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“THE AMERICAN CHRISTMAS BEGINNINGS”

Although Christmas is over, the festive atmosphere will linger for several days.  So, today’s blog is a look back at “Christmases from Early America”. The modern holiday is far different from those celebrated in the early American Christmas celebrations.  This brief excerpt from an article written for the Colonial Williamsburg Journal gives us some idea about “the good old days”…..

Englishmen who came to the American colonies brought along their cultural traditions. In dress,

manners, and social behavior, Virginia settlers tried to recreate the ambiance they had known back home. Their Christmas, like the English manors’, evolved as an interval of leisure to enjoy feasting, visiting, dancing, and games. Even in Virginia’s critical early days, the settlers did not forget Christmas. Captain John Smith wrote in 1609 that he kept “Christmas amongst the Salvages: where wee were never more merrie, nor fedde on more plentie of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild fowle, and good bread, nor better fires in England then in the drie warme smokie houses of Kecoughtan.” Kecoughtan is now part of Hampton.

During the Christmas season of 1680, a French traveler accompanied by about 20 others, visited the Virginia home of William Fitzhugh where: “There was good wine and all kinds of beverages, so there was a great deal of carousing.” Fitzhugh provided for entertainment “three fiddlers, a jester, a tight-rope walker, and an acrobat who tumbled around.”

Not all English settlers celebrated Christmas. The New England Puritans declared the observation of Christmas illegal. Throughout the Christian world, ways of keeping Christmas have varied over the years and from place to place.  Some Christian groups banned the celebration altogether, others have kept the holiday as a purely religious celebration, and still others incorporated traditions from pagan practices.

The legacy of the holiday brought to America is ambiguous. As one historian has written: “Christians had wrestled with questions of if, when, and how to celebrate Jesus’ birth. As a commemoration of the miracle that established the Godly paternity of Jesus, Christmas was a celebration of the event upon which the existence of Christianity depended.”

Viewing birthday celebrations as heathen, the earliest Christians paid little attention to Jesus’ birth. It is not known exactly when the church began to celebrate Christmas. The first extant reference is dated 336 when the Roman Church began to celebrate a Feast of the Nativity on December 25th. By observing Jesus’ birthday on that day, pagan traditions associated with the winter solstice—wassail bowls and the use of holly and other evergreens for decoration—came to be incorporated in the celebration.

The Christmas custom spread to England by the end of the 6th century and later reached Scandinavia where it became fused with the pagan Norse mid-winter feast season known as Yule. In the 9th century, during the reign of King Alfred, the Christmas celebration was extended by 12 days, ending on Epiphany, January 6th. Early in the 11th century the term “Christes maesse”, or “festival of Christ”, entered the English language, and early in the next century Christmas had come into use. Though it bothered church officials, vestiges of pagan merriment remained a part of Christmas celebrations. Some prayed that “sacred would overtake profane as pagans gave up their revels and turned to Christianity.” But merry-making and feasting remained the most popular ways to celebrate Christmas in England.  (Taken from CW JOURNAL : AUTUMN 99 : CHRISTMAS IN COLONIAL VIRGINIA, Harold Gill, a retired Colonial Williamsburg historian, contributed two stories about Williamsburg’s founding to the April/May journal.