Christmas has a long history in America, dating back to the earliest days of colonization. During the mid-18th century though, the celebration of Christmas in Colonial America primarily relied on the region in which one found themselves. In Puritan New England, Christmas celebrations were often frowned upon and harshly discouraged, compared to the southern colonies, where it was more widely celebrated and enjoyed. In fact, from 1659 to 1681, showcasing one’s holiday spirit in Boston could cost you a fine of as much as five shillings!
Christmas was so inconsequential in early America that after the Revolutionary War, Congress didn’t even bother taking the day off to celebrate the holiday, deciding instead to hold its first session on Christmas Day, 1789. It took almost a century for Congress to proclaim it a federal holiday.
It was the Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans who introduced Christmas celebrations to colonial America. December 25th actually began a season of festivities that lasted until January 6, the “Twelve days of Christmas.” January 6 was called the Twelfth Day, and colonists found it was the perfect occasion for balls, parties, and other festivals.
Christmas celebrations originated in the southern colonies, and activities included parties, hunts, feasts, and church services, all of which were adult activities. We do get some of our traditions from colonial days. For instance, the main decorations were holly, laurel, and garland, because these were the only plants that looked good during the middle of winter. Mistletoe was hung prominently, and couples would find their way under it at the Christmas balls.
The foodstuffs of colonial Christmas celebrations were similar to today’s Christmas dinner. A ham, roast, or turkey was usually the main course, followed, of course, by pie and other dessert treats. Christmas trees were not a part of the colonial Christmas celebrations, for they did not make it to the states until the middle 1800s. Christmas carols were sung during the season and were religious in nature.
Throughout the colonies, a common Christmas tradition was the firing of muskets and cannons in celebration. This would have occurred especially in those southern colonies. While celebrations varied from plantation to plantation, we know that both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington celebrated the day. After the Revolution, Jefferson mentioned his grandson joyfully exclaiming “Merry Christmas” in an 1809 letter, while a much younger Jefferson referred to the day as one of “greatest mirth and jollity” for many in 1762. In George Washington’s case, though specifics of his celebrations are unknown, we know that the Christmas season was celebrated. In particular, the Twelve Days of Christmas was observed, as it often was throughout the colonies, and he was married to his wife Martha on January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany. Washington also participated in fox hunts, as was commonly done at that time of the year in Virginia as part of the festivities.
The first known reference of Santa Clause in the colonies appeared in 1773. Santa Claus himself is a combination of Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas from Dutch and English traditions. Local merchant and leader of a local historical society by the name of John Pintard objected to the roughness of Christmas as it was celebrated in the early 19th century and proposed a solution. Drawing on New York City’s Dutch origins, he promoted Saint Nicholas as the city’s patron saint – having a pamphlet printed in 1810 that’s the earliest known American image of Santa. Pintard suggested that the celebrations should be private and family-oriented rather than public and brawling.
Colonial Christmas was a simpler time where folks gathered for warm traditions and gatherings with family and friends. This year honor our country’s past traditions with a beautiful handmade gift from Liberty Stitching Company to kick off the holiday season right!
Fraunces Tavern Museum, https://www.frauncestavernmuseum.org/colonial-christmas, obtained Dec. 1, 2022.
Time, https://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1868506_1868508_1868518,00.html, obtained Dec. 1, 2022.
Tiverton Historical Society, http://www.tivertonhistorical.org/tiverton-stories/colonial-christmas/, obtained Dec. 1, 2022.