Friday, December 31, 2021

What is Yuletide?

Yule was typically celebrated for three days from the first night of the Winter Solstice, December 21 or 22, to December 24 or December 25.

Germanic & Northern European peoples observed Yule or Yuletide, a Winter Solstice festival connected with the worship of the Norse god Odin & the celebration of Odin’s Wild Hunt, where Odin & his goddess Frigg rode through swathes of winter light in the night sky to chase damned souls to the underworld. People feared that if they witnessed or in any way mocked the hunt, they too could be taken into the underworld.

Starting in December, some peoples celebrated Yule for a whole month, often up to three. People slaughtered animals, cooking the meat to enjoy with wine & ale. But, purposely, they saved the blood. Blood was used ritually to decorate the people & the statues of their gods & goddesses.
The solstice brought the darkest & longest night of the year. Celebrations were lit by firelight from masses of candles, bonfires, & the burning of a large log called the Yule Log, which was sprinkled with salt & oil so that when it burned down the ashes could be scattered around homes to ward off evil spirits.
Other customs carried to the modern era included decorating homes with trees covered in candles, metal ornaments, & fruit, & caroling or wassailing, where wandering groups of singers were rewarded with warm mugs of cider or ale.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th?

Actually, the Winter Solstice is an astronomical phenomenon marking "the shortest day" & "the longest night" of the year. Winter solstice occurs for the Northern Hemisphere in mid-December & for the Southern Hemisphere in mid- June.  As the Earth orbits around the Sun, the same hemisphere that faced away from the Sun, experiencing winter, will, in half a year, face towards the Sun & experience summer.  A hemisphere's winter solstice occurs when the sun's daily maximum elevation in the sky is the lowest.  The Winter Solstice is also called "Midwinter." The earliest sunset & latest sunrise dates differ from winter solstice, however, & these depend on latitude, due to the variation in the solar day throughout the year caused by the Earth's elliptical orbit.
Stonehenge in England

The solstice itself was probably a cultural event as early as neolithic times, but because there are no written records, historians simply have to guess at that.  Historians are convinced that astronomical events, which during ancient times controlled the mating of animals, sowing of crops & metering of winter reserves between harvests, show how various cultural mythologies & traditions have arisen. This is attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic & Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in Britain & Newgrange in Ireland.
Newgrange in Ireland

The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) & the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). At Stonehenge, the Great Trilithon was erected outwards from the center of the monument, with its smooth flat face was turned towards the midwinter Sun.
Newgrange in Ireland

The winter solstice may have been important because the people in these early communities were not certain of living through the winter, & had to be prepared during the previous nine months. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), also known as "the famine months." In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered, so they would not have to be fed during the winter.  It was one of the only times of year, when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine & beer made during the year was finally fermented & ready for drinking at this time. 

Since the Winter Solstice is seen as the reversal of the Sun's ebbing presence in the sky, concepts of the birth or rebirth of sun gods have been common &, in cultures using winter solstice based cyclic calendars, the year as reborn has been celebrated with regard to life-death-rebirth deities or new beginnings. Before the scientific revolution, many forms of observances, astronomical, symbolic or ritualistic, had evolved according to the beliefs of various cultures, many of which are still practiced today.

When Christian sovereigns extended their rule into pagan lands & converted the inhabitants to Christianity, they eased the cultural transition to a new religion by allowing the people to keep most of their major holidays, which they renamed, changed slightly, & sanctified as Christian holidays. When Christianity developed in the ancient Roman world, the winter solstice in that culture was already marked around 25th December.  
Though he was called “King,” Herod I (or Herod the Great, as he liked to be called) was really a Roman governor over Israel and Judah.

Early Christians celebrated the birth of the Savior for the first 3 1/2 centuries on March 25.  The date of Christ's birth is nowhere mentioned in the Gospels or by tradition.  The Bible, astrology, & a tax collection census offer a few clues.  The gospel of Matthew states that Jesus was born "in the days of king Herod." The book of Josephus notes that Herod,  King of Judea, died after ruling 34 years de facto, 37 years de jure.  Josephus states that an eclipse of the moon occurred not long before Herod's death.  A eclipse occurred from 12 to 13 March, A.U.C. 750, so that Herod must have died before the Passover of that year which fell on 12 April. As Herod killed the children up to 2 years old, in order to destroy the new born King of the Jews, Jesus may have been born about 2 years before Herod's death. The tax enrollment under Cyrinus mentioned by St. Luke in connection with the nativity of Jesus Christ, and the remarkable astronomical conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, & Saturn in Pisces, occurred in the spring of A.U.C. 748. (A.U.C. stands for Ab Urbe Condita, meaning "from the foundation of Rome."  The Roman A.U.C. calendar was enforced under the penalty of death throughout the Roman Empire during that time.
Pope St. Julius 1 (337-352)

The adoption of the date of December 25 by Pope St. Julius 1 (337-352) was primarily a means by which the early Church could insert itself into many of the popular mid-winter festivals which already were observed by "the pagans" - particularly the celebration of the Roman sun god, Mithras; since 274, under the emperor Aurelian.   Rome had celebrated the feast of the "Invincible Sun", Natalis Invicti Solis, on December 25.   Other festivals that were appropriated included the Roman Saturnalia celebrations (which changed dates, originally December 17-19, later December 17-23, & finally December 1-23).  During this festival, work ceased, gifts were exchanged, & slaves ate with their masters.  The festivals of northern Europe, particularly Yule, & also other customs such as yule logs, holly, ivy, mistletoe, candles, evergreens, became part of the Christmas celebration.

Since there was only a loose Christian authority limited by distance & rival power centers at the time, it took centuries before the tradition was  adopted geographically: 
- Eastern churches began to celebrate Christmas after 375 CE. 
- Ireland started in the 5C
- The church in Jerusalem started in the 7C
- Austria, England & Switzerland in the 8C
- Slavic lands in the 9C & 10C 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Nativity Fast of the Orthodox Christian Churches

Celebrated during the Nativity Fast.  Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace, celebrated during the Nativity Fast as a reminder of the grace acquired through fasting (15C icon of the Novgorod school). Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are the 3 pious Jewish youths thrown into a "fiery furnace" by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.

Across the centuries, some Christians fast (don't eat anything) during advent to help them concentrate on preparing to celebrate Jesus's coming. In many Orthodox & Eastern Catholics Churches, Advent lasts for 40 days and starts on November 15th & is also called the Nativity Fast.The Nativity Fast is a period of abstinence and penance practiced by the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, & Eastern Catholic Churches, in preparation for the Nativity of Christ, (December 25). The corresponding Western season of preparation for Christmas, which also has been called the Nativity Fast & St. Martin's Lent, has taken the name of Advent. The Eastern fast runs for 40 days instead of four (Roman rite) or six weeks (Ambrosian rite) & thematically focuses on proclamation & glorification of the Incarnation of God, whereas the Western Advent focuses on the two comings (or advents) of Jesus Christ: his birth & his Second Coming or Parousia.

The Byzantine fast is observed from November 15 to December 24, inclusively. These dates apply to those Orthodox Churches which use the Revised Julian calendar, which currently matches the Gregorian calendar. For those Eastern Orthodox Churches which still follow the Julian calendar (Churches of Russia, Georgia, Serbia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Mount Athos & Jerusalem), the Winter Lent does not begin until November 28 (Gregorian) which coincides with November 15 on the Julian calendar. The Ancient Church of the East fasts dawn til dusk from the 1st December until the 25th of December on the Gregorian calendar.

Sometimes the fast is called Philip's Fast (or the Philippian Fast), as it traditionally begins on the day following the Feast of St. Philip the Apostle (November 14). Some churches, such as the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, have abbreviated the fast to start on December 10, following the Feast of the Conception by Saint Anne of the Most Holy Theotokos.

Through the discipline of fasting, practiced with humility & repentance, it is believed that by learning to temper the body's primary desire for food, that other worldly desires can be more easily tempered as well. Through this practice one is better enabled to draw closer to God in the hope of becoming more Christ-like. While the fast influences the body, it is important to note that emphasis is placed on the spiritual facet of the fast rather than mere physical deprivation. Orthodox theology sees a synthesis between the body & the soul, so what happens to one affects the other. The church teaches that it is not enough to fast from food; one must also fast from anger, greed & covetousness. In addition to fasting, almsgiving is also emphasized.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the fast traditionally entails fasting from red meat, poultry, meat products, eggs, dairy products, fish, oil, & wine. Fish, wine & oil are allowed on Saturdays & Sundays, & oil & wine are allowed on Tuesdays & Thursdays, except in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

The fasting rules permit fish, &/or wine & oil on certain feast days that occur during the course of the fast: Evangelist Matthew (November 16), Apostle Andrew (November 30), Great-martyr Barbara (December 4), St. Nicholas (December 6), St. Spiridon & St. Herman (December 12), St. Ignatius (December 20), etc.

Orthodox persons who are ill, the very young or elderly, & nursing mothers are exempt from fasting. Each individual is expected to confer with their confessor regarding any exemptions from the fasting rules, but should never place themselves in physical danger.

There has been some ambiguity about the restriction of fish, whether it means the allowance of invertebrate fish or all fish. Often, even on days when fish is not allowed, shellfish may be consumed. More detailed guidelines vary by jurisdiction, but the rules strictly state that from the December 20 to December 24 (inclusively), no fish may be eaten.

The Eve of Nativity (December 24) is a strict fast day, called Paramony (lit. "preparation"), on which no solid food should be eaten until the first star is seen in the evening sky (or at the very least, until after the Vesperal Divine Liturgy that day). If Paramony falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the day is not observed as a strict fast, but a meal with wine & oil is allowed after the Divine Liturgy, which would be celebrated in the morning.

In some places, the services on weekdays during the fast are similar to the services during Great Lent (with some variations). Many churches & monasteries in the Russian tradition will perform the Lenten services on at least the first day of the Nativity Fast. Often the hangings in the church will be changed to a somber, Lenten color.
The Entry of the Virgin Mary into the Temple, the Great Feast which falls during the course of the Nativity Fast (16C Russian icon).

During the course of the fast, a number of feast days celebrate those Old Testament prophets who prophesied the Incarnation; for instance: Obadiah (November 19), Nahum (December 1), Habbakuk (December 2), Zephaniah (December 3), Haggai (December 16), Daniel & the Three Holy Youths (December 17). These last are significant not only because of their perseverance in fasting, but also because their preservation unharmed in the midst of the fiery furnace is interpreted as being symbolic of the Incarnation—the Virgin Mary conceived God the Word in her womb without being consumed by the fire of the Godhead.

As is true of all of the four Orthodox fasts, a Great Feast falls during the course of the fast; in this case, the Entry of the Theotokos (November 21). After the apodosis (leave-taking) of that feast, hymns of the Nativity are chanted on Sundays & higher-ranking feast days.

The liturgical Forefeast of the Nativity begins on December 20, & concludes with the Paramony on December 24. During this time hymns of the Nativity are chanted every day. In the Russian usage, the hangings in the church are changed to the festive color (usually white) at the beginning of the Forefeast.

Two Sundays before Nativity, the Church calls to remembrance the ancestors of the church, both before the giving of the Law of Moses & after. The Menaion contains a full set of hymns for this day which are chanted in conjunction with the regular Sunday hymns from the Octoechos. These hymns commemorate various biblical persons, as well as the prophet Daniel & the Three Young Men. There are also a special Epistle (Colossians 3:4-11) & Gospel (Luke 14:16-24) readings appointed for the Divine Liturgy on this day.

The Sunday before Nativity is even broader in its scope of commemoration than the previous Sunday, in that it commemorates all of the righteous men & women who pleased God from the creation of the world up to Saint Joseph. The Menaion provides an even fuller service for this day than the previous Sunday. At the Vespers portion of the All-Night Vigil three Old Testament "parables" (paroemia) are read: Genesis 14:14-20, Deuteronomy 1:8-17 & Deuteronomy 10:14-21. The Epistle which is read at the Divine Liturgy is a selection from Hebrews 11:9-40; the Gospel is the Genealogy of Christ from the Gospel of Matthew (1:1-25)

Christmas Eve is traditionally called Paramony (Greek: παραμονή, Slavonic: navechérie). Paramony is observed as a strict fast day, on which those faithful who are physically able to, refrain from food until the first star is observed in the evening or after the Vesperal Divine Liturgy, when a meal with wine & oil may be taken. On this day the Royal Hours are celebrated in the morning. Some of the hymns are similar to those of Theophany (Epiphany) & Great & Holy Friday, thus tying the symbolism of Christ's Nativity to his death on the Cross. The Royal Hours are followed by the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of St. Basil which combines Vespers with the Divine Liturgy.

During the Vespers, 8 Old Testament lections ("parables") which prefigure or prophesy the Incarnation of Christ are read, & special antiphons are chanted. If the Feast of the Nativity falls on a Sunday or Monday, the Royal Hours are chanted on the previous Friday, & on the Paramony the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is celebrated in the morning, with its readings & antiphons, & the fasting is lessened to some degree—a meal with wine & oil being served after the Liturgy.

The All-Night Vigil on the night of December 24 consists of Great Compline, Matins & the First Hour. One of the highlights of Great Compline is the exultant chanting of "God is with us!" interspersed between selected verses from the prophesy of Isaiah 8:9-18, foretelling the triumph of the Kingdom of God, & 9:2-7, foretelling the birth of the Messiah ("For unto us a child is born...& he shall be called...the Mighty God....").

The Orthodox do not normally serve a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve; rather, the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ is celebrated the next morning. However, in those monasteries which continue to celebrate the All-Night Vigil in its long form—where it literally lasts throughout the night—the conclusion of the Vigil at dawn on Christmas morning will often lead directly into the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. When the Vigil is separate from the Divine Liturgy, the Lenten fast continues even after the Vigil, until the end of the Liturgy the next morning.

On December 25, the Afterfeast of the Nativity of Christ begins. From that day to January 4 (the day before Theophany Eve) is a fast-free Period. The Eve of the Theophany (January 5) is another strict fast day (paramony).

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

1761 Christmas in Virginia - Hopes for Hymnals for the Slaves

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."

Monday, December 27, 2021

Christmas - 1621 New England - Christmas Beers ONLY on-board Ship

 

A Relation or Journal of the Proceedings of the Plantation settled at Plymouth in New England, also called Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. (London, 1622), which records events at Plymouth from the Mayflower's arrival in November 1620 through the 1st Thanksgiving in October 1621, reports that a little Christmas cheer was drunk in December of 1620, "Monday, the 25th day, we went on shore, some to fell timber, some to saw, some to rive, and some to carry, so no man rested all that day. But towards night some, as they were at work, heard a noise of some Indians, which caused us all to go to our muskets, but we heard no further. So we came aboard again, and left some twenty to keep the court of guard. That night we had a sore storm of wind and rain." and "Monday, the 25th day, we went on shore...but at night the master caused us to have some beer, and so on board we had divers times now and then some beer, but on shore none at all."

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Christmas from Solstice & Advent to 19C Mother England

19C Mummers. From a MS. in the Bodleian Library

Development of the Christmas Spirit from Pagan Saturnalia to Victorian Feasts.

Written by J.A.R. Pimlott in History Today Volume 3: Issue: 12 1953 See history.com here.

"The English Christmas was largely reshaped in the 19C, but to understand what happened it is necessary to look back to the “old” Christmas out of which it developed.  The festivities derived  from the pagan midwinter celebrations at the time of the December solstice, which had the promotion of fertility as one of their chief purposes.

"The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.

"In Germany, people honored the pagan god Oden during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and then decide who would prosper or perish. Because of his presence, many people chose to stay inside.

"In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.

"Eating & drinking were always an important feature of midwinter festivals & Christmas observances.  The end of December was a perfect time for celebration.  At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking.

"In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north, Saturnalia—a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture—was celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun.

"Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra's birthday was the most sacred day of the year.

"In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention date for his birth (a fact Puritans later pointed out in order to deny the legitimacy of the celebration). Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring, 

Pope Julius I chose December 25. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. First called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia. Today, in the Greek and Russian orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This is the day it is believed that the three wise men finally found Jesus in the manger.

"By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today's Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the "lord of misrule" and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined "debt" to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.

"Little is known about the midwinter observances in Britain upon which Augustine & his successors sought to superimpose the Christian feast of the Nativity. There is a tantalizing reference to the heathen “Yule” in Bede, but for the most part it is necessary to rely on surmise. The story of the English Christmas from the Conversion to the Conquest, however, is epitomized in the instructions which Gregory the Great sent to Augustine. He was to be careful not to alarm the people by interference with heathen ceremonies, & the Pope specifically advised him to allow converts to kill & eat large numbers of oxen to the glory of God at the Christmas festival, as they had formerly done to the Devil.

"Until it had consolidated its position, the Church was obliged to acquiesce in the continuance of many pagan observances; but, as time went on, it was able to effect a synthesis between the old & the new in which the grosser customs had no place. Alfred & other Kings joined with the ecclesiastical authorities in prescribing that the Twelve Days should be kept as a period of festival & abstention from work. Even though the people still performed their traditional dances in the precincts of the church at Christmas, at least they came to church to do so. And a Christian background was provided for the feasting, the telling of tales, the nunstrelsy, the games, the wassailing, & the jousting, with which the Twelve Days were marked.

"The first chapter in the story may conveniently be closed in 1043, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the first time spoke of December 25th as “Christmas” instead of “midwinter” or “midwinter’s mass.” By the 11C the main elements in the Christmas tradition, which the Normans inherited, had been established. The Twelve Days were the chief period of annual holiday— a sensible recognition of economic realities in a rural society, as well as a compromise with popular tradition. Survivals from paganism had been so successfully blended with Christian observances that even the Church had come to accept the mixture. What principally distinguished this complex of customs from those of today was their communal character; they involved the participation of the whole community, & were focused on some central point, whether it was the church or the hall of the local lord or magnate.

"The Norman Conquest led to no fundamental change in this pattern. One of its consequences, however, was to expose England to Continental Christmas traditions that went back to the Saturnalian & other celebrations of imperial Rome. Though the Continental “Feast of Fools” was never fully transplanted here, among the customs that it contributed to the English Christmas were the “Boy Bishop” ceremonies & the “lords of misrule,” who in the later Middle Ages were common under various names at the Court, in noble houses, & at colleges & inns of court.

"Saturnalian customs never took deep root in England, & the major innovations between the Conquest & the Reformation were largely native in character. The Nativity drama, evolved as a medium of religious instruction, became one of the chief forms of popular art & the forerunner of the secular theatre. But it was the carol that was the main literary glory of the mediaeval English Christmas. Imported in the first place from France & Italy, on English soil it was transformed from a dance song into the medium for some of the loveliest expressions of the English lyrical genius.

"The immediate impact of the Reformation upon Christmas observances was so slight as to be hard to discern... Carols & carol-singing also went into a decline, though this was due rather to the development of instrumental music than to religious reasons. On the surface, things continued much as before, but the changes that were taking place underneath were so fundamental that, when the crisis came under the Commonwealth & Protectorate, it was all the more explosive for having been delayed...

"In the early 17C, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday.

"The agricultural revolution, the expansion of trade & industry, the growth of the towns, the liquidation of the monastic estates, the increasing differentiation between social classes, all contributed imperceptibly but surely to the disintegration of the “feudal” Christmas of the manor, the gild, & the mediaeval corporation...The author of the late sixteenth-or early 17C verses, The Lamentation of Christmas, deplored the decline of the rural Christmas, attributing it to economic & social causes, which included the exodus of “great men” to London, rural depopulation as a result of sheep-farming, the impoverishment of the farmers, & the high cost of living.

"Herrick’s vivid & delightful descriptions of the countryman’s Christmas are evidence of the vitality of the old customs, even when the Puritan attack was at its height. As for the towns, the old Christmas is nowhere more faithfully summed up than in Ben Jonson’s Christmas Masque (1616), in which the eight sons & two daughters of the central figure, old Gregory Christmas, epitomize the main institutions of the season: “Mis-Rule, Caroll, Minc’d Pie, Gamboll, Post & Paire, New-Yeares-Gift, Mumming, Wassail, Offering, Babie-Cake.”

"Hezekiah Woodward succinctly stated the chief items of the Puritan indictment in the title of the tract he published in 1656: “Christmas Day, the old Heathens' Feasting Day in honour to Saturn their Idol-God, the Papists' Massing Day, the Superstitious Man's Idol Day, the Multitudes' Idle Day, Satan's That Adversary's Working Day, the true Christian Man’s Pasting Day.”

"There were popular uprisings against the Puritan ban, but, as John Evelyn, among others, discovered, the authorities did not hesitate to use the army to enforce it. That the Puritans merely accelerated an historical process is shown by the failure of Christmas to regain its former popularity after the Restoration. But...As Addison, Southey, Cowper & other writers bear witness, the traditional celebrations never entirely died out in rural England. Gay, Leigh Hunt, Charles Lamb, are among those who provide evidence of the survival of the old forms in the towns; & the brisk business in Norfolk turkeys, which developed in the 18C, indicates the importance attached by the Londoner to a good Christmas table.

"Christmas was, nevertheless, by general consent in decline. The author of Poor Robin’s Almanack was perhaps indulging in poetic licence when he declared in 1709:
And Christmas scarcely should we know
Did not the almanacks it show.

"But David Garrick summed up the general view in A Christmas Tale (1774) '
Behold a personage well known to fame;
Once lov’d and honour’d—Christmas is my name!

"And Lamb was probably right in 1827; Old Christmas, he said, “cometh not with his wonted gait, he is shrunk 9 inches in the girth, but is yet a lusty fellow.”

"It is not easy to say why the process of decay should have been suddenly arrested in the middle of the 19C. The Christmas of Pickwick Papers, published in 1836-7, seems to be separated by an age from the Christmas of the Christmas Carol, published in 1843. Pickwick stressed the material side of the festivities, & looked back to the 18C. The Carol looked forward, & was largely responsible for the fact that Dickens, more than any other person, is associated with the modern conception of Christmas. Without neglecting the good things of the season the Carol dwelt upon the spiritual, though not specifically the religious, aspects of the festivity. As the immediate success of the Carol on both sides of the Atlantic showed, Dickens’s role was to translate into literary form the feelings that many inarticulate people were beginning to share.

"Dickens’s Carol was a protest against the hypocrisy that had made a mockery of conventional Christmas sentiments. Ebenezer Scrooge, at least, had the courage of his convictions; which was more than could be said of most of his fellow countrymen. The theme was not original; it was already part of the Christmas stock-in-trade of humanitarian & radical writers. Punch, for example, preached it year after year. “Christmas is fast approaching,” Punch wrote in 1841, “Let the physical weight of all corporations, all private benefactors of the poor, be distributed in eatables to the indigent & famishing.”

"The resurgence of Christmas did not prevent the continued decline of folk customs that had lost their meaning or were ill-adapted to modern conditions. A radical reshaping took place; Twelfth Night, mumming, wassailing, were some of the customs that were discarded. Many industrial workers, including children, had no other holiday than December 25th; & the giving of presents was transferred from New Year to Christmas Day...There were some revivals, the carol being the most important. It had never died out, but most of the mediaeval carols had been forgotten, & carol-singing had declined into little more than a rural folk survival.

"But the chief interest lies in the new customs that were introduced. There were at least three major innovations: in chronological order, the Christmas tree, the Christmas card, &...Father Christmas as we know him now. The Christmas tree in Germany went back at least to the early 17C; it is recorded at Strasbourg in 1605. But it remained localized in Germany, & largely unknown outside, until the second quarter of the 19C.

"The Christmas card...was a British invention. There was nothing novel, of course, about the exchange of seasonable greetings; it was an old custom. But in the age of the penny post the Christmas card was the obvious practical answer to the problem that became more complicated as Christmas was taken more seriously—how to communicate easily with friends & relatives who could not be greeted in person. Although it was separately invented in the forties by Sir Henry Cole, the Christmas card did not take hold until the late sixties. This delay is the harder to explain since it then acquired an astonishing vogue, which for the next generation almost amounted to a cult...

"Some time in the 3rd quarter of the century the traditional English Father Christmas began to be transformed into an anglicized version of the Dutch-American Santa Claus...He survived into the 19C as a grey-bearded symbol that was still being used in Punch as late as the eighties. He had nothing specifically to do with children, & was not associated with the filling of stockings or the bringing of gifts. These were the attributes of Santa Claus, who had evolved in New York State from the Saint Nicholas of the Dutch colonists, & sprang vividly to life in Clement Clarke Moore’s jeu d’esprit A Visit from Saint Nicholas, perhaps better known as The Night Before Christmas. Moore, who was a professor in an Episcopalian theological college, wrote these verses for his family: & they were published in 1823 without the approval of their author, who was afraid that they might prejudice his reputation as a serious poet. Like the Christmas Carol they happened to be perfectly timed. They struck the popular imagination, &, by clothing the Santa Claus myth in convincing detail, became a major influence in extending its currency throughout the world."

Saturday, December 25, 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."

Friday, December 24, 2021

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."

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Christmas - 1608 in Colonial Virginia

When colonists left England to find the riches of Virginia, they spent their first Christmas of 1606 on board their ships en route to the New World. By 1608, Christmas 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 for “6 or 7 daies.”

Here Capt. John Smith wrote an account of what may have been the 1st Christmas celebrated in Virginia. (Kecoughtan, in Virginia, was originally named Kikotan and was part of Powhatan’s confederation of tribes.)
Captain John Smith (bap. 1580–1631)

The next night being lodged at Kecoughtan; six or seaven dayes the extreame winde, rayne, frost & snow caused us to keep Christmas among the Salvages, where we were never more merry, nor fed on more plentie of good Oysters, Fish, Flesh, Wild-foule, & good bread; nor never had better fires in England, then in the dry smoaky houses of Kecoughtan.

The description originally appeared in Smith's travel tale The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia since the first beginning from England in the yeare of our Lord 1606, till this present 1612, with all their accidents that befell them in their Journies & Discoveries. That 110-page tome was the third of more than a dozen of Smith's literary endeavors that fell from the press. Twelve years later, he recycled the passage in his eighth, the six-part, 248-page The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, & the Summer Isles with the names of the Adventurers, Planters & Government from their first beginning in 1584 to this present 1624.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Christmas in Puritan New England


 Christmas in Puritan New England

Christmas celebrations in New England were illegal during parts of the 17C. The Puritan community found no scriptural justification for celebrating Christmas, & associated such celebrations with paganism & idolatry.

The earliest years of the Plymouth Colony were troubled with non-Puritans attempting to make merry, & Governor William Bradford was forced to reprimand offenders. 

English laws suppressing the holiday were enacted in the English Interregnum, but repealed late in the 17C. However, the Puritan view of Christmas & its celebration had gained cultural ascendancy in New England, & Christmas celebrations continued to be discouraged despite being legal. 

But by the mid-18C, Christmas had become a mainstream celebration in New England, & by the beginning of the 19C, ministers of Congregational churches, the church of the Puritans, actually called for formal observance of Christmas in the churches.

When Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870, late 19C Americans widely fashioned the day into the Christmas of commercialism, spirituality, & nostalgia that most Americans recognize today.

In Puritans at Play (1995), Bruce Colin Daniels writes "Christmas occupied a special place in the ideological religious warfare of Reformation Europe." Most Anabaptists, Quakers, & Congregational & Presbyterian Puritans, he observes, regarded the day as an abomination while Anglicans, Lutherans, the Dutch Reformed, & other denominations celebrated the day as did Roman Catholics. When the Church of England promoted the Feast of the Nativity as a major religious holiday, the Puritans attacked it as "residual Papist idolatry."

Cotton Mather, c. 1700

Puritans heaped contempt on Christmas, Daniels writes, calling it 'Foolstide' & suppressing any attempts to celebrate it for several reasons. First, no holy days except the Sabbath were sanctioned in Scripture, second, the most egregious behaviors were exercised in its celebration (Cotton Mather railed against these behaviors), & third, December 25 was ahistorical. 

The Puritan argued that the selection of the date was an early Christian hijacking of a Roman festival, & to celebrate a December Christmas was to defile oneself by paying homage to a pagan custom. James Howard Barnett notes in The American Christmas (1984) that the Puritan view prevailed in New England for almost 2 centuries.

The Examination & Tryal of Father Christmas (1686)

The Plymouth Pilgrims put their loathing for the day into practice in 1620, when they spent their first Christmas Day in the New World building their first structure in the New World to demonstrate their complete contempt for the day.

Governor William Bradford (1590-1657) 

A year later on December 25, 1621, Governor William Bradford led a work detail into the forest & discovered some recent arrivals among the crew had scruples about working on the day. 

On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called the settlers out to work as was usual. However, the most of this new company excused themselves & said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest & left them.

When the Governor & his crew returned home at noon they discovered those left behind playing stool-ball, pitching the bar, & pursuing other sports. Bradford confiscated their implements, reprimanded them, forbade any further reveling in the streets, & told them their devotion for the day should be confined to their homes.

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.  The Pilgrims' 2nd governor, William Bradford (1590-1657,) wrote that he tried hard to stamp out "pagan mockery" of the observance, penalizing any frivolity.

On Christmas Day, 1620, Governor Bradford encountered a group of people who were taking the day off from work & wrote in his journal:  "And herewith I shall end this year. Only I shall remember one passage more, rather of mirth then of waight. One ye day called Christmas-day, ye Govr caled them out to worke, (as was used,) but ye most of this new-company excused them selves & said it wente against their consciences to work on yt day. So ye Govr tould them that if they made it mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led-away ye rest & left them; but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in ye streete at play, openly; somepitching ye barr, & some at stoole-ball, & shuch like sports. So he went to them, & tooke away their implements, & tould them that was against his conscience, that they should play & others worke. If they made ye keeping of it mater of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but ther should be no gameing or revelling in ye streets. Since which time nothing hath been atempted that way, at least openly."

Massachusetts & Connecticut followed the Plymouth Colony in refusing to condone any observance of the day. When the Puritans came to power in England following the execution of King Charles I of England, Parliament of England enacted a law in 1647 abolishing the observance of Christmas, Easter, & Whitsuntide. The Puritans of New England then passed a series of laws making any observance of Christmas illegal, thus banning Christmas celebrations for part of the 17C. A Massachusetts law of 1659 punished offenders with a hefty 5 shilling fine.

Sir Edmund Andros

Laws suppressing the celebration of Christmas were repealed in 1681, but staunch Puritans continued to regard the day as an abomination. Eighteenth century New Englanders viewed Christmas as the representation of royal officialdom, external interference in local affairs, dissolute behavior, & an impediment to their holy mission.

During Anglican Governor Sir Edmund Andros tenure (December 20, 1686 – April 18, 1689), for example, the royal government closed Boston shops on Christmas Day & drove the schoolmaster out of town for a forced holiday. Following Andros' overthrow, however, the Puritan view reasserted itself & shops remained open for business as usual on Christmas with goods such as hay & wood being brought into Boston as on any other work day.

With such an onus placed upon Christmas, non-Puritans in colonial New England made no attempt to celebrate the day. Many spent the day quietly at home. In 1771, Anna Winslow, an American schoolgirl visiting Boston noted in her diary, "I kept Christmas at home this year, & did a good day's work."

Although Christmas celebrations were legal after 1680, New England officials continued to frown upon gift giving & reveling. Evergreen decoration, associated with pagan custom, was expressly forbidden in Puritan meeting houses & discouraged in the New England home. Merrymakers were prosecuted for disturbing the peace.

Christmas began to become respectable in the 18C. Even Cotton Mather's 1712 anti-Christmas sermon did argue against inappropriate behavior during Christmas, but he allowed for the possibility of celebrating it. By 1730s, there were sermons positively urging that Christmas was a joyful occasion. A few almanacs started mentioning Christmas in 1713, but by the 1760s, it became common. Christmas poems were printed in New England newspapers on multiple occasions, both for adults & for children. Christmas music was printed starting in the 1760s.

The 1st public call by a Congregationalist for a church celebration of Christmas came in 1797. The Universalists started holding Christmas services in 1789, & the Unitarians started advocating for closing businesses on Christmas in 1817. From 1818 to the late 1820s, there was a short-lived movement to hold Christmas services in churches, & to close businesses. Yet the commercial side of Christmas was already beginning to take hold: by 1808, there were already advertisements for Christmas gifts, & the modern version of Christmas was being created.

In New England, as elsewhere, the next incarnation of Christmas was taking shape. That incarnation engaged powerful new forces that were coming to dominate much of American society in the years after 1820—a heady brew that mixed a rapidly commercializing economy with a culture of domesticity centered on the well-being of children. Both elements were present in a new Christmas poem that soon came to define the rituals of the season in middle-class households throughout the United States. This new poem, written in 1822, began to receive wide distribution in the newspaper press (including that of New England) 5 years later. Although it was set on the night before Christmas, its subject was not the nativity but 'A Visit from St. Nicholas.' 

So it would be Santa Claus, not Jesus of Nazareth, whose influence finally succeeded in transforming Christmas from a season of misrule into a day of quieter family pleasures. In 1856, Christmas became a public holiday in Massachusetts.

As late as 1870, classes were scheduled in Boston public schools on Christmas Day & punishments were doled out to children who chose to stay home beneath the Christmas tree. One commentator hinted that the Puritans viewed Santa Claus as the Anti-Christ.

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, Christmas became the festival highpoint of the American calendar. The day became a Federal holiday in 1870 under President Ulysses S. Grant in an attempt to unite north & south. During the 19C the Puritan hostility to Christmas gradually relaxed. 

In the late 19C, authors praised the holiday for its liberality, family togetherness, & joyful observance. In 1887, for example, St. Nicholas Magazine published a story about a sickly Puritan boy of 1635 being restored to health when his mother brings him a bough of Christmas greenery.

When the day's less pleasant associations were stripped away, Americans recreated the day according to their tastes & times. The doctrines that caused the Puritans to regard the day with disapprobation were modified & the day was rescued from its traditional excesses of behavior. Christmas was reshaped in late 19C America with liberal Protestantism & spirituality, commercialism, artisanship, nostalgia, & hope becoming the day's distinguishing characteristics.  See Wikipedia

Tuesday, December 21, 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.

Monday, December 20, 2021

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.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

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.