In 17th and early 18th century America, a Christmas Celebration did not resemble the festivities that we are familiar with today. Christmas was considered the first day in a season of celebration, a season which would last in some areas, until the end of January. The Christmas Advent season consisted of: December 25The Nativity of Jesus; December 27, The Feast of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist (celebrated by the Masons); January 1, The Circumcision of Jesus; January 6, The Epiphany of Jesus (The twelfth day of Christmas); and February 2, the Purification of the Virgin. Christmas celebrations varied throughout the colonies, from the Puritans in New England who did not celebrate Christmas at all, to the Southern Anglicans whose revelries most closely match modern Christmas celebrations.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, Christmas was outlawed in New England. In the early part of the sixteenth century, the Puritans in England, under Cromwell, outlawed the celebration of Christmas, calling it “popish”; and considering the secular celebration a continuation of pagan beliefs. The Puritans in Massachusetts and other parts of New England held on to these beliefs. On December 25, 1620, a concerted effort was made to begin constructing the first building at Plymouth Plantation, instead of observing Christmas day. In 1659, a law was enacted in Massachusetts to punish anyone who “…is found observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting, or any other way, any such days as Christmas day, shall pay for every such offense five shillings.”The immigration of other religious denominations saw this attitude lessen in New England, but Christmas wasn’t officially sanctioned until about 150 years ago.
Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians
Although Christmas wasn’t outlawed outside of New England, several denominations, mostly found in the middle colonies, were opposed to the celebration. In 1749, a visitor among the Quakers in Philadelphia noted that: “Christmas Day… The Quakers did not regard this day any more remarkable than other days. Stores were open…There was no more baking of bread for the Christmas festival than for other days; and no Christmas porridge on Christmas Eve!” He went on to observe “…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.” Philip Fithian, a Presbyterian missionary working among the Virginia Scotch-Irish in 1775, remarked that: “Christmas Morning – Not a Gun is heard – Not a Shout – No company or Cabal assembled – To Day is like other Days every Way calme & temperate.”
Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans
The Christmas season was embraced and celebrated mainly by the Church of England and the Roman Catholics, and primarily in the southern colonies. (One exception is the Dutch in New York who celebrated Christmas with religious services.) The celebration of the Christmas season in the southern colonies consisted of parties, hunts, visiting, feasts and church services. Christmas decorations generally consisted of holly and ivy strung throughout the house, with a sprig of mistletoe prominently displayed. A great effort was made to decorate the churches with laurel, holly, and other garlands. 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, 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 Smoakg; A Tunbridge Tea Sett; 3 Neat Book fash Tea Chest; A box best Household Stuff; A straw Parch box w. 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 Christmas Symbols
A colonial Christmas, when it was celebrated, did not resemble a 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). The first Christmas card did not appear in 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.