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



History buffs can experience
Christmas traditions in Colonial Virginia differed from those celebrated today (Courtesy of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation)

HISTORIC TRIANGLE – Each year, residents and visitors alike flock to the Historic Triangle to marvel at the vacation charm and joy that has permeated the colonial capital of Virginia for centuries. However, what was the holiday season really like for those who lived in the original thirteen British colonies? Today we’re going to take a closer look at what this most awe-inspiring time of year is for our early American ancestors.

Historians agree that many of the Christmas traditions as we know them today are derived from several other traditions, including the Germanic festival of Yule and the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. All of these include gambling, drinking alcohol, exchanging gifts, people wearing costumes, and decorating homes with greenery. These traditions were eventually adapted to meet the needs of the converted Christian base in the British Isles.

Christmas in New England and the Middle Colonies

Holiday traditions in the American colonies varied depending on where one lived. For example, during certain periods of the Colonial Era, Christmas celebrations were illegal in parts of New England due to its largely Puritan population, who did not recognize the revelry due to its roots in pagan festivities.

In the Delaware Valley area, there was a cornucopia of traditions and origins brought to the settlements due to William Penn’s stance on religious freedoms. The settlers of this region celebrated the Swedish and Norwegian feast of Saint Lucia just before Christmas, while those of German descent planted Christmas trees, baked pretzels and even those Christmas cookies we know and love today. hui.

With the mixture of sects and Christian heritages that existed in the middle colonies, it was quite universal that Moravians, Christians and Roman Catholics celebrated Christmas with a mixture of religious and secular traditions and observances.

Christmas in Colonial Virginia

The southern colonies were mostly made up of those who brought Anglican traditions with them to the New World, particularly in the Tidewater of Virginia. While the early Virginians had many of the same traditions as other areas such as going to church, hanging vegetables, dancing, visiting loved ones, and having a special meal, there were still differences in the way which they celebrated compared to what are considered traditional celebrations. today.

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

After the period of intense religious and spiritual concentration, the joy that accompanies Christmas was greatly appreciated by the settlers of Virginia.

A member of the colonial community would be referred to as the “Lord of Misrule,” who would dress in green and yellow clothing and lead the settlers during Christmas celebrations.

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

While wreaths and greenery adorned homes, the tradition of a Christmas tree had not yet struck the settlements. Besides, it wasn’t good old St. Nick either. However, this did not prevent gifts to children and, in addition, to some servants.

Another favorite tradition among colonial Virginians was that of sailing. This strange sounding word, derived from the Old Norse phrase ve heil translates to “be in good health”. For early Virginians, a bowl of wassail (much like a modern day punch bowl) roamed the streets, door to door, offering a hot drink and a happy song for the neighbors. While the wassail itself refers to the concoction taken from the bowl, the concept of wassailing is the predecessor of the Christmas carol. In fact, the Christmas tune we know as “Here We Come A-Caroling” originates from “Here We Come A-Wassailing”.

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

This year when you celebrate Christmas, do like the Colonial Virginians: name a lord of misguidance, hang your greenery, and go door to door with your bowl of wassail to bring in the joy of the season.

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