Pope Martin V.

c.1380 John Wycliffe translates the Bible into Middle English.

1453 Constantinople falls to the Ottoman Turks.

1517 Martin Luther posts 95 Theses in Germany; begins the Protestantism.

1525 William Tyndale completes his translation of the Bible into English.

1534 Ignatius of Loyola founds the Jesuits.

1534 Act of Supremacy passed - Henry VIII becomes head of the English church.

1536 John Calvin publishes his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

1545-63 Council of Trent - Roman Catholic counter reformation.

1549 Book of Common Prayer published  in England (revised in 1662).

1555 Peace of Augsburg ends religious wars in Germany.

1611 Publication of the King James Version of the Bible.

1618-48 Protestant/Catholic conflict in Germany (30 Years War).

1738 John & Charles Wesley form the Methodist church in England

1730-60 The "Great Awakening" - A revival movement among Protestants in the USA.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Christmas in America's Middle Colonies

The early history of the Delaware Valley & William Penn’s inclusive policies created an ethnic & religious mix not found in the other twelve colonies.  Swedes, Germans, French Huguenots, & Welsh among others settled & celebrated their traditions. 

Swedish settlement in the Delaware Valley preceded William Penn, & they remained an important part of the colony. They brought over their pre-Christmas festival of St. Lucia, its saffron bun (Lussekatter) & simple woven decorations. They also decorated with boughs of greens, made pretzels (praying hands) & several cookies that have become American traditions 

There were several religious denominations, found in the middle colonies, which were opposed to the celebration, & continued to exclude themselves, among them the Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, & Congregationalists, at least at first. Eventually, the prosperity of Pennsylvania led even Quaker families to decorate their homes with greens & dine on the bounty of the colonies.

In 1734, Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanac, placed between the dates of December 23-29: "If you wou'd have Guests merry with your Cheer / Be so yourself or so at least appear," & for the same time in 1739: "O blessed Season! lov'd by Saints & Sinners / For long Devotions, or for longer Dinners."

Like their English counterparts in the south, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, & Moravians celebrated the traditional Christmas season with both religious & secular observances in cities such as New York & Philadelphia, & the Middle Atlantic colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, & Maryland.

In 1749, Peter Kalm, a Swede visiting Philadelphia, noted in his diary that the Quakers completely dismissed the celebration of Christmas, writing: "Christmas Day. . . .The Quakers did not regard this day any more remarkable than other days. Stores were open, & anyone might sell or purchase what he wanted. . . .There was no more baking of bread for the Christmas festival than for other days; & no Christmas porridge on Christmas Eve! One did not seem to know what it meant to wish anyone a merry Christmas."

He also noted that at “first the Presbyterians did not care much for celebrating Christmas, but when they saw most of their members going to the English church on that day, they also started to have services."

Of Catholic Church he noted: "Nowhere was Christmas Day celebrated with more solemnity than in the Roman Church. Three sermons were preached there, & that which contributed most to the splendor of the ceremony was the beautiful music heard to-day. . . . Pews & altar were decorated with branches of mountain laurel, whose leaves are green in winter time & resemble the (cherry laurel)"

In the Anglican churches, lavender, rose petals, & pungent herbs such as rosemary & bay were scattered throughout the churches, providing a pleasant holiday scent. Scented flowers & herbs, chosen partially because they were aromatic, acted as an alternative form of incense. The Reverend George Herbert, an Anglican clergyman from Maryland, urged "that the church be swept, & kept clean without dust, or cobwebs, & at great festivals strewed, & stuck with boughs, & perfumed with incense."

Christmas in 17C England & the Virginia colony


“Christmas in 17th-century England & Virginia” 

by Nancy Egloff, Jamestown Settlement Historian

Along with their friends & relatives in England, the Englishmen who came to Jamestown in 1607 considered Christmas to be one of the most special times of the year. In England, the season lasted about two weeks, from December 25 to Twelfth Day, January 6. During this period, festivities abounded & little work was accomplished.

The Christmas season evolved from the mid-winter Germanic festival of Yule & the Roman Saturnalia, in which drinking, gaming & general revelry took place, homes were decorated with greens, presents were exchanged & people dressed up in costumes. The English Christmas festivities of the 17th century resulted from the imposition of the Feast of the Nativity upon the pagan mid-winter festivals; Christian & pagan rituals were intermixed.

Contemporary writers shed more light on the secular than on the religious nature of the 17th-century holiday. According to a 1631 account by John Taylor, the festival of Christmas Day began with church attendance. Following that, “some went to cards, some sung Carrols, many mery songs, some to waste the long night would tell Winter-tales …. Then came maids with Wassell, jolly Wassell, cakes, white loafe & cheese, mince pies & other meat. These being gone, the jolly youths & plaine dealing Plow swaines being weary of cards fell to dancing to show mee some Gambols, some ventured the breaking of their shins to make me sport – some the scalding of their lippes to catch at apples tyed at the end of a stick having a lighted candle A Colonial Christmas Musicat the other – some shod the wild mare; some at hot cockles & the like.”

English folk prepared for the season by gaily decking their homes & churches with greens – holly, bay, rosemary, ivy & sometimes mistletoe, which was difficult to acquire in some areas. Sometimes in place of mistletoe, Englishmen & women would gather holly & other greens into a “kissing bush” hung from the ceiling. They carried in a Yule log on Christmas Eve, accompanied by great pomp, & lighted the log with a brand saved from the previous year’s log.

At court & in towns & cities, players prepared plays & masques, or performances with dance, song, spectacle & costuming. The Master of Revels at Court busied himself for weeks, choosing the companies of players to perform for the King. The Master also had to be certain that costumes, candles & props were ready for the plays. Masques involved the guests in dances with the disguised performers, & the fine attire of the guests made the masques the most spectacular of all Court revelries.

In preparation for the season, many towns designated a Lord of Misrule, the “grand captain of all mischief,” who, with 20 or more chosen “lusty guts,” decked themselves in yellow & green scarves, ribbons, laces, rings & jewels, & proceeded through the town on Christmas Day. 

In the late 16th century, Philip Stubbes, of puritanical leanings, related how this “heathen company” marched “towards the church & churchyard, their pipers piping, their drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen, their hobby-horses & other monsters skirmishing amongst the rout.” 

Stubbes & others argued for an end to the licentiousness & revelry often Jamestown Settlement Lord of Misrule associated with the Lord of Misrule & his mummers. This custom, however, was so ingrained in the minds of Englishmen of all classes, that even with the rise of Puritans to political power in the 1640s, attempts at controlling Christmas merriment often failed.

Although Puritans objected to the celebration of Christmas as pagan revelry, apparently many made concessions when it came to Christmas festivities. The Presbyterians in Scotland, of puritan persuasion, placed a ban on Christmas in that country in 1583, but such a ban did not take place in England until 1652, & then it was difficult to enforce. Puritans did, however, continue to voice complaints about the use of mince pies & plum puddings at Christmas, considering them to be “popish.” At the New World settlement of Plymouth in 1621, the Pilgrims, when asked to do any work on Christmas day, refused. Later that day, however, when they were found playing in the streets, which supposedly went against their strict religious beliefs, they were told that “if they made the keeping of it (Christmas) matter of devotion, let them keep their houses; but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets,” according to William Bradford.

Most important to all the Christmas festivities was the feasting. Englishmen loved their food. Thomas Tusser, in his “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie,”

Good bread & good drinke, a good fier in the hall,

brawne, pudding & souse, & good mustard withall.

Beefe, mutton, & porke, shred pies of the best,

pig, veale, goose & capon, & turkey well drest;

Cheese, apples & nuts, joly Carols to heare,

as then in the countrie is counted good cheare.

For those who could afford one, the boar’s head formed the centerpiece of the table, cooked & decorated with a lemon in his mouth. Poorer countryfolk substituted brawne, the flesh of the pig, boiled & pickled. Shred, or mincemeat, pies served as a special part of the dinner, as did white bread & plum pudding, made with beef, raisins, currants & bread. A recipe for six “Minst Pyes” in the state papers of James I called for a half peck of flour, a loin of fat mutton, two pounds each of sugar, butter, raisins, currants, six eggs & spices. 

The English enjoyed turkey, native to North America, ever since the Spaniards introduced it to England in the early 16th century. Spiced ales & wines accompanied meals throughout the festival season.

Certain activities enjoyed by folk of both high & low status included wassailing & mumming, which could be performed at various times throughout the two-week period. Mummers plays & processions on Christmas Eve consisted of costumed characters who went from house to house performing. Wassailers also paraded to the houses in the towns on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve & Twelfth Night, traditionally carrying a wassail bowl full of spiced ale, sugar & apples, & singing a wassailing song while passing the bowl:

Wassail! Wassail! All over the town

Our toast it is white, our ale it is brown,

Our bowl it is made of a maplin tree;

We be good fellows all, I drink to thee.

Englishmen of this period also observed the custom of wassailing apple trees on Christmas Eve & Twelfth Night, taking a bowl of cider with toast in it to the orchard, placing pieces of toast on the branches & pouring cider on the roots of the trees. The believed this would entice the trees to yield an abundant crop of fruit at harvest time.

Other activities enjoyed during Christmas revels included caroling, dancing & gaming. Carols for the season appeared in the Middle Ages as a derivative of French dance songs. They became songs of the people, & were not necessarily sung by professional choirs. Popular carols took such themes as the boar’s head, wassailing, lullabies & the Nativity. 

People of all ages enjoyed gambling, including children. In the late 16th century, records show that parents gave small amounts of money to their children for “play.” More active games included “hoodman-blind,” or blind-man’s-buff, “stool-ball,” similar to cricket, & “hot-cockles,” in which a blind-folded player tried to guess who tapped him on his back. Children enjoyed leap frog & the daring game of “snap-apple,” in which a player tried to bite into an apple, fastened at one end of a stick, which had a lighted candle fastened to the other end; the stick was suspended from the ceiling by a string.

The English in the 17th century presented gifts on New Year’s Day. Almost everyone from King James to the lowliest peasant received gifts, which varied from foodstuffs to personal items such as jewelry, money, books, gloves, capons, cakes, apples or oranges studded with cloves, spices, nuts & pins; tenants gave their landlords capons; the poor received alms & gifts of food. Thomas Tusser explained:

At Christmas be mery, & thanke God of all:

And feast thy pore neighbors, the great with the small.

Feasting, gaming & revelry continued periodically until Twelfth Day, when special activities such as wassailing, mumming & the eating of a Twelfth cake, loaded with sugar & confections, took place. Twelfth Day, or Epiphany, ended most of the festivities. Some churches held a feast of the star, commemorating the visit of the Magi in Bethlehem, & the day ended with revelry & feasting.


When the first colonists left England to find the riches of the New World, they took with them the culture they had known in England. The travelers to Virginia spent their first Christmas of 1606 on board their ships en route to the New World. Their second Christmas, 1607, most likely was not a happy time. Captain John Smith was being held prisoner for questioning by Powhatan, chief of 32 tribes in Tidewater Virginia at that time. Smith had gone to trade with the Indians for food. 

If those first colonists in Jamestown had the desire & interest in celebrating, they might have cut greens & decorated with boughs of holly, ivy & mistletoe. They could have burned a Yule log & sung some of their favorite carols, following a service in the church. They might have cooked a special meal of venison, oysters, fish, oatmeal & peas from their common store if food had not been so scarce. The dinner certainly would have been much different from their traditional meals at home, especially the first Christmas. Without families, & with less than half of the original number still alive, it must have been hard to be merry.

The following Christmas of 1608 found the colonists in desperate straits – sick, hungry & impoverished. Captain Smith & his men left Jamestown at the end of December to visit Powhatan at Werowocomoco & try to acquire some food.   Inclement weather forced them to stay at the Indian town of Kecoughtan (Hampton) for “6 or 7 daies.”  There, “the extreame wind, raine, frost, & snowe, caused us to keepe Christmas amongst the Salvages, where wee were never more merrie, nor fedde on more plentie of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild foule, & good bread, nor never had better fires in England then in the drie warme smokie houses of Kecoughtan.”

Nevertheless, despite hardships, the English still seemed to keep Christmas as a religious festival. In 1610 William Strachey, secretary of the Virginia colony, recorded a “true reportory of the wracke, & redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight: upon, & from the Ilands of the Bermudas.” Strachey related an incident in Bermuda in 1609: “upon Christmas Eve, as also once before, the first of October; our Minister preached a godly Sermon, which being ended, he celebrated a Communion.” The travelers eventually reached Jamestown in 1610.

Following Decembers at Jamestown continued to be difficult. The winter of 1609, traditionally known as the “Starving Time,” found the few remaining colonists dying in large numbers. Life in the New World was a precarious existence at best. However, Christmas celebrations must have entered the minds of these colonists every December. By the 1620s & 1630s, references to Christmas appear in the Statutes at Large, or laws of Virginia; the Christmas season served as a calendar benchmark for various legislative activities. In 1631, for instance, the laws stated that churches were to be built in areas where they were lacking or were in a state of decay, such action to take place before the “feast of the nativitie of our Saviour Christ.” Christmas still served as a focal point of the year, although there is little in the record as to how it was celebrated in Virginia throughout the 17th century.

1687 the Puritan minister Increase Mather (1639-1723) railed against Christmas.

 The Rev. Increase Mather painted by Dutch-born John van der Spriett in 1688, while Mather was visiting London.

In 1687, the Puritan minister Increase Mather (1639-1723) railed against Christmas. He declared that those who celebrated it “are consumed in compotations, in interludes, in playing at cards, in revelings, in excess of wine, in mad mirth.” In his A Testimony against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practiced by Some in New England, he wrote "In the pure Apostolical times there was no Christ-mass day observed in the Church of God. We ought to keep the primitive Pattern. That Book of Scripture which is called The Acts of Apostles saith nothing of their keeping Christ’s Nativity as an Holy-day...Why should Protestants own any thing which has the name of Mass in it? How unsuitable is it to join Christ and Mass together? ...It can never be proved that Christ’s nativity was on 25 of December...who first of all observed the Feast of Christ’s Nativity in the latter end of December, did it not as thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones."

17C Christmas - Unwanted Wassailing in 1679 New England

The tradition of wassailing arrived in the New World with the English settlers.  Sometimes demands of wassailers were unwelcome in the colonies.

On Christmas Day in 1679 in Salem, Massachusetts. Joseph Foster, Benjamin Fuller, Samuel Brayebrooke & Joseph Flint decided they wanted some booze for the holiday.  On Christmas night of 1679, four young men of the village of Salem entered the house of septuagenarian John Rowden, who was known to make pear wine, called "perry," from trees in his orchard. The men made themselves at home in front of the fire & began to sing. After a couple of songs they tried to cajole Rowden & his wife into bringing them some of the new wine. Rowden refused & asked the intruders to leave, to which they responded that "it was Christmas Day at night & they came to be merry & to drink perry, which was not to be had anywhere else but here, & perry they would have before they went."

When the visitors promised to return later & pay for the drink, Mrs. Rowden said, "We keep no ordinary to call for pots." By "ordinary" she meant tavern, & by "pots" she meant alcohol. The four men left, but three returned a quarter-hour later & tried to pass a piece of lead as payment in coin. The Rowdens & their adopted son, Daniel Poole, got the men out the front door, but they wouldn't leave & called sarcastic taunts from the street.

John Rowden later testified to the violence that broke out next.  They threw stones, bones, & other things at Poole in the doorway & against the house. They beat down much of the daubing in several places & continued to throw stones for an hour & a half with little intermission. They also broke down about a pole & a half of fence, being stone wall, & a cellar, without the house, distant about 4 or 5 rods, was broken open through the door, & 5 or 6 pecks of apples were stolen.