Colonial Christmas celebration customs were brought by the settlers from their home countries. English, Dutch and German customs provided familiarity in the New World. Many of these customs date back to ancient Europe. The Romans and Celts believed that holly had sacred powers, so it was a focal point of midsummer and Saturnalia celebrations. The use of holly was brought to America with European travelers.
EVERGREENS SYMBOLIZE HOPE
Many colonists used holly, mistletoe, and ivy to decorate their houses. They used evergreen to brighten up a drab home in the dark of winter by winding it around lamps, stairs, draping it on the mantle, the dining table and setting sprigs of holly in the window panes.
Holly was by far the most popular and inexpensive decoration. Evergreen plans and fruits were symbols of hope that the people would survive the dark, cold winter.
“With holly and ivy so green and so gay,
We deck up our houses as fresh as the day.”
JUST TRY TO STOP THEM
Early Christian leaders tried to put a stop to the pagan winter solstice rituals and decorating customs, but without much success. Many clergyman took the view that they should try and include some of the customs into Christian services. Their position was, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
In order to make the pagan symbolism of holly acceptable within the church, they said that the prickly holly leaves stood for Christ’s crown of thorns, and the berries were the drops of blood on Christ’s brow, and evergreen leaves symbolized eternal life.
THE FOUNDER OF THE FEAST
Depending on where you lived, the focus of the Christmas and winter season of festivities was on the lavishly decorated dining table. Loaded with food, the host and hostess would prepare special trays arranged in an artistic manner, and displayed in the richest manner possible. For the gentry class, social status depended on serving a large feast that was beautifully arranged. The expectation of the upper class hostess was for her to offer 20-30 different items per course. This large amount of food was not thought to be excessive.
DESSERT AS ART
The dessert table arrangement was the most important part of the feast. Large trays with cakes, fruit, and candies were laid out for the guests. Surprisingly, the looks of the desserts were considered more important than the taste of them.
A popular way to decorate a party table was to display animals or birds made of sugar or almond paste. Some fine families would hire the town baker to create Oriental pagodas or shrines out of cake or sugar. It was common for the gentry hostesses to use tiered trays with a pineapple on top to create a focal point for their table.
PINEAPPLE: A CHRISTIAN METAPHOR
Pineapple was a delicacy imported from the Caribbean, and was said to be a symbol of Christianity, because a pineapple plant must die to give life to the sweet and exotic fruit. The pineapple was used on fine buffet tables, and began to appear on wood carvings, stair finials, and outdoor architecture.
Instead of sugar and almond paste creations, the wealthy would use porcelain statues to decorate their tables. The ‘middling sort’ did the best they could to copy the table decor of the gentry. Shopkeepers did their best to stock their stores with copper molds and figurines of many different prices for the ladies of the town, and cookbooks with directions on setting a fine Christmas feast table.
Many Americans today lament the commercialization and the shallow trappings of the Christmas season. We tend to think we live in the worst of times. The mid 1700’s was a period of history characterized by conspicuous consumption and lavish feasting, just as many say we are tempted by today.
Colonial hostesses agonized over every detail of their grand parties to make sure to put on a feast that would help them move up the social ladder to a high status. Doesn’t that sound like us today? We want to put on a good party so that our friends will think well of us. Not much has changed in 250 years.
KEEPING TRADITIONS ALIVE
What family Christmas traditions have been handed down to you through your family line? Do you decorate in a certain manner, or cook certain foods that remind you of your childhood or ancestral home? As you find comfort in these traditions, think about the colonists who left the security and familiarity of their home countries, and came to America. No wonder they hung on to their ancient celebration customs.
Part 2 – Colonial Christmas Religious Worship
Part 3 – Food and Drink
Part 4 – (coming soon) Games and Entertainment