I began researching Christmas in the colonies for the Social Studies portion of my daughters’ homeschooling lessons. It became such an interesting subject, I decided to use it as a blog article…
New England Colonies: Christmas celebration was banned from 1659 -1687 because it reminded Puritans of church traditions in England, where Christmas had fallen into drinking, gambling, and sometimes violence. By the French and Indian War, Christmas had made its way into some parts of the New England colonies, as both the French and British soldiers who remained and settled after the war tended to celebrated Christmas. During the American Revolution, middle and southern colony soldiers came to assist New England patriots in the war and these men observed Christmas. The New England colony most lenient toward Christmas was Connecticut. Thomas Hooker left Massachusetts in 1636 because the rules there were too strict and he began a new settlement in Connecticut with wider religious freedom. There are Connecticut Christmas sermons and stories dating to 1774, and perhaps even before that (A Connecticut Christmas: Stories, Poems and Sermons, 1774-1918, by Ed Ifkov). In addition, some Dutch settled in Connecticut, but their big day of celebration was Epiphany (Three Kings Day). [As most of the Dutch settled in NY, see below]
Middle Colonies: Christmas celebration started on Christmas Eve and lasted 12 days until Epiphany (also called Three Kings Day). Food was very important, but it was a light meal on Christmas Eve and off to church, as this was mainly a religious holiday. Most folks were Anglicans or Roman Catholic and on Christmas morning, it was church again, then a big feast at home later. The Quakers did not celebrate Christmas, nor did the Baptists. The tradition of Christmas trees, then called Paradise trees, was brought to New Jersey by German soldiers fighting for the British (1775/76). The ornaments were handmade bits of colorful cloth or yarn, pinecones, and the like. Middle colony homes were decorated with bits of holly on mantles and in windows. The Dutch in New York celebrated Christmas, with their big celebration on Epiphany, when stockings were hung. On this day, Sinter Klaas came and left small gifts for children, such as a hair ribbon, a small flute, socks, nuts, or bits of chocolate. With the exception of the Dutch, Christmas giving was not aimed at children. It was a time for masters to give to servants, for employers to give to employees, for craftsmen to give to apprentices, and usually it was a small gift in coins. Christmas day meals included wild turkey, goose, deer meat, rabbit stew, fresh fish, a fruited Christmas loaf, spice cookies, apple cider, and beer. For the Dutch, Christmas day activities included ice-skating on frozen ponds and streams.
Southern Colonies: As in the middle colonies, the southern colonies started their celebration on Christmas Eve and it lasted 12 days through Epiphany. Most folks were Anglicans who had a light Christmas Eve meal and went to church. Christmas morning meant church services followed by an early feast at home on Christmas Day. In the evening, they went caroling and visiting. In the southern colonies, Christmas celebrations often included a public dance. Richer people had balls in their mansions during the 12 days of Christmas. Fox hunting would follow during the remaining 12 days. Homes were decorated with bits of holly on mantles and in windows. As in the middle colonies, Christmas was not a children’s holiday, but a time of giving by the richer to the poorer. The gift, often a few coins. Typical Christmas day meals included wild turkey, beef, goose, deer meat, rabbit stew, fresh fish, apple dumplings, gingerbread cookies, wine, and spirits.