On Christmas Eve in America, we can find worshipers in candlelit churches, singing carols and glorifying God for sending his Son, Jesus. Afterward, most of us return home to eat, spend time with family, and perhaps open a present or two.
Where did these traditions start? Did our Colonial ancestors gather on Christmas to mark the birth of Christ?
Just as immigrants brought their old world midwinter decorating customs with them to the New World, they also brought different Christian worship customs.
The very first Christmas celebrations in North America is said to have been held in the oldest American town, St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. The service was officiated by a Spanish father at a mission there. Catholic priests are well known for maintaining church rituals everywhere they lived.
The Pilgrims were very devout Christian Protestants, so you might think that they would definitely want to celebrate Christ’s birth. Wrong! The Pilgrims did not celebrate Christmas, or any other holidays. Church leaders believed that since these celebrations were not commanded by Scripture, and because drinking and ‘improper behavior’ usually accompanied the feast days, they simply treated Christmas like any other work day.
In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts forbade the observance “of any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forebearing of labour, feasting, or any such way.” Violators would be fined five shillings. Since a law was needed to discourage Christmas celebrations, it was very likely that a great number of Massachusetts residents would have celebrated Christmas had it not been illegal.
RELIGIOUS DENOMINATIONS DICTATED CELEBRATIONS
The Colonial Protestant majority avoided Christmas as ‘Popish’. Due to past persecution at the hands of the Catholic Church in their home countries, they wanted to avoid any custom that resembled Catholicism, which they had come to American to escape.
Anglicans (Church of England) and Catholics celebrated Christmas with old world customs. At first, the Presbyterians did not care much for celebrating Christmas, but when they saw most of their members going to the Anglican Church on that day, they also started to have services.
German immigrants mixed devout church services with parties and feasting – this seemed a good balance, and this mix of the two characterizes our current day Christmas celebrations.
CHRISTMAS IN NEW YORK AND PENNSYLVANIA
Mennonites, Brethren, and Amish rejected Christmas observances, but Lutherans, Reformed, Roman Catholics, and Moravians honored Christmas.
Swede, Peter Kalm, while visiting Philadelphia commented:
“Nowhere was Christmas Day
celebrated with more solemnity than in the Roman 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).”
It’s likely that the Protestants viewed the elaborate Catholic services as an early form of ‘the commercialization of Christmas’.
CHRISTMAS IN VIRGINIA, MARYLAND AND THE CAROLINAS
Anglicans went to church on Christmas, but it was not the focus of the day. Anglicans had brought English Christmas customs with them to the New World, and everyone looked forward to these boisterous activities: feasting, games, hunting, sports, drinking, and dancing. Anglicans loved their large parties.
On the other extreme were the Calvinist Puritans and Protestants who saw the whole thing as Popish revelry.
Singing was a popular way to pass the time at parties, and Christmas was no different.
There were a few hymns, but often the Anglican clergy composed their own hymns for special holidays like Christmas. The most enduring hymn that was popular in colonial America was Joy to the World, written by Isaac Watts of Virginia during the 1760s.
Christmas carols and hymns that we know today became popular in the 1800’s
Besides going to church (or not, as the case was) there were many other Christmas customs that were brought to the New World.
One of the more controversial midwinter custom was mummering, or masquerading. Mummerers would go in ‘guise’ to parties, or through the streets, and would make merry or mischief, under cover. The disguised party-goers often drank too much and got into trouble by playing pranks on their neighbors. This impious behavior led to laws prohibiting public drunkenness or going about being loud.
The Dutch and the Germans loved to celebrate Christmas, and we can thank them for giving us the tradition of a family focused Christmas. The Dutch would attend Christian church services, then make a very large meal with special dishes. Parents had a custom of putting small gifts in the children’s wooden shoes. Over time, hanging and filling a stocking replaced the wooden shoes.
Today, Americans begin the Christmas season the day after Thanksgiving, but in Colonial days, those who celebrated Christmas, did so much later. The Christmas season to them was 12 days of Christmas beginning on December 25, and ending January 6. December 25 marked Christ’s birth, and January 6 marked the Epiphany of Christ. Legend has it that the odd lyrics for the Twelve Days of Christmas comes from the parties and strange gifts of those days long ago, but still others say that the Lords a’Leaping and Maids a’Milking were just ways to teach kids to count.
An old world Christmas custom still honored in America today comes from the area along the border lands between England and Scotland, and this custom was still observed decades after being abandoned in other regions of the British Isles – “Old Christmas”. Old Christmas is said to be January 5 or 6, and that December 25 is manmade. Old Christmas is still celebrated in parts of Appalachia, and the North Carolina highlands.
Religious differences in the Old World had driven many to America to worship in their own way. When they arrived, they often found that those same religous differences were a part of life in the New World as well. But the fascinating thing about immigrants to America is that over time, they learned new ways of accommodating each other’s beliefs without resorting to bloodshed.
Americans discovered new ways to take the best Christmas celebration ideas, and turn them into truly blessed Colonial American Christmas celebrations.
Part 1 – Colonial Christmas Decorations
Part 3 – Food and Drink
Part 4 (coming soon) – Games and Entertainment