Capt. John Smith, on a 1608 expedition, wrote an account of what may have been the first Christmas celebrated in what is now Virginia: “[W]inde, rayne, frost and snow caused us to keep Christmas among the Savages, where we were never more merry, nor fed on more plentie of good Oysters, Fish, Flesh,Wildfoule, and good bread; nor never had better fires in England, then in the dry smoaky houses of Kecoughtan.” (Kecoughtan, inVirginia, was originally named Kikotan and was part of Powhatan’s confederation of tribes.)
Captain John Smith (bap. 1580–1631)
In 1631, George Herbert's Priest to the Temple advised the Anglicans, "that the church be swept and kept clean without dust or cobwebs, and at great festivals strewed and stuck with boughs, and perfumed with incense." However, there is no record of this process being followed in the British American colonies.
Huguenot traveler Durand de Dauphine's described December's Christmas festivities at Colonel William Fitzhugh's estate in King George County in 1686: “The Christmas holidays were drawing near… Fitzhugh treated us royally, there was good wine and all kinds of beverages, so there was a great deal of carousing. He had sent for three fiddlers, a jester, a tight-rope dancer, an acrobat who tumbled around, and they gave us all the entertainment one could wish for.” Durand de Dauphine had fled France, rather than recant his religious beliefs & profess to being a Catholic.
In 1686, Durand de Dauphiné, also spent Christmas with Ralph Wormeley at his plantation at Nanzatico / Portobago Bay on the Rappahannock River. On December 25, 1686, Durand de Dauphiné left Portobacco to celebrate Christmas Day in Maryland. As his party was about to take horse “all those savages, men, women & little children,” came to see them leave. Dauphiné wrote that several of the men wore “jerkins,” and some of the women wore “some kind of petticoats.” The poorer ones wore matchcoats (blankets--perhaps a forerunner to the Snuggie) made from pieces of shabby blue cloth . . ." [or] the blankets they had traded . . . in exchange for deer skins . . . . their children were entirely naked. They had taken to adorn themselves, with some kind of pure white fishbones, slipping a strand of hair through a bone, & so on all around their head. They also wore necklaces & bracelets made of small grains which are found in the country." Dauphiné presented to the Indians who had come to see his departure gifts of “Beads . . . , & the cleanest & wealthiest took away as many as they could slip upon their necks & arms, from elbow to hand, for these are their treasures.”
Rev James Blair (ca. 1655–1743) probably painted by Charles Bridges
By 1702, Christmas pranking had become popular in Virginia. The Reverend James Blair, founder of the College of William and Mary, was awakened about midnight 2 weeks before Christmas 1702, by the sound of "great nails," as he called them, being pounded in "to fasten and barricade the doors of the Grammar School." An English schoolboy custom of "barring out" the teachers, a ceremonial lockout that signaled the start of a month of Christmas games & celebration. The hammering surprised Blair, he said, because that very custom had been outlawed at the school years earlier. As Blair was forcing his way inside the school, he wrote that "the students fired off 3 or 4 Pistols & hurt one of my servants in the eye with a wadd as I suppose of one of the Pistols, while I press'd forward, some of the boys, having a great kindness for me, call'd out "for God's sake sir don't offer to come in, for we have shot, & shall certainly fire at any one that first enters."
William Byrd II (1674–1744) by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Over a century later, on December 25, 1739, Virginian William Byrd II wrote in his diary that “I ate boiled Turkey and oysters.” William Byrd celebrated Twelfth Night. On January 7, 1740, he “…walked till dinner when I ate cold boiled beef….drew Twelfth Cake, gave the people cake and cider.” On December 25, 1740, he notes that he had roast turkey for dinner and on January 7, 1741; he ate roast goose but makes no mention of a 12th Night cake.
In December 1739, the Virginia Gazette briefly recounted a history of the holiday, noting that some Christians "celebrate this Season in a Mixture of Piety and Licentiousness," others "in a pious Way only," others "behave themselves profusely and extravagantly alone." The last category was comprised of the many who "pass over the Holy Time, without paying any Regard to it at all." The writer concluded that "On the whole, they who will be over-religious at this Time, must be pardoned and pitied; they who are falsely religious, censured; they who are downright criminal, condemned; and the Little Liberties of the old Roman December, which are taken by the Multitude, ought to be overlooked and excused, for an Hundred Reasons."
Peter Kalm 1716-1779 signed J. G. Geitel, c. 1764
In the Middle colonies, some celebrated Christmas, while others did not, depending on their religious affiliation. On Dec. 25, 1749, Finnish-Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm twas in Philadelphia. He made the following observation in his diary: “Christmas Day.... The Quakers did not regard this day any more remarkable than other days. Stores were open, and anyone might sell or purchase what he wanted.... There was no more baking of bread for the Christmas festival than for other days; and no Christmas porridge on Christmas Eve!” Kalm went on to note that: “One did not seem to know what it meant to wish anyone a merry Christmas.... first the Presbyterians did not care much for celebrating Christmas, but when they saw most of their members going to the English (Anglican) church on that day, they also started to have services.” He did note that "Nowhere was Christmas Day celebrated with more solemnity than in the Roman Church. Three sermons were preached there, and that which contributed most to the splendor of the ceremony was the beautiful music heard to-day. . . . Pews and altar were decorated with branches of mountain laurel, whose leaves are green in winter time and resemble the (cherry laurel)."Nearly 50 years later, Quaker (Philadelphia Society of Friends) Caleb Cresson, wrote in his journal of a diversity of Christmas celebrations in Philadelphia in 1791-1792 "1st Day, 25th.—This being accounted the anniversary of our Blessed Saviour's birth, was a very fine pleasant day, and the streets very lively with people of various denominations resorting to their different places of Worship. Was at our own Meeting, as usual, and hope I received some benefit."
Christmas to the South was celebrated with more vigor. In the colony of Georgia the Christmas holidays werel celebrated with the playing of games. 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, and 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, and about the Town, at Crickett, and such kinds of Exercise, nor did I hear of any disorders there guilty of over their Cups in the Evening.”
Colonists were at least aware of the English tradition of staging plays at Christmas. In 1755, the Maryland Gazette reported that the boys at the new Westminster School in London were to have, in addition to a hall, "a Theatre to act their Christmas plays in."
George Washington's letters record the giving of gifts to children in the colonial South. George His Christmas list for his stepchildren in 1758-599 was ambitious: “A bird on Bellows, A Cuckoo, A turnabout parrot, A Grocers Shop, An Aviary, A Prussian Dragoon, A Man Smoakg, (a man smoking?) 6 Small Books for Children, 1 Fash. dress’d Baby & other toys.” a Tunbridge Tea Set; 3 Neat Books, a Tea Chest. A straw parchment box with a glass and a neat dress'd wax baby." The gentry often gave gifts to children and servants. Thomas Jefferson recorded in his 1779 account book that at Christmas he spent 48 shillings for Christmas presents. "1779 December 25. "Gave Christmas gifts 48/." Some advertisements in colonial newspapers offered toys for Christmas treats for children.
Reverend John Wright was a Presbyterian minister active in Cumberland County, Virginia, during the 1760s. On the Feast of the Epiphany, 1761, he wrote to several benefactors in England describing the following Christmas scene: "My landlord tells me, when he waited on the Colonel [Cary] at his country-seat two or three days [ago], they heard the Slaves at worship in their lodge, singing Psalms and Hymns in the evening, and again in the morning, long before break of day. They are excellent singers, and long to get some of Dr. Wattss Psalms and Hymns, which I encourage them to hope for."
Benjamin Franklin's correspondence gives a glimpse into his celebration of Christmas. 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, and 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. His friend, British-born American diplomat William Temple Franklin wrote to Jonathan Williams II, "Christmas is approaching & reminds us of your promise of eating mince Pies with us."
Virginian Thomas 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."
Francis Fauquier, (bap. 1703–1768)
In Virginia in 1764 & 1766, Governor Francis Fauquier closed the assembly in the middle of December "considering the Season of the Year." And Governor Norborne Berkeley, baron de Botetourt, in 1769 did the same: "As I understand that it is generally desired to adjourn over the Christmas Holidays," he wrote, "I do direct both houses to adjourn themselves."
Christmas is come, hang on the pot,
Let spits turn round, and ovens be hot;
Beef, pork, and poultry, now provide
To feast thy neighbors at this tide;
Then wash all down with good wine and beer,
And so with mirth conclude the Year.
Virginia Almanac (Royle) 1765
The Virginia observation of Christmas tended towards good fellowship and good eating. A December page of the Virginia Almanac for 1772 explained: "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"
A Christmas hymn was composed by the Reverend James Marye in the early 1770s. Marye was rector of Saint Georges Parish in Fredericksburg, Virginia, from 1768 to 1780. The hymn reads:
Assist me, Muse divine! To sing the Morn
On which the Saviour of Mankind was born
But oh! What Numbers to the Theme can rise?
Unless kind Angels aid me from the skies?
Methinks I see the tuneful Host descend
And with officious Joy the Scene attend.
Hark, by their hymns directed on the Road,
The gladsome Shepherds find the nascent God!
And view the Infant conscious of his Birth,
Smiling bespeak Salvation to the Earth!
In 1772 the Virginia Gazette reported that in England at Windsor Lodge the Duke of Cumberland kept "open table for the Country People, for three Days, covered with Surloins of roast Beef, Plum Puddings, and minced Pies, the rich and ancient Food of Englishmen." The report said that this was "in the old English solid way,"
Also in 1772, the Virginia Gazette published a letter from “An Old Fellow,” who lived in England. He complained about the “Decay of English Customs and Manners.” After describing the old English Christmas when the kitchen was “the Palace of Plenty, Jollity, and 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 and India. Here a lean Fricassee rises in the Room of our majestick Ribs, and 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 and good Porter are two great Supporters of Magna Charta and the British Constitution, we open our Hearts and our Mouths to new Fashions in Cookery, which will one Day lead us to Ruin."
Nicholas Cresswell, 1750-1804 by an unidentified artist, c 1780
Cresswell wrote in his journal that in 1775, he was in Frederick County where he noted “Christmas Day but little observed in this Country except it is amongst the Dutch.”
Robert Carter III (1728-1804)
On 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. His outlay for the season: 3 shillings, 9 pence. But there was no box. He handed the coins directly to them.
Fithian left Carter's employ to become a Presbyterian missionary in 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. But Christmas Day in 1775 must have been a great disappointment for the Presbyterian missionary, Philip Fithian. A year earlier he had experienced the finest of Virginia Christmases the residence of Robert Carter, Nomini Hall. But in 1775, Fithian toiled as a missionary in the western counties of Virginia among the Scotch and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. The following is part of his diary entry for December 25: 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.
On April 19, 1783, Washington announced to his army that England had agreed to a cessation of hostilities with the United States. Eight years, to the day, had passed since Massachusetts' militia traded musket fire with Redcoats at Lexington Green. By the end of the year, the last English troops had shipped out of New York, and Washington came home to Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve.
In in 1783 George Washington retired, and spent Christmas at Mount Vernon with his family and there was 'rousing cheers, song, pistol shots and firecrackers'. A relation who spent that Christmas with the Washington's wrote this account: "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 happy and Mrs Washington was up before daybreak making everything as agreeable as possible."
Now the season for mirth and good eating advances,
Plays, oysters and sheldrakes, balls, mince pies and dances;
Fat pullets, fat turkeys, and fat geese to feed on,
Fat mutton and beef; more by half than you’ve need on;
Fat pigs and fat hogs, fat cooks and fat venison,
Fat aldermen ready the haunch to lay hands on;
Fat wives and fat daughters, fat husbands and sons,
Fat doctors and parsons, fat lawyers and duns;
What a dancing and fiddling, and gobbling and grunting,
As if Nimrod himself had just come in from hunting!
These all are your comforts—while mine are so small,
I may truly be said to have nothing at all.
I’m a Devil you know, and can’t live without fire,
From your doors I can see it, but I dare not come nigher;
Now if you refuse me some wood, or some coal,
I must e’en go and warm, in old Beelzebub’s hole;
Next, tho’ I’m a devil, I drink and I eat,
Therefore stand in need of some rum, wine and meat;
Some clothes too I want—for I’m blacker than soot,
And a hat, and some shoes, for my horns and my foot;
To supply all these wants, pray good people be civil
And give a few pence to a poor printer’s devil
Letters record how Thomas Jefferson and his family spent Christmas holidays in the early republic.
1791 January 22. (Maria Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson). "Last Christmas I gave sister the 'Tales of the Castle' and she made me a present of the 'Observer' a little ivory box, and one of her drawings; and to Jenny she gave 'Paradise Lost' and some other things."
1796 January 1. (Martha Jefferson Randolph to Jefferson). "We have spent hollidays and indeed every day in such a perpetual round of visiting and receiving visits that I have not had a moment to my self since I came down."
1799 January 19. (Thomas Mann Randolph to Thomas 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 and Ellen--We passed the Christmas with Divers, P. Carr, and Mrs. Trist, assisted at a ball in Charlottesville on the first day of the year and returned on the 4th. to Monticello where we found our children (whom I had not neglected to visit) in the most florid health."
1790 December. (Nicholas Lewis, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello steward, accounts in Ledger 1767-1770). "To 2 1/2 Gallons Whiskey at Christmass for the Negroes."
On Christmas of 1805, when Thomas Jefferson celebrated a Christmas party with his 6 grandchildren. "To a party of 100 guests, the president played a merry jig on his fiddle."
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.”