America, Christmas in Colonial

America, Christmas in Colonial

The religious upheaval known as the Reformation divided sixteenthand seventeenth-century Europeans on many religious issues, including the celebration of Christian feast days. The European immigrants who settled in the thirteen American colonies brought these controversies with them. Among colonial Americans, attitudes towards Christmas depended largely on religious affiliation. In general, Puritans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Quakers refused to celebrate the holiday. In areas of the country settled primarily by people of these religious affiliations, Christmas withered. By contrast, those who belonged to the Anglican (or Episcopalian), Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic traditions generally approved of the holiday. Communities composed primarily of people from these denominations planted the seeds of Christmas in this country.

The First American Christmas

The first Christmas celebration in what was later to become the continental United States took place in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565 (for a list of entries treating American history and customs, see United States of America, Christmas in). Old documents inform us that Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales presided over a Christmas service held at the Nombre de Dios Mission in that year. The Shrine of Nuestra Señora de la Leche now marks this location. The town of St. Augustine boasts of being the oldest settlement founded by Europeans in what is now the United States. Still, residents of Tallahassee, Florida, suspect that an even earlier Christmas celebration may have been held near the site of their town. In 1539 a party of Spanish colonists, led by explorer Hernando de Soto (c. 15001542), camped near the place where Tallahassee now stands. Since the Spaniards stayed from October 1539 to March of the following year, some Floridians speculate that they must have celebrated Christmas there.

The First Christmas in the English Colonies

In Jamestown, Virginia, a ragged band of Englishmen huddled together on Christmas morning in the year 1607. Although one hundred hopeful settlers had left England in order to found this, the first American colony, less than forty were still alive to celebrate their first Christmas in the New World. Their leader, Captain John Smith, was gone. He had left them to barter for food with the local Indians, and, according to legend, returned alive thanks only to the intervention of a young Indian woman named Pocahontas. Although the settlers had little food with which to rejoice, they still observed Christmas Day with an Anglican worship service.

Virginia and the South

In Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas the majority of early settlers were Anglicans of English descent. In the second half of the seventeenth century, as their way of life grew more secure, they began to reproduce the festive Christmas they had known in their homeland (see also Williamsburg,Virginia, Christmas in Colonial). They celebrated with feasting, drinking, dancing, card playing, horse racing, cock fighting, and other games. Although Anglican churches offered Christmas worship services, these apparently did not play a large role in colonial Christmas celebrations. Wealthy plantation owners who lived in large houses aspired to fill the Christmas season with lavish entertainments of all sorts. For many, this festive period lasted until Twelfth Night. By the eighteenth century these wealthy southerners studded their holiday season with balls, fox hunts, bountiful feasts, and openhanded hospitality. One year guests at a Christmas banquet hosted by a wealthy Virginia planter named George Washington, who later became the first president, dined sumptuously on the following dishes: turtle soup, oysters, crab, codfish, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, venison, boiled mutton, suckling pig, smoked ham, roast turkey, several dishes of vegetables, biscuits, cornbread, various relishes, cakes, puddings, fruits, and pies. Wines, cordials, and a special holiday drink known as eggnog usually rounded out the plantation Christmas feast. Although wealthy parents might give a few presents to their children on Christmas or New Year's Day, this practice was not widespread. More common was the practice of making small gifts to the poor, to one's servants, or to one's slaves. America, Christmas in Colonial

The less well-off could not reproduce the splendor of a plantation Christmas, but they could still celebrate with good food and good cheer. In addition, southerners of all classes saluted Christmas morning by shooting off their guns and making all sorts of noise. Those who did not own muskets banged on pots and pans or lit fireworks. Slaves were usually given a small tip or gift and some leisure time at Christmas. Since they had to prepare the parties and feasts for everyone else, however, their workload increased in certain ways at this time of year.

Southern colonists transported a number of old English Christmas customs to the New World including Christmas carols, Yule logs, kissing under the mistletoe, and decking homes with greenery. Southern schoolboys of this era sometimes resorted to the Old World custom of barring out the schoolmaster in order to gain a few days off at this festive time of year.

New England

The first bands of settlers to colonize New England were mostly made up of Puritans, members of a minority religious sect in England. They advocated a simplified style of worship and the elimination of many religious holidays, including Christmas. Although they came to America in search of religious freedom, once here, the Puritan settlers established rules and laws favoring their religion above all others, as was the custom in Europe at the time. In Plymouth colony, the first European settlement in New England, Puritan leaders frowned upon Christmas from the very beginning. In 1621, one year after their arrival from England, Governor William Bradford discovered young men playing ball games in the streets on Christmas Day. He sent them back to their work, remarking in his diary that while he may have permitted devout home observances, he had no intention of allowing open revelry in the streets. In 1659 Massachusetts Bay Colony made Christmas illegal. Any person found observing Christmas by feasting, refraining from work, or any other activity was to be fined five shillings. In 1681, however, pressure from English political authorities forced colonists to repeal this law. The anti-Christmas sentiment continued, though, and most people went on treating Christmas like any other workday. Many Puritan colonists resented the presence of the few Anglicans in their midst, especially if they were British officials. On Christmas Day in 1706 a Puritan gang menaced worshipers at the King's Chapel in Boston, breaking windows in protest against the Anglican worship service taking place inside.

The very fact that Puritan leaders passed a law against the holiday suggests that some New Englanders were tempted to make merry on that day. Historic documents record a few instances of seventeenth-century Christmas revelers and mummers being cold-shouldered by their more severe neighbors. The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed a slight thawing in Puritan attitudes towards Christmas, as the New England colonies began to fill with people from a wider variety of religious backgrounds. Many still criticized drinking, gaming, flirting, feasting, and mumming as unholy acts of abandon that dishonored the Nativity of Christ, but some now accepted the idea of marking the day of Jesus'birth with religious devotions. Nevertheless, noted Puritan minister Cotton Mather (16631728) clearly warned his congregation against secular celebrations of the holiday in his Christmas Day sermon of 1712:

Can you in your conscience think that our Holy Saviour is honored by Mad Mirth, by long eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Revelling? . . . If you will yet go on and do Such Things, I forewarn you That the Burning Wrath of God will break forth among you [Christmas in Colonial andEarly America, 1996, 12].

In eighteenth-century New England, Christmas services could be found in Anglican, Dutch Reformed, Universalist, and other churches representing pro-Christmas denominations.

New York and Pennsylvania

New York and Pennsylvania hosted significant numbers of Dutch and German immigrants. Denominational differences divided many of these immigrants on the subject of Christmas. In general, the Mennonites, Brethren, and Amish rejected Christmas. The Lutherans, Reformed, and Moravians cherished the holiday and honored it with church services as well as folk celebrations (see also Lovefeast America, Christmas in Colonial

and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas in). Like their English counterparts in the South, the pro-Christmas communities in New York and Pennsylvania ate and drank their way through the Christmas holiday. In addition, both the Dutch and the Germans brought a rich tradition of Christmas baking to this country, including the making of special Christmas cookies, such as gingerbread. In fact, the American English word "cookie" comes from the Dutch word koek, meaning "cake." This in turn gave rise to the term koekje, meaning "cookie" or "little cake."

German immigrants brought other Christmas customs with them as well. As early as the mid-eighteenth century Moravian communities in Pennsylvania were celebrating the day with Christmas pyramids. Other early German communities imported the beliefs and customs surrounding the German folk figures Christkindel and Knecht Ruprecht, whose gift-giving activities delighted children at Christmas time. Although the Germans probably also introduced the Christmas tree, no records of this custom can be found until the nineteenth century.

In addition to its large German population, Pennsylvania became home to many Scotch Irish and Quakers. Both the Scotch Irish, most of whom were Presbyterians, and the Quakers disapproved of Christmas celebrations in general. The Quakers adamantly opposed all raucous street revels, including those of German belsnickelers, mummers, and masqueraders of all kinds. In the nineteenth century, when Quakers dominated Philadelphia and Pennsylvania state government, they passed laws to prevent noisy merrymaking in the streets at Christmas time (see also America, Christmas in NineteenthCentury).

The German Christmas blended lively folk customs with devout religious observances. This combination eventually became typical of American Christmas celebrations. At least one researcher has concluded that increased immigration from the German-speaking countries in the second half of the eighteenth century profoundly influenced the American Christmas. The increasing number of Germans permitted their balanced approach to Christmas to spread among the wider population and so encouraged the festival to flourish in the United States.


The colonial American Christmas differed significantly from contemporary American Christmas celebrations. Many religious people completely ignored the day. Even after the founding of the United States no state recognized Christmas as a legal holiday. Those people who celebrated it anyway did so without Santa Claus, Christmas cards, Christmas trees, and elaborate Christmas morning gift exchanges. Instead, the most common ways to observe the holiday featured feasting, drinking, dancing, playing games, and engaging in various forms of public revelry. Although the colonies attracted people from many different countries, English, German, and Dutch settlers exercised the strongest influence on early American Christmas celebrations.

Further Reading

Barnett, James. The American Christmas. New York: Macmillan, 1954. Christmas in Colonial and Early America. Chicago: World Book, 1996. Kane, Harnett. The Southern Christmas Book. 1958. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1998. Lizon, Karen Helene. Colonial American Holidays and Entertainments. New York: Franklin Watts, 1993. Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Restad, Penne. Christmas in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Shoemaker, Alfred L. Christmas in Pennsylvania. Kutztown, Pa.: Pennsylvania Folklore Society, 1959. Snyder, Phillip. December 25th. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1985. Young, Joanne B. Christmas in Williamsburg. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. America, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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