Christmas in Colonial America: Virginia and the South
In Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas the majority of early settlers were Anglicans of English descent. In the second half of the seventeenth century, as their way of life grew more secure, they began to reproduce the festive Christmas they had known in their homeland (see also Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia). They celebrated with feasting, drinking, dancing, card playing, horse racing, cock fighting, and other games. Although Anglican churches offered Christmas worship services, these apparently did not play a large role in colonial Christmas celebrations. Wealthy plantation owners who lived in large houses aspired to fill the Christmas season with lavish entertainments of all sorts. For many, this festive period lasted until Twelfth Night. By the eighteenth century these wealthy southerners studded their holiday season with balls, fox hunts, bountiful feasts, and openhanded hospitality. One year guests at a Christmas banquet hosted by a wealthy Virginia planter named George Washington, who later became the first president, dined sumptuously on the following dishes: turtle soup, oysters, crab, codfish, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, venison, boiled mutton, suckling pig, smoked ham, roast turkey, several dishes of vegetables, biscuits, cornbread, various relishes, cakes, puddings, fruits, and pies. Wines, cordials, and a special holiday drink known as eggnog usually rounded out the plantation Christmas feast. Although wealthy parents might give a few presents to their children on Christmas or New Year’s Day, this practice was not widespread. More common was the practice of making small gifts to the poor, to one’s servants, or to one’s slaves.
The less well-off could not reproduce the splendor of a plantation Christmas, but they could still celebrate with good food and good cheer. In addition, southerners of all classes saluted Christmas morning by shooting off their guns and making all sorts of noise. Those who did not own muskets banged on pots and pans or lit fireworks. Slaves were usually given a small tip or gift and some leisure time at Christmas. Since they had to prepare the parties and feasts for everyone else, however, their workload increased in certain ways at this time of year.
Southern colonists transported a number of old English Christmas customs to the New World including Christmas carols, Yule logs, kissing under the mistletoe, and decking homes with greenery. Southern schoolboys of this era sometimes resorted to the Old World custom of barring out the schoolmaster in order to gain a few days off at this festive time of year.