“At Christmas play and make cheer
For Christmas comes but once a year”
I’m starting the baking. Now when it comes to food, I should have been living in Colonial America. I hate store bought items, and try to use what we gardened or gathered as much as possible. We use apples we “borrowed” from our next door neighbor for pies, along with saskatoons and blueberries we gathered from the bush. Our vegetables are from the garden. We get our turkey from a friend who has a farm (whom we graciously and generously allow to kill and clean the thing, too, before bringing it home). One year I had the unmitigated gall to use store bought pie crust because I was running out of time and had the whole family coming! Oh, the shame of it, according to my sons. It was ten years ago, and my oldest still asks me “Is it YOUR pie?” I have to listen to a tirade of how awful store bought crust is almost every year, so I won't be making that mistake again.
When I think how we celebrate Christmas here in Canada, while we write Book 2 of our Sons of Liberty series, I go back to how they celebrated the holidays in Revolutionary America. In the process of researching for our novel for Book 1, "No Gentleman Is He", which is set in spring and summer of 1775 when hostilities broke out between colonialists and Crown, I found a few interesting facts about how Christmas was celebrated, or more accurately, how it was not.
In fact, many colonial celebrations were banned, including Christmas, claiming it was a pagan tradition based on Old English religions. In New England, the Puritans passed a law, particularly in Massachusetts, that punished anyone who observed the holiday. The Quakers merely ignored it. The other denominations went to church services, and that was the extent of their celebrations.
It was the Roman Catholics and Anglicans, mostly in the southern areas of America, who started the observance of Twelfth Day, which started on December 25 and usually ended January 6. As the traditions slowly migrated north through the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, it was a perfect excuse for the adults to get out of their homes and socialize, attending balls and parties and any other festivals that were an excuse to escape the harsh weather in the northern most climate of America. The children were relegated to the home fires in the care of elder siblings or servants, having very little consideration at Christmas. There was no Christmas magic for them,and no Santa Claus.
Some of the traditions we have today originated with the colonialists. Holly, laurel, and garland because of the availability of the materials. They also look good during the winter, providing greenery in the dull of the short winter days. Mistletoe was hung, according to the pagan belief of couples courting and spooning underneath it. In that, the Puritans had it right.
The wealthier plantations were elaborately decorated with large feasts readied for everyone, even the slaves. The food was similar in many ways to modern Christmas's, including ham, turkey or roasts, along with root vegetables which kept well all winter. Honey, nuts and apples were used to sweeten the pastries. It was a source of pride to put on as expansive a feast as money would allow, for that was how each plantation’s hospitality and prestige was measured.
Of course, Christmas trees were not part of a colonial Christmas, since it was a Germanic tradition that did not come to popularity until Queen Victoria adapted it from her German husband, Albert. He brought it from his homeland. Soon, all of England and most of Canada adapted the tree as part of their Christmas. It was quickly embraced by America in the late 1800’s.
Christmas carols were sung and were mostly religious in word. “Joy to the World” was extremely popular in America, based on many historical records and letters found during this time. Gift giving was also traditional for those who celebrated, but not as we give them today. Gifts were given to dependents, such as servants, apprentices and slaves, and in prosperous households, the children. It does seem the children were often afterthoughts, doesn’t it? And the dependents never gave gifts in return, nor was it an elaborate procedure. They would receive one special gift which were treasured and valued much more than they are today.
As more and more immigrants came to America, their traditions were often adopted and integrated into their own household celebrations.
The research I’ve done has inspired my interest in Colonial Christmas holiday traditions. I am especially interested in recipes and food traditions. Do you have any traditions that hark back to your heritage?
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