Tuesday, December 20, 2022

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.

Monday, December 19, 2022

An Angel for Advent

Abbott Handerson Thayer (American artist, 1849–1921) Angel 1889

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.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

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

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

Nicholas Cresswell, an Englishman who spent years in Virginia & kept a journal, wrote while in Alexandria on December 25, 1774: “Christmas Day but little regarded here.” 

Cresswell did, however, attend a ball on Twelfth Night:  There was about 37 Ladys Dressed & Powdered to the like, some of them very handsom, & as much Vanity as is necessary. All of them fond of Dancing. But I do not think they perform it with the greatest elleganse. Betwixt the Country Dances they have What I call everlasting Jiggs.

"A Couple gets up, & begins to dance a Jig (to some Negro tune) others comes & cuts them out, these dances allways last as long as the Fiddler can play. This is social but I think it looks more like a Bacchanalian dance then one in a polite Assembly. 

Old Women, Young Wifes with young Children on the Laps, Widows, Maids, & Girls come promsciously to these Assemblys which generally continue til morning. A Cold supper, Punch, Wine, Coffee, & Chocolate, But no Tea. This is a forbidden herb. The men chiefly Scotch & Irish. I went home about Two Oclock, but part of the Company stayd got Drunk & had a fight."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Virginia observation of Christmas tended towards good fellowship & good eating. The Virginia Almanac for 1772 carried these sentiments on a December page: "This Month much Meat will be roasted in rich Mens Kitchens, the Cooks sweating in making of minced Pies & other Christmas Cheer, & whole Rivers of Punch, Toddy, Wine, Beer, & Cider consumed with drinking. Cards & Dice will be greatly used, to drive away the Tediousness of the long cold Nights; & much Money will be lost at Whist Cribbage & All fours."

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

Saturday, December 17, 2022

An Angel for Advent

Melozzo da Forli (Italian Renaissance artist, 1438-1494) Angel 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 16, 2022

1659 Outlawing Christmas for colonial Massachusetts & Connecticut

 Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)

When Oliver Cromwell & his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence & as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. In 1647, the British Parliament abolished the celebration of Christmas, 40 years after the establishment of the settlement in Jamestown. The "No Christmas" policy was reiterated by Parliament in 1652, with the following resolution: "That no observation shall be had of the five & twentieth day of December commonly called Christmas-Day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon the day in respect thereof."

In 1647, the Puritan reformers in England outlawed Christmas. And in 1659, the Puritans in New England followed suit. People who celebrated Christmas would be subject to a fine of five shillings.  The celebration of Christmas was outlawed in most of New England. Calvinist Puritans & Protestants abhorred the entire celebration & likened it to pagan rituals & Popish observances.  In 1659, the Massachusetts Puritans declared the observation of Christmas to be a criminal offense by passed the Five-Shilling Anti-Christmas Law: "Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas, or the like, either by forbearing labor, feasting, or any other way upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country."  The General Court of Massachusetts enacted the law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations.  The law was only in effect for 22 years, but Christmas was not made a legal holiday in Massachusetts until the mid-19C.

The Assembly of Connecticut, in the same period, prohibited the reading of the Book of Common Prayer, the keeping of Christmas & saints days, the making of mince pies, the playing of cards, or performing on any musical instruments.  As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early New England from 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

An Angel for Advent

Melozzo da Forli (Italian Renaissance artist, 1438-1494) Angel 

Christmas - in 1620s & 1630s Virginia

In 1631, George Herbert Priest to the Temple advised the Anglicans in mother England,"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, in the British American colonies, attention was being paid to the churches in Virginia before their use for the Christmas celebration.

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 & legal activities. In 1631, 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.” 

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

An Angel for Advent



Abbott Handerson Thayer (American artist, 1849–1921) The Angel 1903

Monday, December 12, 2022

Tho Jefferson's Moods during Christmas at Monticello

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

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

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

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

Celebration of Christmas with Thomas Jefferson (Primary Source References)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, December 11, 2022

An Angel for Advent

Melozzo da Forli (Italian Renaissance artist, 1438-1494) Angel 

Unwanted Christmas Wassailing in 1679 New England

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 10, 2022

1770s Christmas in Virginia observed by New England Tutor Philip Vickers Fithian


Philip Vickers Fithian (1747-1776) from Project Gutenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 9, 2022

Angels Tell The Shepherds 1st - Illuminated Manuscripts

Illuminated Manuscript Annunciation to the Shepherds Folio 52r from Les Belles Heures du Duc de Berry. The shepherds were sleeping in the field when angels appeared and told them of the birth of Jesus.Van Limburg brothers 1375 – 1416 The dog in this image is resting.

One of my favorite Christmas stories is the annunciation to the lowly shepherds of the birth of the baby Christ child. Whom did the angels tell first? The community's outcasts, including some women working with the wool, who lived in the countryside year-round with dogs & sheep. And Mary welcomed them to visit her new baby. Only later did the important nobles arrive. The common man came first, and these lovely little illustrations imagine the stunned herders hearing the news.

An Angel for Advent

 Melozzo da Forli (Italian Renaissance artist, 1438-1494) Angel 

The Pricey Christmas Turkey in 16C-18C Mother England


About the Christmas turkey in England. In the 1570s, the price of a large turkey was 3s 4d & average weekly wage of a laborer was 2s 9d.  A Christmas turkey cost over 1 week’s wages for the working poor. But Tomas Tusser had reported in 1557 that, “Beef, mutton, and pork, and good pies of the best, Pig, veal, goose, and capon, and turkey well drest,” was the dinner of choice for the British gentry.  

By the early 1600s, when the British were beginning to establish colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America, turkey in London had begun to replace the tougher meats of peacock & swan at major Tudor banquets held by the rich & powerful. 

In the 1740s before the American Revolution, a large turkey in England was 6s 3d & average weekly wage of a laborer was 8s 2d.  The celebrated Christmas turkey had dropped to just under a week’s wages for poorer British subjects.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Angels Tell The Shepherds 1st - Illuminated Manuscripts

 

Illuminated ManuscriptAnnunciation to the Shepherds comes from a 15th-century Flemish Book of Hours in the collection of Glencairn Museum (07.MS.639). Shepherds & their dog looking up at the angels.

One of my favorite Christmas stories is the annunciation to the lowly shepherds of the birth of the baby Christ child. Whom did the angels tell first? The community's outcasts, including some women working with the wool, who lived in the countryside year-round with dogs & sheep. And Mary welcomed them to visit her new baby. Only later did the important nobles arrive. The common man came first, and these lovely little illustrations imagine the stunned herders hearing the news.

Wassail - Ben Franklin's favorite Christmas Punch Recipe

In the British American colonies, even Benjamin Franklin had a favorite punch recipe. Franklin included the recipe in a letter to his friend James Bowdoin, on October 11, 1763. "To make Milk Punch. Take 6 quarts of Brandy, and the Rinds of 44 Lemons pared very thin; Steep the Rinds in Brandy 24 Hours, then strain it off. Put to it 4 Quarts of Water, 4 Large Nutmegs grated, 2 Quarts of Lemon Juice, 2 pounds of double refined Sugar. When the Sugar is dissolv’d boil 3 Quarts of Milk and put to the rest hot as you take it off the Fire, and stir it about. Let it stand 2 Hours; then run it thro’ a Jelly-bag til it is clear; then bottle it off."

Wassailing is a Christmas tradition that has been practiced in Britain for centuries. It has its roots in a wintertime pagan custom of visiting orchards to sing to the trees & spirits in the hope of ensuring a good harvest the following season. During the orchard visit, a communal wassail bowl – filled with a warm spiced cider, perry or ale – would be shared amongst revelers.

The carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas" & Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night" offer clues to some of the ways people celebrated Christmas in the past. Advent, a time of fasting, was observed from the 1st to the 24th of December. Christmas would then last 12 days, ending with lots of feasting & drinking  on the 5th of January – the eve of Epiphany in the Christian calendar – with wassailing a key part of the celebrations.  

The word Wassail expanded from being a greeting to be a term used to refer to the punch drink related to the toast. Party-goers typically visited local orchards & fruit trees, sang songs, raised a ruckus (often by banging pots & pans. 

The word "wassail" is thought to be derived from the Old English "was hál", meaning "be hale" or "good health." Clebrants were wishing both the trees & their owners Good Health. Visitors were often rewarded by the orchard’s grateful owner with some form of warm, spiced alcoholic beverage from a communal "wassail" bowl or cup. Sometimes a topping of one of the longed-for apple, known as "lamb's wool," would be added.  

Early Wassail reportedly resembled the ancient Roman drink hypocras, which survived into the early Middle Ages as a libation for the wealthy. The necessity of importing the wine plus ginger, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg from outside England made it costly.
When ales & cider replaced the wine, more people could afford it, and recipes varied according to the means of each family. Though usually prepared for immediate consumption, wassail sometimes was bottled to ferment.

The Wassail Bowl was sometimes composed of ale instead of wine - with nutmeg, sugar, toast, ginger, and roasted crabs ; in this way the nut-brown beverage is still prepared in some old families, and round the hearths of substantial farmers at Christmas. It is also called Lambs Wool, and is celebrated by Herrick in his “Twelfth Night:”
“Next crowne the bowle full
With gentle Lambs Wool,
Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale too ;
And thus ye must doe
To make the Wassaile a swinger.”

In Lamb's Wool, ale or dark beer was whipped to form a surface froth in which floated roasted crab apples. The hissing pulp bursting from them resembled wool. Shakespeare alluded to Lamb's Wool in Midsummer Night's Dream:
Sometimes lurk I in the gossip's bowl
In very likeness of a roasted crab
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob,
And down her withered dewlap pours the ale.
Likewise in Love's Labour's Lost:
When all aloud the wind doth blow
And coughing drowns the parson's saw
And birds sit brooding in the snow
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit,
Tu-who—a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
Some report that at the bottom of some Wassail bowls was a crust of bread, that particular drink was offered to the most important person in the room & then passed around. This was the origin of a "toast" which survives to this day as part of the drinking ritual.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Angels Tell The Shepherds 1st - Illuminated Manuscripts

 

Illuminated ManuscriptAnnunciation to the Shepherds Bean MS2 - Folio 75l Shepherds with their dogs and pipes.

One of my favorite Christmas stories is the annunciation to the lowly shepherds of the birth of the baby Christ child. Whom did the angels tell first? The community's outcasts, including some women working with the wool, who lived in the countryside year-round with dogs & sheep. And Mary welcomed them to visit her new baby. Only later did the important nobles arrive. The common man came first, and these lovely little illustrations imagine the stunned herders hearing the news.

An Angel for Advent

 


1702 Christmas Pranks at School in Virginia

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."

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Angels Tell The Shepherds 1st - Illuminated Manuscripts

Illuminated ManuscriptAnnunciation to the Shepherds Bean MS1 - Folio 45l Shepherds here include a woman.

One of my favorite Christmas stories is the annunciation to the lowly shepherds of the birth of the baby Christ child. Whom did the angels tell first? The community's outcasts, including some women working with the wool, who lived in the countryside year-round with dogs & sheep. And Mary welcomed them to visit her new baby. Only later did the important nobles arrive. The common man came first, and these lovely little illustrations imagine the stunned herders hearing the news.

1774 Christmas Holiday Celebrations in Alexandria, Virginia

 Nicholas Cresswell (1750-1804) by an unidentified artist, c 1780.  Cresswell was the son of a landowner & sheep farmer in Edale, Derbyshire. At the age of 24, he sailed to the American colonies to visit a native of Edale who was then living in Alexandria, Virginia. For the next 3 years he kept a journal of his experiences, before returning to England.  Cresswell wrote while in Alexandria on December 25, 1774: “Christmas Day but little regarded here.”

However Cresswell did attend a lively ball on Twelfth Night; "There was about 37 Ladys Dressed and Powdered to the like, some of them very handsom, and as much Vanity as is necessary. All of them fond of Dancing. But I do not think they perform it with the greatest elleganse. Betwixt the Country Dances they have What I call everlasting Jiggs. A Couple gets up, and begins to dance a Jig (to some Negro tune) others comes and cuts them out, these dances allways last as long as the Fiddler can play. This is social but I think it looks more like a Bacchanalian dance then one in a polite Assembly. Old Women, Young Wifes with young Children on the Laps, Widows, Maids, and Girls come promsciously to these Assemblys which generally continue til morning. A Cold supper, Punch, Wine, Coffee, and Chocolate, But no Tea. This is a forbidden herb. The men chiefly Scotch and Irish. I went home about Two Oclock, but part of the Company stayd got Drunk and had a fight."

Monday, December 5, 2022

Angels Tell The Shepherds 1st - Illuminated Manuscripts

 

Illuminated ManuscriptAnnunciation to the Shepherds who include a woman and a man getting dressed.

One of my favorite Christmas stories is the annunciation to the lowly shepherds of the birth of the baby Christ child. Whom did the angels tell first? The community's outcasts, including some women working with the wool, who lived in the countryside year-round with dogs & sheep. And Mary welcomed them to visit her new baby. Only later did the important nobles arrive. The common man came first, and these lovely little illustrations imagine the stunned herders hearing the news.  
    

An Angel for Advent

Melozzo da Forli (Italian Renaissance artist, 1438-1494) Angel from the Vault of the Sacristy of Saint Mark  January 29, 2011. "Without Melozzo, the work of Raphael and Michelangelo would have never existed.” 

Absent Husband John Jay's 1779 Christmas Letter from his Lonely Wife Sarah Livingston (1756-1802)

 
Sarah "Sally" Van Brugh Livingston Jay (1756-1802)

Sarah "Sally" Van Brugh Livingston Jay (1756-1802) & her politically ambitious patriot husband John Jay (1745-1829) were apart during the holiday season of 1778-1779. John would be in Philadelphia serving in the Continental Congress, & Sarah in New Jersey with their son Peter Augustus. 

Sally was depressed by the absence of her husband. However, in a letter, she dutifully assured him that “The company of your dear little boy proved a great consolation to me since you’ve been absent.” She ended her letter to him: “Accept the Compts: of the season,” the lovely expression typical of the time, adding to it “& may we repeat the same to each other fifty years hence.” 

Christmas was not widely celebrated in the colonies. Its observance was generally prohibited in New England by Calvinists & other Protestant sects, & by the Quakers in Philadelphia & elsewhere. On the other hand, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans & Moravians in the Middle Colonies & the South did celebrate the Christmas season with both religious services & secular festivities. 

1794 John Jay by Gilbert Stuart, National Gallery of Art

Sarah "Sally" Jay was an American socialite & young wife of founding father John Jay, in which capacity she came to serve as the wife of the President of the Continental Congress, the wife of the Chief Justice of the United States, & First Lady of New York.

Sarah was born in 1756. She was the eldest daughter of wealthy landowner William Livingston (1723–1790) & Susannah French (1723–1789).  Her father was an attorney who was a signer of the United States Constitution & later served as the 1st post-colonial Governor of New Jersey during the American Revolutionary War from 1776, until his death in 1790.

At the age of 18 in 1774, Sarah married John Jay (1745–1829), a member of a prominent merchant family in New York City. He was one of 7 surviving children born to Peter Jay & Mary Van Cortlandt, the daughter of mayor Jacobus Van Cortlandt. 

Following her wedding to Jay in 1774, she spent the early years of their marriage at her father's house in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. Her husband would visit her there, when he was not serving as a state official in New York. 

In 1779, he was appointed commissioner to Spain & Sarah finally joined him, moving abroad. In France, she would plan & host the Americans' celebration of the signing of the Treaty of Paris, albeit in absentia, because she had only just given birth (in Benjamin Franklin's house) when the event took place. Participating in Parisian society was part of Franklin's strategy for tightening the bonds of French-American relations.

Sarah Livingston Jay with 2 of her Children by James Sharples (c. 1751-1811)

Together, John & Sarah Jay had 6 children:

Peter Augustus Jay, who was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1776

Susan Jay, who was born & died in Madrid in 1780

Maria Jay, who was born in Madrid in 1782

Ann Jay, who was born in Paris in 1783

William Jay, who was born in New York City in 1789

Sarah Jay, who was born in New York City in 1792.

In 1801, John Jay & Sarah Livingston Jay moved to a farm near Bedford, New York, where Sarah soon died in 1802. See: Louise North, Janet Wedge, & Landa Freeman. Selected Letters of John Jay & Sarah Livingston Jay (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005).

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Angels Tell The Shepherds 1st - Illuminated Manuscripts

Illuminated Manuscript Annunciation To The Shepherds By Meister Der Reich.Shepherds South Cross, County Tipperary, Ireland. 8C

One of my favorite Christmas stories is the annunciation to the lowly shepherds of the birth of the baby Christ child. Whom did the angels tell first? The community's outcasts, including some women working with the wool, who lived in the countryside year-round with dogs & sheep. And Mary welcomed them to visit her new baby. Only later did the important nobles arrive. The common man came first, and these lovely little illustrations imagine the stunned herders hearing the news. 

A Pair of handmade Ruffles & a Poem for Ben Franklin at Christmas in 1769 London

 
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) Smithsonian Magazine 2009

       To Benjamin Franklin from Mary Stevenson, [December 1769]

To Dr. Franklin with a pair of Ruffles    Decr /69

These flowers Dear Sir, can boast no lively bloom,

Nor can regale you with a sweet perfume,

This dreary season no such present yeild’s,

The Trees are naked, unadorn’d the fields,

The Gardens have their sweets and beauty lost

But Love and Gratitude, unchill’d by frost;

Put forth this foliage—poor indeed I own

Yet trust th’intent will for the faults atone.

Altho’ my produce not with nature vies,

I hope to please a friend’s indulgent eye’s,

For you my fancy and my skill I tried

For you my needle with delight I plied

Proud even to add a triffling grace to you

From whom Philosophy and Virtue too

I’ve gain’d—If either can be counted mine

In you they with the clearest lustre shine

My noble Friend this artless line excuse

Nor blame the weakness of your Polly’s muse

The humble gift with kind compliance take

And wear it for the grateful givers sake

Benjamin Franklin moved to 6 Craven Street in London, a merchant’s house, near the River Thames & not far from the Houses of Parliament, where Franklin lived between 1757 & 1775.  Craven Street was the center of Franklin’s domestic life from the 1st week he arrived in London in 1757 to the day he left in March 1775.

During that time, Franklin spent only 18 months back in Philadelphia. In London, Franklin had a platonic relationship with his landlady, the widow Margaret Stevenson. He was like a father to her daughter Polly. They rapidly became his London family & home-base with Mrs. Stevenson managing the daily household details for him.  

Mary (Polly) Stevenson (1739–1795) was the daughter of Franklin's landlady, Mrs. Margaret Stevenson. Polly’s  devotion to him was a major influence in her life. She had acquired an unusually good education  & by the time Franklin arrived at Craven Street in 1757, she was spending most of her time as companion to an elderly aunt, a Mrs. Tickell, in Wanstead, a village about 10 miles from London, apparently with the belief that the aunt would leave her a comfortable estate. 

In 1770 she married William Hewson, a brilliant young physician & anatomist, who 4 years later died from an infection incurred while dissecting a cadaver. Polly devoted the rest of her life to the care & education of her 2 sons & daughter. 

From 1775, Franklin tried to persuade her to move to America, & in 1784–85 she & the children did visit him in the new nation. Finally in 1786, she brought her family to Philadelphia, & was at Franklin's bedside when he died (1790), 5 years before her own death at her son’s home near Bristol, Pa.

About 170 letters between the bright, spirited woman, & the fatherly philosopher survive. They are full of humor & good will, plus serious science to speculation on marriage & public affairs, & later reports on growing children & grandchildren. 

In 1783 he wrote: “In looking forward,—Twenty-five Years seems a long Period; but in looking back, how short! Could you imagine that ’tis now full a Quarter of a Century since we were first acquainted! It was in 1757. During the greatest Part of the Time I lived in the same House with my dear deceased Friend your Mother; of course you & I saw & convers’d with each other much & often. It is to all our Honours, that in all that time we never had among us the smallest Misunderstanding. Our Friendship has been all clear Sunshine, without any the least Cloud in its Hemisphere.” 

See:

“From Benjamin Franklin to Mary Stevenson, 9 January 1765,” Founders Online, National Archives

The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 12, January 1, through December 31, 1765, ed. Leonard W. Labaree. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1967, pp. 16–17

 James M. Stifler, “My Dear Girl” The Correspondence of Benjamin Franklin with Polly Stevenson, Georgiana & Catherine Shipley (N.Y., 1927). 

Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., “‘All Clear Sunshine’: New Letters of Franklin & Mary Stevenson Hewson,” APS Proc., c 1956, 521–36, which describes the extent & character of their correspondence.

"For You My Needle With Delight I Plied" In The Words of Women

Eight of Franklin's letters to her appear in his 1769 edition of Experiments & Observations on Electricity.