Traditional Christmas in Williamsburg


For many colonial Virginians, the Christmas holiday season presented a time of celebration. Colonial Virginians observed the Feast of the Nativity as a holy day, an important religious occasion and a major event in the Anglican Church calendar. Many colonists spent the day quietly in their homes and at the parish church, where attendance for Christmas morning communion was expected.

 
[Photo credit: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va.]
 

[Above: For many colonial Virginians, the Christmas holiday season presented a time of celebration. From Christmas Day through Twelfth Night—the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6—gentry homes filled with visitors. In wealthy households, dinner offerings were surpassed only by the variety and quantity of beverages, with imported wines like sherry, Madeira and clarets among the favorites with meals. Punch made with rum or arrack, rum flip and other mixed spirits made frequent appearances, while French brandy and locally brewed beer, ale, peach brandy and cider were immensely popular throughout the period.]

 

Colonial Williamsburg

 

During the Christmas holiday - from Christmas Day through Twelfth Night—the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6—gentry houses filled with visitors. Neighbors, friends and kinsmen gathered for parties, dances and fox hunts.

Home entertaining during the Christmas holiday emphasized feasting as varied and plentiful as pocketbooks would allow. Virginians continued the traditional holiday foods from England—roast beef and goose, plum pudding and mincemeat pies—and the colony contributed additional delicacies. Native wild turkeys, ducks and venison became important items on yuletide tables with a Virginia ham claiming a place at the center.

Local waters yielded a wide variety of fish and shellfish for the holiday feasts. In wealthy households, dinner offerings were surpassed only by the variety and quantity of beverages, with imported wines like sherry, Madeira and clarets among the favorites with meals. Punch made with rum or arrack, rum flip and other mixed spirits made frequent appearances, while French brandy and locally brewed beer, ale, peach brandy and cider were immensely popular throughout the period. Eggnog did not become a seasonal favorite until the very end of the century.

Photo: Christmas holiday guests to Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area enjoy the lighting of cressets on Duke of Gloucester Street, the main thoroughfare of Virginia’s restored 18th-century capital. [Photo credit: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va.]

 
[Photo credit: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va.]
 

[Above: Colonial Williamsburg’s musical ambassadors, the Fifes and Drums, can be heard throughout the Historic Area during the Christmas holiday season. They bring 18th-century military music to Grand Illumination, concerts and illuminations of Colonial Williamsburg’s historic buildings throughout the holiday season.]

These gentry Christmas holiday celebrations required considerable labor to accomplish—labor supplied by the hands of domestic slaves and indentured servants, although many plantation owners provided several days of rest to their field hands during a season when agricultural work was less labor-intensive. Household slaves and servants might receive time off at a later date in return for their work during the holiday season.

 
[Photo credit: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va.]
 

[Above: The Colonial Williamsburg evening program, “Christmastide At Home,” journeys into Christmases past. This walking tour discusses colonial holiday traditions and customs.]

The middle class and the poor probably displayed fewer outward signs of the Christmas holiday season, but everyone tried to have special food and beverages to eat and drink at this time. While working people could not celebrate for days on end, stores and shops were closed at least for Christmas Day.

Virginia woods abound with holly, cedar, live oak, mistletoe, ivy, bay and other plants for holiday decorating. With greenery all around them, Virginians most likely followed English custom by decking their homes and churches with evergreens, but sources from the period offer no description. Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area decorations are adaptations in the colonial style.

Besides feasting and a few greens, there were not many seasonal customs during the 18th century. The Yule log is not mentioned in any colonial records located thus far, but Virginians had at least one distinctive way of celebrating. Colonial boys followed the custom of “shooting in the Christmas” or firing their guns on Christmas Eve and morning. This practice extended into the 20th century and survives today as Christmas holiday  fireworks.

Photo: During special programs in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, children can see firsthand how the holidays were observed by 18th-century Virginians. Special holiday programs give children an opportunity to experience colonial theater and other leisure activities.

 
[Photo credit: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va.]
 

[Above: One tradition “Christmastide at Home” highlights is the first Christmas tree in Williamsburg. A professor of Latin and Greek at the College of William and Mary, Charles Minnigerode, introduced the custom to the Tucker family in what is now the St. George Tucker House in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area.]

The Christmas holiday tree did not come to Williamsburg until 1842 when Charles Minnigerode, classics professor at the College of William and Mary and a political exile from Germany, trimmed a tree in the German tradition with candles and fancy paper decorations for the children at the St. George Tucker House. There are earlier instances of Christmas trees elsewhere in the Atlantic states, though none date from before 1800.

Like the Christmas tree, most of the modern favorite holiday practices had their origins in the 19th century. Christmas cards were unknown in colonial Virginia, though good wishes for the season often were extended in letters. Gift giving was not widespread and was done in an established hierarchy (parent to child, master to apprentice, or owner to slave or servant) but not vice versa. Children, the poor and slaves might receive some small luxury like a book, sweets, gloves or a few coins. New Year’s Day appeared just as likely a date for bestowing of presents as Christmas Day.

Photo: Colonial Williamsburg’s world-renowned holiday decorations are rooted in the traditions of Christmas and have emerged as a universal standard for the creative use of natural materials. The St. George Tucker House is decorated for the holidays with a holiday plaque accented with pomegranates, yarrow, pine cones and dried flowers above the porch.

 

The following verse from The Virginia Almanac published by Joseph Royle in 1765 captures the festive spirit of a colonial Christmas:

Christmas is come, hang on the pot,
Let spits turn round and ovens be hot;
Beef, pork, and poultry now provide,
To feast thy neighbours at this tide;
Then wash all down with good wine and beer,
And so with Mirth conclude the Year.

 

Established in 1926, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational institution that preserves and operates the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia. Williamsburg is located 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., off Interstate 64. For additional information and reservations or to request a free copy of Colonial Williamsburg’s 2007 Holiday Planner highlighting unique holiday programs, concerts and special dining events, call toll-free 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s Web site at www.ColonialWilliamsburg.com.

 

 

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