Williamsburg, Virginia, Christmas in Colonial

Williamsburg, Virginia, Christmas in Colonial

The town of Williamsburg became the capital of colonial Virginia in 1699. In colonial times the town was the site of important political, social, and cultural events. When Richmond became the capital of Virginia in 1780, Williamsburg's importance declined. In 1926 John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), a wealthy philanthropist, decided to renovate or rebuild many of the town's eighteenth-century buildings. The result was an historic zone of 120 colonial-style buildings that has become a major tourist attraction. Visitors during the Christmas season can enjoy many elements of a colonial Christmas in Virginia, including accommodations furnished in the style of the eighteenth century, special concerts, colonial-style Christmas feasts, bonfires, fireworks, and tours of the Christmas decorations of the historic district.

Christmas in Colonial Virginia

In colonial times, American Christmas celebrations varied considerably from region to region (see also America, Christmas in Colonial). These differences stemmed from the religious affiliation of the foremost religious or ethnic group in the region. While the stern Puritans that dominated much of New England frowned on the celebration of Christmas, the many Christmas-loving Anglicans who made their homes in Virginia relished the holiday. In Puritan-governed communities Christmas was treated like any other work day, but in Williamsburg and much of the rest of Virginia, Christmas kicked off the start of a merry season of feasts, parties, weddings, and relaxation (see also Twelve Days of Christmas).

Before Christmas

Devout Anglicans observed Advent, a period of spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ, in the weeks preceding Christmas. The Williamsburg,Virginia, Christmas in Colonial

very observant among them fasted, consuming only one full meal a day. They also meditated on their own shortcomings and on the biblical passages concerning the birth of Jesus and the second coming of Christ. The less observant found their thoughts drifting to the coming pleasures of Christmas. A week before Christmas in the year 1773, Philip Fithian, a young man who served as a tutor to the children of wealthy Virginia planter Robert Carter, wrote in his diary:

Nothing is now to be heard of in conversation, but the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments, and the good fellowship, which are to be exhibited at the approaching Christmas [Lewis and Young, 1970, 12].

Many shared these preoccupations. In 1766 the Virginia Almanack of 1766 warbled:

Now Christmas comes, 'tis fit that we Should feast and sing, and merry be: Keep open house, let fidlers play, A fig for cold, sing care away; And may they who thereat repine, On brown bread and on small beer dine [Lewis and Young, 1970, 26].

Feasts and Parties

For well-to-do Virginians the holiday season revolved around festive meals and parties. Foods available to colonial Virginians at Christmas time included turkeys and other wild game, ham and other kinds of farm-raised meat, oysters, bread, corn, winter vegetables like potatoes and turnips, dried fruit, and preserved fruits and summer vegetables. Fresh and candied fruit, puddings, and cakes were favorite holiday desserts (see Plum Pudding and Christmas Cakes). Virginians washed down these foods with wine, liquor, beer, or other alcoholic beverages like hard cider, rum punch, and eggnog.

Perhaps more important than the food was the opportunity to socialize. Family reunions, visits with friends and relatives, and parties both large and small were the hallmarks of the season. Perhaps because newcomers often brought word of new ideas and events in far-off places, hostesses were eager for strangers to join friends and family members in their celebrations. In 1746 the London Magazine applauded the open-handed Christmas celebrations of colonial Virginians:

All over the Colony, an universal Hospitality reigns, full Tables and open Doors, the kind Salute, the generous detention. . . . Strangers are fought after with Greediness, as they pass the Country, to be invited [Christmas in Colonial and Early Ameri-ca, 1996, 12].

Music making and dancing were important activities at these holiday get-togethers. Philip Fithian bears witness to Virginians' love for Christmas-time dancing with a journal entry from December of 1773:

After Breakfast, we all retired into the Dancing-Room. . . . There were several Minuets danced with great ease and propriety; after which the whole company Joined in countrydances, and it was indeed beautiful to admiration, to see such a number of young persons, set off by dress to the best Advantage, moving easily, to the sound of well performed Music, and with perfect regularity, tho' apparently in the utmost Disorder - The Dance continued til two, we dined at half after three - soon after Dinner we repaired to the Dancing-Room again . . . [until] it grew too dark to dance [Oliver and Theobald, 1999, 20].

Christmas parties might include the singing of Christmas carols as well as instrumental music for dancing. People welcomed Christmas morning with all sorts of noisemaking activities. Virginians, like many other southerners, shot off guns and banged on pots and pans to usher in the holiday (see also Shooting in Christmas).

Marriage and Romance

The Christmas season, especially the period between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night, was a time associated with weddings and romance. Several famous early American couples from Virginia wed at this time of year. Future first president George Washington (17321799) and his bride, Martha Dandridge Custis (1732-1802), married on January 6, 1759. In 1782 Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who later Williamsburg,Virginia, Christmas in Colonial

became the third president of the United States, married Martha Wayles Skelton (1748-1782) on New Year's Day.

Slaves and Free Blacks

Slaveowners generally gave their slaves a few days off at Christmas time (see also Slaves' Christmas). In addition to the slaves, Williamsburg was home to many free blacks who worked in the skilled trades or as laborers. Indeed, historical research suggests that African Americans, both slave and free, comprised over half the population of Williamsburg.

Men, Women, Children, and Gifts

Well-to-do men often rode out to hunt on Christmas morning while women supervised the preparation of the Christmas feast. In colonial Virginia, Christmas was more of an adult holiday than a children's festival. No special activities were planned to entertain children and few parents gave their offspring gifts. Instead, as was the custom in that age, gifts were given to social inferiors to thank them for their service over the past year. Some tradesmen observed the custom of Christmas boxing (see Boxing Day), and most slave masters gave gifts to their slaves. Some people gave small gifts to family members and close friends on New Year's Day. George Washington, one of the colony's wealthiest men, proved an exception to these gift-giving rules. In 1759 he recorded the fact that he bought the following items as presents for his stepchildren: a bird on bellows, a cuckoo, a turnabout parrot, a grocers shop, an aviary, a Prussian dragoon, a man smoking, six small books for children, six pocket handkerchiefs, and other toys.

Christmas Decorations

In colonial times Virginians decked the insides of their homes and churches with greenery. They made garlands of evergreens which they strung along banisters and railings, and wrapped around pillars. At home ropes of greenery might dangle from the fireplace mantel. In addition, some pressed sprigs of holly against their window panes, or displayed bouquets of holly and other winter greenery on their tables. They might also strew their homes with herbs, such as rosemary, bay (or laurel), lavender, and rose petals, in order to give rooms a fresh scent. Boys often shot down boughs of mistletoe from high tree branches so that it could be fashioned into kissing boughs and other ornaments. The making of these decorations was usually women's work.

Christmas in Contemporary Williamsburg

In 1934, after the partial restoration of colonial Williamsburg had been completed, some residents of the historic district began to decorate their homes, inside and out. The practice grew and flourished year after year. Now tourists have become accustomed to seeing wreaths featuring fresh fruit and other colorful, natural materials on the front doors of Williamsburg homes and shops. The first wreaths of this kind were created by historical researcher Louise Fisher, who was inspired by the designs of Italian Renaissance sculptor Luca della Robbia (1400-1482) and also by the work of English artist Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). Della Robbia's garlands and wreaths included natural garnishes, such as lemons, apples, and pine cones. Fisher knew these natural materials to be available in the eighteenth century and began to produce front door wreaths along these designs. Soon all Williamsburg followed suit, and from there this style of wreath began to spread across the country. Some people know them as Williamsburg-style wreaths, while others call them Della Robia wreaths.

In 1937 the first contest for front door wreaths and decorations took place. Soon homeowners began to vie for the prestigious blue ribbon affixed to the most charming Williamsburg-style doorway decorations. The cash prize donated by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation also tempted homeowners to participate. In response to interest from tourists, a popular Christmas decorations tour of the historic district was launched in 1969.

In recent years, concerned that contemporary doorway decorations may be giving tourists the wrong impression, colonial Williamsburg officials have begun to publicize the fact that there is no historical evidence that colonial Virginians decorated the outside of their homes at all at Christmas time. Moreover, historians agree that they Williamsburg,Virginia, Christmas in Colonial

would never have wasted fruit, a relatively rare and precious item, especially in the winter, on outdoor or indoor decorations of any kind. Sometimes colonial hostesses arranged fruit into a pyramid and set it at the center of their buffet table, where it served both as a colorful table decoration and as dessert.

Residents of colonial Williamsburg also developed the tradition of placing a lighted candle in their window during the Christmas season (see also Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas in; Christmas Candles; Ireland, Christmas in). Historians give a cool nod of approval to this custom, since colonists did put candles in their windows to honor a royal anniversary of some kind or a military victory. They didn't, however, light these candles at Christmas time. Nevertheless, contemporary residents of the town see the practice as a compromise between the demands of historical accuracy and their own desire to observe the modern custom of lighting up one's home for Christmas. Nowadays a ceremony called the Grand Illumination, which takes place in early December, kicks off the season of candlelit windows in Williamsburg. In the past the ceremony has included the singing of Christmas carols and a procession through the historical district led by a fife and drum corps, as well as a group of men in colonial costumes representing the night watch. As the procession passes each home, family members light their candles. The procession continues until the windows of the historical district twinkle with candles.

Beginning in 1957 Christmas celebrations in colonial Williamsburg have also included fireworks displays. Although colonists exploded fireworks in celebration of successful military campaigns and in honor of a monarch's birthday, they did not use them at Christmas time. Again, the use of Christmas fireworks in colonial Williamsburg represents a compromise between historical accuracy and the desire to celebrate. Special bonfires, another authentic colonial custom, also light up the night skies at Christmas time.

Further Reading

Christmas in Colonial and Early America. Chicago: World Book, 1996. Kainen, Ruth Cole. America's Christmas Heritage. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1969. Lewis, Jr., Taylor Biggs, and Joanne B. Young. Christmas in Williamsburg. Williamsburg, Va.: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1970. Oliver, Libbey Hodges, and Mary Miley Theobald. Williamsburg Christmas. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1999. Weaver, William Woys. The Christmas Cook. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

Web Sites

"Another Look at Christmas in the Eighteenth Century," an article by David DeSimone, assistant manager of religious studies and programs in the Department of Trades/Presentations and Tours at Colonial Williamsburg (originally published in The Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter 16, 4 (winter 1995-96):

"Christmas Customs," an article by Emma L. Powers, an historian in Colonial Williamsburg's Department of Research (originally published in TheColonial Williamsburg Interpreter 16, 4 (winter 1995-96): . org/Almanack/life/xmas/customs.htm

"Colonial Williamsburg Activities and Programs," a page sponsored by American Park Network: cw/activities.html
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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