Christmas during Colonial America

08/12/12 8:36 AM


I have had several of you ask me about how true are the wreath decorations of Colonial Williamsburg. So true to form, I did some research to confirm their authenticity. In my research I came across some interesting information on customs and traditions of Christmas within the colonial period.


During the colonial period in Virginia, the Christmas season followed a four week period of Advent. Most Virginians were devout Anglicans and they would have observed a period of fasting, prayers and reflection. They would have read daily from the Book of Common Prayer. Fasting would have been only one full meal, which generally would have been meatless during the day. After the four weeks, they would end with a Christmas meal and the start of the Christmas season.



Did you know that most of New England didn’t celebrate Christmas during the colonial period? Christmas was outlawed in most of New England because Puritans and Protestants disliked the celebration and likened it to pagan rituals. In 1659 Massachusetts if you were found observing the season in any way, including feasting, you would have been fined five shillings per offense. During the same time, in Connecticut, you were prohibited from reading the Book of Common Prayer, keeping of Christmas and Saints Day, making mince pies, playing cards or performing on any musical instruments. This didn’t change until the early nineteenth century. The Burgermeister Meisterburger from the animated Christmas show “Santa Claus is Comin to Town” would have loved living here during that time!

Burgermester Mesterburger from "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town"

Burgermester Mesterburger from “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”

The Christmas season was a twelve day event during the colonial period. It would have started on December 25th (Christmas Day) and would end on January 6th. During this time, you would have great feasts and meal, attended parties, gone to visit others and would have received guest to your own home.

colonial christmas

Christmas decorations were a common sight during the colonial period. However, those used today in Colonial Williamsburg are inaccurate recreation of the eighteenth century customs and materials. Oranges, lemons and limes would never have been wasted on any form of decorations. Pineapples were considered a precious commodity and you would have never seen them used. What were used were garlands of holly, ivy, mountain laurel, berries, mistletoe or whatever natural materials were available. Lavender, rose petals and pungent herbs like rosemary and bay set the holiday scent for the season. Also during the colonial period, only one or two rooms in the home would have been decorated. The church was general more decorated than the homes. The door would have had decoration, but no Christmas tree. Most Christmas trees didn’t make their debut until the nineteenth century.


Christmas meals would have been fresh meats such as beef, goose, ham and turkey. They would have also had fish, oysters, mincemeat pies and brandied peaches. In the well to do households you would have found wines, brandy, rum punches and other alcoholic beverages.

newspaper cabinet2

Christmas gift giving during the colonial period was also a little different than what we know today. Believe it or not but eighteenth century shopkeepers placed printed ads noting items appropriate as holiday gifts. But there wasn’t a special day that it was given on. No real Christmas morning of unwrapping presents. Gift giving was done from masters or parents to dependents such as children, servants, apprentices and slaves. But the dependents didn’t return the gifts. This tradition didn’t come about until later and was a new American tradition. Santa Claus was also an American invention although European countries had their own version of him. In colonial times, Santa Claus or Father Christmas didn’t visit the children as he does today.

mt vernon christmas

Christmas carols and hymns were very popular during the colonial period. During the Christmas season there would have been lots of dancing and singing at the many parties. Hymns were always sung, but beloved songs such as “Joy to the World”, “The First Noel” and “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” were among the songs at parties. However no Christmas carols were ever sung at church.

Our present day customs have been derived from the many immigrants who settled this country with most of our traditions coming out of the nineteenth century. But this look back at the colonial period, when things were truly more simple I hope will give you a chance to really embrace the Christmas season and focus on the true meaning of the time.

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 187 Comments »

187 Comments on “Christmas during Colonial America”

  1. John Says:

    Simple being the key word for me. This era is incredibly fascinating. My sister in law and myself believe we were born in the wrong era and feel as though the Colonial era or similar era are where we belong. Weird huh… Great post!!

  2. Thank you! Simple is always good! But I have to say I still like the fruit in the decorations. They really are pretty.

  3. This way sounds so much more fun and meaningful than the way we do it now! I’m going to share this with my husband and seriously consider “officially” observing advent AND Christmas next year.

  4. Thank you! I hope your husband likes that idea! 😉

  5. Reblogged this on lazyhippiemama and commented:
    I love this! It seems so much more fun than the way we do things now.

  6. Thank you for sharing our blog with your readers! We really appreciated it!

  7. This decoration is very different to ours.Thanks for sharing 🙂

  8. You are so welcome! Thank for stopping by. Yes they are different but because they had never seen ours they didn’t really miss anything.

  9. Yes for sure.It´s always interesting to look beyond one´s nose 😉

  10. Totally agree!

  11. Jane Sadek Says:

    Marvelous blog, but I have heard that ship captains would affix pineapples to their doors or gates, regardless of the season, to announce they were home and receiving visitors.

  12. I had not heard that one. Thank you for giving me some more to research 😉

  13. Mark1 Says:

    What? No Smart Phones? 🙁 Just kidding. Great post! I was sort of surfing blogs in my reader and had to read this post. Christmas past – Oh how I remember mine. These ones from long past are fun to read about. Merry Christmas!

  14. Thank you and Merry Christmas! Yes no smart phones! 😉 It was a time of simple ideas.

  15. I will spend the day in Williamsburg tomorrow. I am looking forward to it!

  16. Wow! I hope you had a great time in Williamsburg! Did you get to see the decorations from the photos! They always look better in person!

  17. What a fabulous wreath! Thanks for the history. 😉

  18. You are so welcome! It was my favorite from Williamsburg. You should see the wreath I just received from a vendor for Belle Grove! I will be posting it soon. Thank you for stopping by!

  19. Mrs. P Says:

    Great historical data. I come from a long line of Puritan and Protestant people from colonial Massachusetts and Connecticut. This was very valuable information and I linked it to my site. Thanks for all the wonderful research you did on this!

  20. You are so welcome. I was an eye opening research for me. Who knew that it was outlawed in some areas in the beginning? Thank you for stopping by!

  21. storymeister Says:

    Reblogged this on Out of the Crab Bucket and commented:
    Fabulous Tropical Wreath

  22. Thank you so much for sharing our blog with your readers! It really means a lot to us! Please don’t forget to check us out on our Facebook page!

  23. storymeister Says:

    It’s a pleasure! You are very educated and thorough.

  24. Thank you!

  25. Rusha Sams Says:

    Thanks for all the great information! Our first encounter with Christmas at Williamsburg occurred during my husband’s service at Ft. Eustis during the Vietnam War. We’ve always held a fond place in our hearts for this wonderful Colonial site.

  26. You are so welcome! It really is a wonderful place. We just love going there. I think once I get to Belle Grove and get things rolling, I am going to miss seeing it.

  27. Very interesting! thank you for the history lesson.

  28. You are so welcome! I am glad you enjoyed it!

  29. seniorhiker Says:

    Thank you for this very interesting look at Christmas celebrations during the colonial period.

  30. You are so welcome! It was fun researching it.

  31. Thank you so much for all the research. Very interesting.

  32. You are so welcome! It was a lot of fun doing. Thank you for stopping by!

  33. terry1954 Says:

    Christmas has really changed through the years, but i prefer the tradition of the earlier times, when the meaning meant something. now it is money and toys and big gifts. i do not care so much for Christmas today. it has been ruined, but my beliefs still hold true

  34. I totally agree. I like the simpler times too.

  35. lynnwyvill Says:

    Thanks so much for all the historical research. Very interesting! The “simpler” observance sounds lovely!

  36. You are so welcome! I think simpler is always better. Thank you for stopping by!

  37. Once again, nice research. I always wondered if they would have put that precious fruit in decorations. Now I know.

  38. You are welcome! I know they didn’t use them, but boy are they beautiful!

  39. combs2jc Says:

    Reblogged this on joeccombs2nd and commented:
    I love articles about Christmas … my favorite holiday.

  40. Thank you for sharing our blog with your readers! We really appreciate it!

  41. marydpierce Says:

    This was a really fun read. I’m always fascinated by the evolution of languages, customs, etc. and how they are impacted by ever-changing populations. I enjoy Christmas with it’s amalgamation of traditions, both secular and spiritual. Thanks, again for a great post!

    Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and lots of good cheer!

  42. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays too! I really enjoyed doing this research. It was nice to read about simpler times. Thank you for stopping by!

  43. David Says:

    Thank you for the overview of how Christmas was celebrated in the colonial era.

  44. You are so welcome! Thank you for stopping by!

  45. Claire D Says:

    I was at Williamsburg one year the week after Xmas and had a wonderful time – the people dressed as locals from the 18th century were delightful and so authentic. Made you feel right at home in another era. What a great place to be during the holidays!

  46. Thank you! It was a lot of fun seeing the people and interacting with them. Made me what to dress up!

  47. a simpler time in many way. We’ve made things way too silly now.

  48. I totally agree! Thank you for stopping by!

  49. Great post, thank you. How interesting that the shopkeepers were cashing in on the season even then. I think more and more people now object to the crass commercialism of this time of year.

  50. You are so welcome! It was funny to find out that the storekeepers were already trying to make money out of Christmas! I wonder if they had “Black Friday” then too 😉

  51. You know I had never heard of Black Friday until this year when I kept getting Amazon emails about it, and then an Australian company picked up the idea and did a similar thing.

  52. I try and stay away from the stores on Black Friday. For me its just a sleep in day!

  53. I feel like that on Boxing Day. The shops here have huge sales that start on that day and the crowds are horrendous. I figure I don’t need anything badly enough to battle my way through the people and stand in a queue for hours on end.

  54. Same here!

  55. ohiocook Says:

    Reblogged this on My Meals are on Wheels.

  56. Thank you for sharing our blog with your readers! We really appreciate it!

  57. Gregoryno6 Says:

    Reblogged this on The mind is an unexplored country. and commented:
    I’ve never had brandied peaches at Christmas. Is it ever too late to start?

  58. Thank you for sharing our blog with your readers! I have never made brandied peaches so I am not sure.

  59. dogear6 Says:

    That was great! I was going to do some research before posting my wreaths, but I think instead that I’ll link back to here. You did a wonderful write-up.


  60. Thank you so much! We appreciate you sharing us with your readers! It means so much to us!

  61. dogear6 Says:

    Other bloggers have done the same for me and I’ve often picked up a few new subscribers from it. Besides, I don’t think I’d have written it up any better than you did, so why redo it? Ya’ did good.

    Did you get the pingback? It posted late last night.

  62. Thank you! Okay don’t laugh at me, but what is a pingback? I am still learning some of this stuff on the blogs.

  63. dogear6 Says:

    It’s probably sitting in your comments waiting to be approved. All it does is shows a link that someone used to connect back to your blog.

  64. I think I got it. I have checked all my comments and have answered and approved all I have. I have even checked my spam too. I have looked at your posting. It is just wonderful! Thank you again for linking us!

  65. dogear6 Says:

    You’re welcome!

  66. Very interesting post:) Thanx for liking my blog:)

  67. You are so welcome! We look forward to seeing more of your blog in the future! Thank you for stopping by!

  68. Loaded with interesting tidbits I had never known! I love that stores were commercializing it way back then, too!

  69. Thank you! It was funny to know that they had already started to cash in on Christmas! Do you think they had “Black Friday” too? 😉

  70. Love the old photo’s. Please visit my newest post, “You NEED to watch this.” A very important video on a worldwide problem. I didn’t produce it, but I’d love to get it to as many people ad possible, as I believe it has a vital solution that can benefit us all on many levels.

  71. Thank you! I will stop by soon to see your post!

  72. I love this! Your historical posts are rich with details. When I saw the wreaths at Colonial Williamsburg I did wonder at the lemons, limes, and especially pineapples. Thanks for sharing this information.


  73. You are so welcome Leslie! Thank you! It was fun facts to find out, but I still like the fruit in the decorations.

  74. History possesses many charms. Thanks for sharing his one.

    S. Thomas Summers
    Pushcart Nominated Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War

  75. You are so welcome! It was fun to research and write about. Thank for stopping by!

  76. Fascinating! We really take fruit for granted, no?

  77. Yes we do. And at Belle Grove, we will take them be using them too! I love the look. Thank you for stopping by!

  78. […] Christmas during Colonial America. […]

  79. Thank you so much for sharing our blog with your reader! We really appreciate it. It means so much to us! Please don’t forget to stop by our Facebook page too!

  80. mermaidcamp Says:

    You do mighty fine research and present it so well. Thanks. I reblogged this.

  81. Thank you so much! I really enjoy researching and sharing it! Thank you for sharing us with your readers too! We really appreciate it!

  82. mermaidcamp Says:

    Reblogged this on mermaidcamp and commented:
    This gives us the history of the celebration of Christmas.

  83. Thank you so much for sharing our blog with your readers! It really means a lot to us! Please don’t forget to check us out on our Facebook page!

  84. fitzythird Says:

    Great blog….got to show my daughters how we came about to our version of Christmas. ( Had to keep the Santa Clause part secret for the youngest one) Loved the picture of the women and children in the kitchen with the giant functional hearth. This was short, sweet, informative for the children and I get to still watch the Giants beating New Orleans…..not saying thats a good thing. Thank you for the post.

  85. Okay Fitzy! You have to be my favorite comment today! I love it! It really made me laugh! Thank you! You know we have a large hearth like that one in our Summer Kitchen! You will have to bring the kids to see it some day! Thank you!

  86. Jan Says:

    Thanks so much for tracking down all this info and sharing it with us! I’m going to track down the appropriate relatives on my family tree and see if I can put some names to the traditions.

  87. That is great Jan! Please let me know what you find out! Thank you for stopping by!

  88. Very interesting, thank you for all of your hard work.

  89. You are so welcome. It really wasn’t hard work. At least doing something you love! 😉 Thank you!

  90. […] decoration nor was there was much celebration, such as you might see today.  My fellow blogger at Belle Grove Plantation wrote up a great post on Christmas in Colonial America and I invite you to look over her excellent […]

  91. Thank you so much for sharing our blog with your readers! It means so much to us! Please don’t forget to check out our Facebook page too!

  92. The Evangelicals in New England have much to answer for. Very interesting bit of history today. Thanks, Dianne

  93. Thank you Dianne! Thank goodness it didn’t stick in New England, right? 😉

  94. belocchio Says:

    I especially love the use of pineapples in the Christmas decorations. The pineapple is a symbol of hospitality and so appropriate. Virginia

  95. I love the pineapples too! Even though it won’t be correct, we will be using fruit next year at Belle Grove. I love the look!

  96. I knew that Christmas celebrations have changed over the years, but truly had no idea how different it was was years ago. Thank you for the education.

  97. You are so welcome! I couldn’t believe some of it either! Thank you!

  98. Excellent piece to really set us up for the holidays.

  99. Thank you Scott! Hope you have a wonderful Holiday!

  100. […] Christmas during Colonial America ( […]

  101. Thank you so much for sharing our blog with your readers! It really means a lot to us! Please don’t forget to check us out on our Facebook page!

  102. […] Original article found at: […]

  103. Thank you so much for sharing our blog with your readers! It really does mean a lot to us!

  104. […] Christmas during Colonial America ( […]

  105. Thank you so much for sharing our blog with your readers! It really means a lot to us!

  106. […] Christmas in Colonial America – Belle Grove Plantation […]

  107. Thank you so much for sharing our blog with your readers! It really means a lot to us!

  108. […] blog which delves into a lot of colonial history. I was particularly taken by her recent post, ‘Christmas during Colonial America’, which explains the Advent and Yuletide traditions of the time. Excerpts follow, emphases […]

  109. Thank you so much for sharing us with your readers! It means a lot to us! Please visit us on Facebook too at Belle Grove Plantation at Port Conway.

    Brett and Michelle

  110. gardeniahung Says:

    Very interesting account about the historic traditions of Christmas celebration inn Colonial American times.

  111. Thank you!

  112. […] Christmas during Colonial America. […]

  113. Thank you so much for sharing our blog with your readers! We really appreciate it!

  114. photog Says:

    Really interesting information! Thanks for sharing it, and happy holidays.

  115. You are so welcome! We hope you will join us on this wonderful journey opening this historic plantation as a bed and breakfast. Merry Christmas from Brett, Michelle, Hurley and Belle Grove Plantation! Thank you!

  116. Lee Says:

    Thanks for giving us this look back. Very interesting!

  117. You are so welcome! We enjoying history and love to share what we find.

  118. I liked the look back too and your illustrations were great! I still have trouble wasting food as a decoration instead of an edible, although I’m good if it serves both purposes.

  119. Thank you. It is so much fun finding out where traditions come from. But I have to say I still like the fruit on the wreaths.

  120. jackcurtis Says:

    The season seems to have been celebrated before it was Christian and it seems to be returning to that if enough politicized grinches have their way. Let’s put lumps of coal in all their stockings…

    And keep Christmas.

  121. Haha! I agree! Thank you!

  122. This was fascinating. Thank you for all the research, and for the story.

  123. You are so welcome! We really enjoy doing the research and sharing it.

  124. I enjoyed this post. Kudos for your research.

  125. Thank you! We enjoyed sharing it with you!

  126. artybanana Says:


  127. Thank you!

  128. artybanana Says:

    Reblogged this on artybanana's Blog.

  129. Thank you so much for sharing us with your readers! It means so much to us!

  130. kiwiskan Says:

    A fascinating and informative post. Thanks for that

  131. Thank you! We are glad you enjoyed it!

  132. jericho777 Says:

    Reblogged this on Jericho777's Blog.

  133. Thank you so much for sharing us with your readers! It means so much to us!

  134. Fred Fechter Says:

    Thanks for the informative tour of your web-site

  135. You are so welcome! We hope you will join us as we work to bring this historic plantation back to life. Thank you for stopping by!

  136. Fabulous Historical Look Back! Wow! Thank you!

  137. You are so welcome! Thank you for stopping by!

  138. Thanks for visiting House of Bedlam – Have a Happy New Year!

  139. You are so welcome! We hope to see more of your blog in the future! Thank you for stopping by ours! Happy New Year from Belle Grove Plantation!

  140. joanspav Says:

    Thanks for the compliment. My website is only a way to remember and share recipes I like. Yours is much more professional. Just curious how you found me. So far I have only given my address to friends and family but perhaps wordpress has made it accessible through searches.

    I am a pharmacist by profession (semi-retired at 67), I live in Calgary Alberta Canada, and cooking is one of my favorite creative outlets.


  141. Nice to meet you Joan! I am Michelle. I found you through a search of wordpress. I am always looking for new ideas when it comes to food. I like to take recipes and make them my own. I made some really good jalapeno cheddar cheese crackers last night that I found on one of the blogs I found. Now I am going to use them in our plantation during our wine and cheese receptions in the evening. I am sure I will find something on yours too. Thank you for stopping by our blog too! We hope you will join us on this wonderful journey opening our historic plantation.

  142. Nativegrl77 Says:

    Thank you for stopping by! love a look back in time while living it !

  143. Thank you!

  144. Thanks, your blog is a bit different than the ones I see. Have a happy 12 days of Christmas!

  145. Thank you! We hope you are having a great 12 days yourself! 😉

  146. huntfortheverybest Says:

    Thank you for the history on Colonial Christmas. I learned a lot!

  147. You are so welcome! We just love history and love sharing our finds!

  148. athenahm Says:

    Thanks for visiting Kaffeeklatsch! I was so excited to see who it was, because, you see, my husband’s family and I visited your plantation when we were stationed at Langley AFB a few years ago! We are currently in Southern Turkey, and will soon be moving to Baltimore, but it just tickled me to see a familiar place show up on our radar, especially since we are currently half-way round the world. Hope you had a wonderful holiday!

  149. You are so welcome and I am so glad we found each other! I am not sure if you have seen our plantation. It hasn’t been open to the public before. We are just south of Fredericksburg. There is a second Belle Grove in Middletown just south of Winchester. That Belle Grove was built by Isaac Hite and his wife Nelly Madison Hite, sister of James Madison. People get them confused all the time. But we hope someday you might be able to see our Belle Grove. We are just 90 miles south of Baltimore. Have a wonderful New Year!

  150. athenahm Says:

    Oh, well, I did not realize there were two. Now we are going to *have* to come down and see you 🙂

  151. Aw, I’m sorry. I know a lot of people get them confused, but if you “have” to come see us, we know you won’t be disappointed!

  152. athenahm Says:

    We will definitely come down, for sure. I love the Fredericksburg area.

  153. We look forward to seeing you!

  154. J M Naszady Says:

    Thanks for continuing to visit my blog. This post was a timely look into our collective past!

  155. You are so welcome! We hope to see more of your blog! Thank you so much!

  156. i knew very little about Christmas. It added much to my knowledge. very informative. Thanks.

    And yeah Happy New year. May this year bring much more success and satisfaction.

  157. Thank you so much! We hope this new year will be a blessing to you as well! We are glad that this post has helped you understand a lot more about Christmas.

  158. Thank you for continuing to visit my blog. Christmas must be an extraordinary time for you at Belle grove. Happy New Year/.

  159. You are so welcome! We didn’t get to spend Christmas or New Years at the plantation, but next year we will! Thank you!

  160. sued51 Says:

    Very interesting post. I’m from New England and I did not know how harshly it was treated here!

  161. I know I was surprised too! Who knew?

  162. Very informative post with awesome pictures: well done!

  163. Thank you so much! It was a lot of fun researching it.

  164. kayjayaitch Says:

    At the same time (mid 17th C) Britain itself was just coming out of ten years of extreme puritanism under Oliver Cromwell (the first and only time Britain was ever a Republic!) when Christmas was actually outlawed.
    An interesting article. Thank you.

  165. Thank you! I never knew that! Wow! Thank you for updating me too!

  166. Maxi Says:

    Burgermester is really ticked-off. Good article.
    Blessings ~ Maxi

  167. Thank you! Yes, he was not too happy.

  168. Sandy Allen Says:

    I LOVE that pineapple wreath in the top picture. Thanks for the great info.

  169. You are so welcome! It was fun gathering the pictures and information! Thank you for stopping by!

  170. Very interesting post, and a fascinating look back at how Christmas was celebrated in a simpler time.

  171. Thank you! It was a lot of fun writing it.

  172. Diana Says:

    With 171 replies, you hardly need my input ! Just wanted to say thanks for liking/visiting. Very cool entry here (I lived in NC for many, many years, so even though I am a Yankee (a distinction I did not know was still made !), I am also an honorary Rebel. Following you 🙂

  173. Thank you Diana! I really enjoyed researching this one. And don’t worry, I married a Yankee. He can cook grits now. 😉 We look forward to seeing more of your blog too!

  174. Very cool! I love social history, and enjoy the distinctions between regions of Canada, where I come from, and likewise regions of the US. (And it’s ages since I’ve thought about the Burgermeister; thanks for the blast from the past!) 🙂

  175. Thank you! It was really fun doing this one. And Brett loves the Burgermeister too!

  176. Fascinating, I didn’t know about Christmas being illegal in MA. they don’t tell you that at Plymoth Plantation.

  177. You know I didn’t know until I did the research. Thank you!

  178. Anita Mac Says:

    Quite Fascinating! I had no idea that they banished Christmas!

  179. Thank you! We didn’t either until we did the research!

  180. Any post with the Meisterburgher is a great post. Excellent information. I live in New England and had some inkling of how bad it was up here during the Colonial period, but I didn’t know how bad. Thanks for the information.

  181. You are so welcome! We didn’t know it at all so we were so surprised!

  182. Russ Edwards Says:

    Good information. Thanks for posting it.

  183. You are so welcome! Thank you for stopping by!

  184. […] Original article found at: […]

  185. Thank you so much for sharing our blog with your readers! We really appreciate it!

  186. […] I have had several of you ask me about how true are the wreath decorations of Colonial Williamsburg. So true to form, I did some research to confirm their authenticity. In my research I came across some interesting information …  […]

  187. Thank you so much for sharing our blog with your readers! We really appreciate it!