Christmas is a great time to gather with family and friends and exchange gifts, eat, play games, and of course, to attend religious services to commemorate Christ’s birth. American Christmas celebrations are a mix of solemn worship and joyous playfulness. As we take a look back to colonial times, it may surprise us that today’s customs are very similar to early American traditions.
Ways We Celebrate the Season
-playing games and sports
GOING TO CHURCH
In colonial times, going to church on Christmas was expected. Even of you weren’t especially devout, going to church was an important way to participate in community life. Immigrants brought their customs with them, so it was typical to attend a solemn service followed by a boisterous party at a neighbor’s home. Christmas in Europe was marked by the contrast of solemn and silly gatherings.
According to the records kept at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, “religion played a significant part in the observance of the holiday at Mount Vernon as the Washingtons frequently attended church on Christmas day. In 1770, for example, Christmas fell on a Tuesday. After going to nearby Pohick Church in the morning, the family returned to Mount Vernon for dinner.”
Some communities put on a nativity play on Christmas. The nativity play is said to date back to Christmas Eve in 1223 when Saint Francis of Assisi performed a midnight mass in front of a life-size nativity scene. German Christmas Eve masses featured a children’s Krippenspiel, or crib play. Today, churches all over America put on children’s Christmas plays. My kids were in a few, and I’ll bet your kids have been in at least one.
In our previous post about Christmas food and drink, we talked about the social significance of putting on a lavish Christmas party feast. Everyone likes to eat and drink, and people also like to play. Life was hard in colonial times, and people looked forward to any type of break in their daily routines. Holidays gave colonists the perfect excuse to put aside their work, relax, and engage in activities for sheer enjoyment of them.
CHRISTMAS PARTY GAMES
Guests who gathered at colonial Christmas parties were offered plenty to eat and drink, and they were also entertained. Party guests could visit, play cards, and sing together. If the party lasted all day, the guests of all ages would play outdoor games and sports. Popular games included stoolball and pitching the bar. Stoolball was played by setting up a milking stool, and having a guest ‘guard’ it. An opponent would throw a ball at the stool, and try to hit it. The guard would try and bat the ball away to keep it from hitting the stool. Stoolball was very popular, and even the women were allowed to play. Many players were very competitive. As Sir Philip Sidney wrote in 1586:
“A time there is for all, my mother often sayes,
When she with skirts tuckt very hie, with gyrles at stoolball playes.”
Pitching the bar is a game that was brought by Scottish immigrants. Men would pick up a log or cut tree trunk and try to throw it as far as possible. Whoever could pitch the bar the farthest would win strongest man bragging rights. Playing games at Christmas was not always accepted. In 1621, Governor William Bradford of Massachusetts ordered the citizens of Plymouth to stop playing games on Christmas Day.
Such merry-making was considered wasteful and uncivilized behavior, and a citizen could be fined for participating.
Colonial party-goers also played football, or soccer, and there were even colonial houligans! Football matches were fiercely competitive, and often turned violent. This heritage of rowdy Christmas games was common among British settlers. Today, it’s our custom to watch football games on Christmas Day.
Americans are fascinated with our sports!
Another popular party activity was performed indoors: singing. After dinner, or between courses, guests would gather around the family’s piano, if they had one, and would begin to sing. I imagine that the singing got more boisterous as the wassail bowl was passed around. Here are some song lyrics that reveal a bit about the party atmosphere:
Christmas Day, a Song (circa 1700’s)
Play the Cards, and fill the Glasses,
Drink about, and Sing, and Play;
All the Lads, and all the Lasses,
Revel thus on Christmas Day.
Colonists made merry for the full 12 days of Christmas, which started Christmas Day. The twelve days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day, and end at Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. The final night often saw the colonists hosting the biggest, loudest parties of all.
WASHINGTON’S FOX HUNT
For George Washington, hunting and foxhunting, were among his favorite Christmas activities. Twice in 1768 and three times in both 1771 and 1773, George Washington went hunting with his guests between Christmas and Twelfth Night. The Washingtons preferred to spend the holiday with family and friends, and George and Martha frequently had guests over at Mount Vernon to celebrate Christmas.
Christmas in colonial times was surprisingly similar to our celebrations in modern times. The focus of Christmas then and now is faith, family, food and fun. I hope you’ve enjoyed this colonial Christmas series as we’ve looked back in time to discover how Americans celebrated this most holy day. I pray you will enjoy a blessed Christmas season with your family and friends.
Read the entire Colonial Christmas series:
Colonial Christmas Decorations
Colonial Christmas Food and Drink
Colonial Christmas Religious Worship
Don’t miss our Elf Week series. Bring Christmas peace and joy to your homeschool.