I’m writing a Christmas scene set in Virginia, 1784 and it’s especially meaningful since it’s actually Christmas in the here and now. But oh, how times have changed! Can you tell I’m in research mode? And dreaming of another frontier story set in Kentucky?
The traditional feast varied from household to household (depending on how wealthy the family was) but generally, consisted of wines, rum punches, hams, beef, goose, turkey, oysters, mincemeat pies, and various other treats. The season was considered a grown-up celebration, but presents would generally be given to children.
Irena Chalmers notes that in 1759, that George Washington gave the following presents to his children: a bird on Bellows; a Cuckoo; a Turnabout Parrot; a Grocers Shop; an Aviary; a Prussian Dragoon; a Man Smoking; a Tunbridge Tea Set; 3 Neat Books, a Tea Chest. A straw parchment box with a glass and a neat dress’d wax baby. Southern families usually supplied rum and presents (often candy) to their slaves on the first of the year.
Traditional symbols of the American colonial Christmas did not resemble our modern Christmas celebration. The Christmas tree originated in Germany in the 16th century, but did not gain popularity in America until after 1842 when it was introduced in Williamsburg.
Life on the American colonial frontier was, as it would be expected, quite different from the well established east coast.
The frontier at that time was heavily populated with the Scotch-Irish. They organized their lives by the events of the Christian calendar, but differed greatly from the rest of British America. For reasons unknown to us, they seemed to have preserved some of the ancient Christian rituals which had lingered along the border lands between England and Scotland decades after they were abandoned in other regions of the British Isles.
Our frontier people seemed to have kept a day which they called “Old Christmas”, on January 6th. On that day, even in the poorest of homes, feasts were common, and they lit bonfires that night. They also celebrated by continual discharging of their muskets. This had been the custom in the British borderlands. On the Southern frontier some of these customs continued to the 20th century. Visitors to Appalachia and the highlands of North Carolina found the practice of “Old Christmas” with bonfires and the firing of guns, along with fireworks still exist.
One visitor noted: “In some parts of this country it is the custom to observe what is known as ‘Old Christmas’ “. Opinion varies as to the date: Some believe it is the 5th and some the 6th of January. This day is believed by these people who keep it to be the real date of the birth of Jesus. They say the Christmas we observe is a “manmade” Christmas.”
The first Christmas card did not appear until about 1846 in England.
Christmas Carols were sung during the holidays, but most of the popular carols of today had not been written before the late 1700’s.
The most enduring hymn that was popular in colonial America was Joy to the World, written by Isaac Watts of Virginia during the 1760s.
Hope your own holiday preparation is going well!
*Images/research taken from Revolutionary War Archives