Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Here We Come A-Wassailing: Christmas in Colonial America (Here for the Holidays)

History lovers can experience 'Christmastide in Virginia' at Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution at Yorktown museums this holiday season. (WYDaily/ Courtesy of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation)
Traditions for Christmas in Colonial Virginia differed from those celebrated today (Courtesy of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation)

HISTORIC TRIANGLE — Every year residents and visitors alike flock to the Historic Triangle to take a peak at the charm and holiday joy that has permeated in Virginia’s Colonial Capital for centuries. However, what was the holiday season truly like for those living in the original thirteen British colonies? Today, we’re going to take a closer look into what this grandest of grand time of year for our early American forefathers.

Historians agree that many of the Christmas traditions as we know it today was derived from several other traditions including the Germanic festival of Yule and the Ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia. All of these include gaming, drinking, exchanging of presents, people wearing costumes, and decorating homes with greenery. These traditions were eventually adapted to fit the needs of the converted Christian base in the British Isles.

Christmas in New England and Middle Colonies

The holiday traditions in the American colonies varied as to where one was living. For example, during certain timeframes throughout the Colonial Era, Christmas celebrations were illegal in parts of New England due to its largely Puritan-based population, who did not recognize the revelry due to its roots in pagan festivities.

In the Delaware Valley region, there was a cornucopia of traditions and backgrounds brought to the colonies due to William Penn’s stance on religious freedoms. Colonists in this area would celebrate the Swedish and Norwegian holiday of St. Lucia just before Christmas while those that came from German roots would put up Christmas trees, make pretzels, and even those Christmas cookies that we know and love today.

With the mixture of Christian sects and heritages that existed throughout the Middle Colonies, it was pretty universal that the Moravians, Christians, and Roman Catholics celebrated Christmas with a mix of religious and secular traditions and observances.

Christmas in Colonial Virginia

The Southern colonies were comprised of mostly those who brought Anglican traditions with them to the New World, particularly in Virginia’s Tidewater. While early Virginians had many of the same traditions as other areas such as going to church, hanging of the greens, dancing, visiting with loved ones, and a special meal, there were still differences in the way they celebrated versus what is considered mainstream celebrations today.

During Advent (or a period of time leading up to Christmas), Anglican Virginians would see this as a time of reflection, prayer, piety, and devotion to faith. Fasting or eating only one meal a day, endless prayers and liturgy were commonplace for the time leading to the special holiday.

After the period of intense religious and spiritual focus, the joy that comes with Christmas was much welcomed to the Virginia Colonists.

A member of the colonial community would be designated the “Lord of Misrule,” who would dress in green and yellow garb and lead the colonists in Christmas celebrations.

Elaborate meals were planned for Christmas Day; in wealthy households, consisting for seven or eight courses. Often found on these dinner tables were oysters, crab, roast beef, smoked ham (a southeastern Virginia staple), roasted vegetables, cornbread, pies, puddings, and tarts.

While wreaths and greenery adorned the homes, the tradition of a Christmas tree hadn’t yet hit the colonies. Additionally, neither was good ol’ St. Nick. However, this did not stop the gift-giving to children and, additionally, certain servants.

Another favorite tradition amongst Colonial Virginians was that of wassailing. This strange sounding word, derived from the Old Norse phrase ves heil is translated to “be in good health.” For the first Virginians, a wassail bowl (much like a modern day punch bowl) was taking to through the streets, door to door, offering a warm drink and a merry song for neighbors. While wassail itself refers to the concoction taken in the bowl, the concept of wassailing is the predecessor to caroling. In fact, the Christmas tune we know as “Here We Come A-Caroling” finds its origin in “Here We Come A-Wassailing.”

While the recipe for wassail differs, there are a few common elements: apple cider, hard liquor, brandy, or wine and spices such as cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. For Colonial Williamsburg’s wassail recipe, click here.

This year when celebrating Christmas, do it like the Colonial Virginians: nominate a Lord of Misrule, hang your greenery, and take your wassail bowl door-to-door to bring in the cheer of the season.

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