Monday, December 5, 2011

Colonial Christmas Traditions: Part 1

“At Christmas play and make cheer
For Christmas comes but once a year”

Well, the tree is up, though in my opinion it’s much too early. However, my youngest son is home for a month from his assisted living facility, and he wanted the tree up and helped me decorate. When my children beg, it works wonders on this “Mother from Hell”; boosts the ego, you know.

I’m also starting the baking. Now when it comes to baking, I should have been living in the Colonial America times, I suppose. I hate store bought items, and try to use what we gardened or gathered as much as possible. We use the apples we “borrowed” from our next door neighbor for pies, along with saskatoons and blueberries we gathered from the bush, and our vegetables from the garden for Christmas dinner. We even get our turkey from a friend who has a farm (whom we graciously and generously allow to kill and clean the thing, too, before bringing it home). One year, when I was sick but still had the family coming for Xmas, I had the unmitigated gall to use store bought pie crust! Oh, the shame of it, according to my sons. It was ten years ago, and my oldest still asks me “Is it YOUR pie?” Of course, being the smart ass I am, I quip back “If I bought it, you bet it’s mine!” Then I have to listen to a tirade of how awful store bought crust is, blah, blah, blah. I finally inform him that yes indeed, I did make the pie, and the crust, and yes the blueberries are wild, etc. just to shut him up. I will never live down that one year that I tried to cop out.

When I think of how we celebrate Christmas here in Canada, which is basically the same as in the United States with a few slight differences, I go back to how they celebrated the holidays back in pre-Revolutionary America, and even for a short time after the war ended. In the process of researching for our novel, which is set in spring and summer of 1775 when hostilities broke out between colonialists and Crown, I found a few very interesting facts about how Christmas was celebrated, or more accurately, how it wasn’t.

In fact, many colonial celebrations were banned, including Christmas, claiming it was a pagan tradition based on Old English religions. In New England, the Puritans passed a law, particularily in Massachusetts, that punished anyone who observed the holiday, and the Quakers merely ignored it. The other denominations just went to church services, and that was the extent of their celebrations.  It was the Roman Catholics and Anglicans, mostly in the southern areas of America who started the observance of Twelfth Day, which started on December 25 and usually ended January 6, which was much different from our celebrations today. The traditions slowly migrated north through the late 1600’s and early 1700’s and it was a perfect excuse for the adults, with the children having very little to do with it, spent attending balls and parties and any other festivals that were an excuse to escape the harsh weather in the northern most climate of America. The children were relegated to the home fires in the care of elder siblings or servants.  There was no Christmas magic for them.

Some of the traditions we have today originated with the colonialists. Holly, laurel, and garland because of the availability of the materials, and that they look good during the winter, providing greenery in the dull of the short winter days. Mistletoe was also hung, according to the pagan belief of couples courting and spooning underneath it. In that, the Puritans had it right.

The wealthier plantations were decorated elaborately and large feasts were readied for everyone, even the slaves. The food was also similar in many ways, including ham, turkey or roasts, along with root vegetables which kept well all winter, and honey, nuts and apples were used to sweeten the pastries. It was a source of pride to put on as expansive a feast as money would allow, for that was how each plantation’s hospitality and prestige was measured.

Of course, Christmas trees was not part of a colonial Christmas, since it was a Germanic tradition that did not come to popularity until Queen Victoria adapted it from her German husband, Albert brought it from his homeland. Soon, all of England and most of Canada adapted the tree as part of their Christmas, which then quickly came to America in the late 1800’s. However, Christmas carols were sung and were mostly religious in word. “Joy to the World” was extremely popular in America, based on many historical records and letters found during this time. Gift giving was also traditional for those who celebrated, but not as we give them today. Instead, gifts were given to “dependants”, which means servants, apprentices and slaves, and in prosperous households, the children. It does seem the children were often afterthoughts, doesn’t it? And the “dependants” never gave gifts in return, nor was it an elaborate procedure. They would only receive one special gift and they were treasured and valued much more than they are today.

As more and more immigrants came to America, their traditions were often adopted and integrated into their own household celebrations.

The research I’ve done has inspired my interest in Colonial Christmas holiday traditions, and I’ll be writing more here as I draft more articles. I am especially interested in recipes and food traditions, so I’ll be elaborating more on those in the days leading up to our modern Christmas date. Stay tuned, especially if you’re interested in celebrating or adopting at least one or two of your ancestors Christmas traditions. Do you have any traditions that hark back to your heritage?


Elizabeth Young said...

When I read 'saskatoon berries' I thought: "This has got to be a fellow Canadian!" I enjoyed reading about your Christmas and some of the tradions Cononialists had. Thank you for sharing!

S.L. Bartlett said...

Hey, nice to see you, Elizabeth, and it's nice to meet a fellow Canuck! Thanks for the visit, and I hope you'll pop by again for some recipes before the big day! I popped by your blog, and I certainly found plenty to relate to there, like my Dollar Store addiction. LOL

Ashlyn Macnamara said...

Hi there. I followed you to your blog after reading your comment on Joanna Bourne's most recent post. I am a historical romance author (going to be published in Regency next year), and I have written a couple of MSs set during the American Revolution. I am always on the lookout for other authors writing in this time period, which is admittedly a hard sell. I also happen to live in Canada. I'd love it if you'd shoot me an email.

ashlynmacnamara at gmail dot com

S.L. Bartlett said...

Hello Ashlyn. I fired off an email as soon as read your message here. And it's especially rare (and heartening) to find a fellow Canadian writing in this time period.
Nice to meet you. I'm going to try to find you on Facebook.