by Johnna McEntee
18th Century Christmas Traditions
For most of us in the 21st century, December is a month that is filled to the brim with holiday cheer. Parties, family get-togethers, decorations, music, shopping, stress—seems like there is more than enough of each to go around. In the 1700s though, the holiday season was quite different. Many of the traditions we consider so embedded in our culture actually came about in the mid to late 1800s: Santa Claus as we now know him, large amounts of gift-giving, and the popularity of a decorated Christmas tree just to name a few. This month, let’s dive into the holiday traditions of the 18th century.
Let’s start off by saying not everyone in Colonial America celebrated Christmas, not even all Christians celebrated Christmas in the 1700s—some colonies even banned the observance of December 25 as a special holiday.
In New England, Puritans and Calvinists considered the celebration of Christmas to be too similar to the Catholic pomp and idolatry that they
were trying to distance themselves PICTURE CAPTION: Arriving for Church Service Christmas Day, Ferris, J.L.G., 1783
from, or worse—too similar to the pagan rituals of the druids. The General Court of Massachusetts went so far as to outlaw celebrations in 1659. The celebration “of any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forebearing of labour, feasting, or any such way" would earn the offender a fine of five shillings per offense. At the same time in Connecticut, the Assembly there prohibited the typical celebrations of Christmas merriment: playing cards, playing musical instruments and making mince pies.
The dismissal of the Christmas holiday wasn’t relegated only to New England. The Quakers, who were fond of the Pennsylvania region, made quite an impression on Peter Kalm when he happened to be in their presence on Christmas in 1749. “The Quakers did not regard this day any more remarkable than other days. Stores were open, and anyone might sell or purchase what he wanted. . . .There was no more baking of bread for the Christmas festival than for other days; and no Christmas porridge on Christmas Eve! One did not seem to know what it meant to wish anyone a merry Christmas.”
Presbyterian missionary Philip Fithian wrote this of his visit to western Virginia on Christmas in 1775: “Christmas Morning--Not A Gun is heard--Not a Shout--No company or Cabal assembled--To Day is like other Days every Way calm & temperate-- People go about their daily Business with the same Readiness, & apply themselves to it with the same Industry.”
As time went on and more and more immigrants from Europe settled in New England, bringing with them their own holiday traditions, the laws banning Christmas were eventually lifted. However, it wasn’t until 1856 that Christmas was made an “official” holiday in New England.
- For the rest of this article, we’ll talk about the 18th century Christmas celebrations of Anglicans, Lutherans, Moravians and Roman Catholics. Both the religious and secular observances by these communities could be witnessed in New York, parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland and the South. -
For the Anglicans, the season began with the start of Advent, or the four-week period before Christmas that marked the beginning of the Christian liturgical year. In the 18th century, one observed Advent by attending religious services, praying, and sometimes fasting during the time of reflection before the coming of Christ.
Both churches and homes donned some decorations for the festive season. They usually consisted of evergreens, or plants that still had colorful berries or blossoms during the winter months. Holly and mistletoe were favorites right alongside evergreens.
It was popular to arrange greenery into wreaths and sprays for decoration. The British had long tied up rough boughs of holly to bring into their homes during the Christmas season. The evergreen bough served as the most commonplace household decoration—until the popularization of the Christmas tree by Prince Albert in Victorian England.
Mistletoe was also a popular sight in 18th century homes. The hanging of mistletoe came from the druid belief that the plant warded off evil spirits and promised the fertility of a coming spring. Large clusters arranged in balls and tied with ribbons were a major focal point in colonial homes. Plain sprigs of holly or bay leaves were also displayed in windows, most likely by
PICTURE CAPTION: Settling The Affairs of the Nation, Bowles & Carver,1775. Notice the mistletoe hanging from the ceiling, the wreaths on the door and the evergreen cuttings in the windowpanes.
displaying the plants stems between the glass panes and the wood sashes.
Churches were also festively bedecked for the holidays. A Swedish visitor to Philadelphia on Christmas in 1749 wrote this of his visit to a local church: “Three sermons were preached there, and that which contributed most to the splendor of the ceremony was the beautiful music heard to-day. . . . Pews and altar were decorated with branches of mountain laurel, whose leaves are green in winter time and resemble the cherry laurel.”
Speaking of music, the singing and playing of traditional carols and contemporary hymns were heard throughout the Christmas season in the 18th century. The most popular hymns were written by Isaac Watts, including the still well-loved “Joy to the World.” Some of the 18th century carols that are still popular today include “The First Noel”, The Holly and the Ivy,” “The Coventry Carol,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “I Saw Three Ships”, to name a few.
Traditional carols were not sung during church services, however, congregations would celebrate by singing songs based on the Psalter. It was also popular for Anglican clergymen to write their own Christmas hymns for their congregations to enjoy.
And, what would Christmas be without the presents? Well, gift-giving was not as big of a Christmas tradition in the 1700s as it is today, and the gift-giving was one-sided. Masters would bestow small gifts to their subordinates, parents to their children, and sometimes slave-owners to their slaves, but the lower classes or dependents would never give a gift to a superior. Like today, contemporary shops would place advertisements in their shop windows and in newspapers outlining goods perfect for holiday giving; little books, candies, even cash tips were typical gifts.
A version of the Christmas card started to be printed in large cities like London and New York, but the card as we know it was invented in the 1800s. Other popular Christmas traditions that started in America during the 18th century was the Dutch idea of Sinter Klass (Saint Nicholas, who, when combined with the English concept of Father Christmas brought about the modern notion of Santa Claus), the filling of shoes with candy and small presents (which eventually gave way to hanging stockings), the candlelight church service and the Putz, or nativity scene.
The Christmas season was eagerly anticipated for the grand events that seemed to happen in quick succession during that time of year, as written by Mr. Philip Fithians in 1773: “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.”
The Christmas feasts were something to behold. Winter was the time of the slaughter, so meats of every kind were in great abundance. Those cities near the ocean also enjoyed seafood at Christmas. Mincemeat pies were also a favorite. Because it was out-of-season for most fruits and vegetables, colonists would eat what had been preserved at the end of harvest. Cakes, special jellies and brandied fruit like peaches would round out the meal. And, of course, don’t forget the drinks! Wassail was always a Christmas staple, as were rum punches and the ever-present wine and brandy.
PICTURE CAPTION: A Christmas Eve Ball at Mount Vernon, Ferris, J.L.G., 1798
Contrary to today’s notion that Christmas activities are or are usually centered around children, 18th century Christmas and Twelve Day celebrations were mainly geared toward adults. Children would not be welcome at fox hunts, and in most cases were cordially invited not to attend balls or holiday parties. It seems that the adults embraced the season as a way to “make merry” away from their kids.
Christmas was celebrated on December 25, but it wasn’t the end of the holidays—not by a long shot. For the Anglicans, four more holy days were celebrated, including The Feast of the Epiphany twelve days after Christmas, and The Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary forty days after Christmas.
The twelve days between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 are what we know as “the twelve days of Christmas.” Because Christmas Day in the 1700s didn’t have the same connotation that it does today, with Santa Claus and his sleigh of gifts, and presents under the tree and the excesses of the 21st century, our ancestors viewed Christmas as the beginning of the celebration and extended their festivities for next full twelve days. Join us next month as we explore the splendor of 18th century Twelfth Night!