Winter Tea Party winners: Angela's book,THE SCARLET COAT, will go to: Print copy- Andrea Stephens; e-book copy - Catherine Wight!

LUCY REYNOLDS has a table topper quilt on the way, and winners of the Valentine Ebook Collection are: Deanna Stevens, Caryl Kane, Anne Payne and Winnie Thomas. With thanks to all who joined in!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Re-creating a Historical Christmas

One very cold Christmas during the Revolution...image by Wikipedia
Writing about Christmas in the backcountry of North Carolina (now east Tennessee) for my first novella, Defending Truth in A Pioneer Christmas Collection, held the challenge of creating that "Christmasy" feel for modern readers while absolutely respecting the probable opinions and practices of the time and region. What a contrast to the highly commercial affair the holiday has become in our own time!

Previous posts, especially this excellent one on colonial Christmases by Lori Benton, have covered how Christmas itself was a modest affair in the colonial era, with most of the focus on parties and church attendance. Often the celebrations continued through the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany, culminating in "Twelfth Night" on January.

Certain religious groups and denominations celebrated with far less fervor than others. How much, or even whether one celebrated. also differed across social strata and region. In the western reaches of the colonies, there tended to be no celebration at all, at least not in contrast with those in the east. The Colonial Williamsburg Official History site on their page, Another Look at Christmas in the Eighteenth Century, comments,

One notable exception to the Christmas Day in 1775 must have been a great disappointment for the Presbyterian missionary, Philip Fithian. A year earlier he had experienced the finest of Virginia Christmases the residence of Robert Carter, Nomini Hall. But in 1775, Fithian toiled as a missionary in the western counties of Virginia among the Scotch and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. The following is part of his diary entry for December 25:

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.

Could it be that settlers felt the need to keep things "calm & temperate" because of the almost constant threat of Indian attack?

The site goes on to say:

Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Moravians celebrated the traditional Christmas season with both religious and secular observances. These celebrations in eighteenth- century America were observed by the aforementioned communities in cities such as New York and Philadelphia, in the Middle Atlantic colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, and in the South. 


Some of the differences can be chalked up to denominational practice. Scotch-Irish Presbyterians tended to regard any sort of Christmas observance as papist and thus worse than heathen, a perversion of the purity of God’s word. The Presbyterian Heritage Center site states:

Presbyterians have not always celebrated Christmas. 

Separating themselves from the Roman Catholic Church practices, Protestant Reformation leaders were generally critical of the existing “feast and saint days” of the Catholic Church.

The celebration of Christmas became a point of contention among many Protestants. Reformation leader Martin Luther permitted the celebration of certain feast days, including Christmas. Other reformers, including John Calvin and John Knox, preferred to worship only where specifically commanded in the Bible.

The Quakers likewise ignored the holiday:

On Dec. 25, 1749, Finnish-Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm (believed to be pictured below) was in Philadelphia. He made the following observation in his diary: “Christmas Day.... 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!”

Kalm went on to note that: “One did not seem to know what it meant to wish anyone a merry Christmas.... first the Presbyterians did not care much for celebrating Christmas, but when they saw most of their members going to the English (Anglican) church on that day, they also started to have services.”
It's fascinating to me to see how customs differed, and how they changed over the years.

What is a Christmas custom you'd like to see brought back? Anything you think is best left in the past?


4 comments:

  1. Great post, Shannon. Then, as today, there was diversity in the celebration of Christmas. I'm betting the Robert Carter mentioned was one of the Shirley Plantation Carters! Can't wait to go out there in a week or so and see it decorated for Christmas!

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    1. Ah, that sounds so fun, Carrie! Wish I could join you!! And yes, the diversity of customs is amazing. :-)

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  2. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing!

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