Myth # 101: Colonial Americans decorated their homes with fresh fruit on Christmas.

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     I had to find a Christmas myth for this week . . . so let’s start with the idea that colonial Americans in general celebrated and decorated for Christmas. Many early Americans didn’t acknowledge Christmas at all, let alone celebrate or decorate for it. These included the Puritans in New England and various denominations throughout the middle and southern colonies like Amish, Baptists, Congregationalists, Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quakers. But for many in the central and southern colonies, Christmas was a holiday season. 

     Let’s go to the biggest decorating myth in American Christmas history–the idea that our colonial forebears decked their homes with fruited wreaths.

     The idea of decorating the doors with rare fresh fruit where it would hang until it rotted or was eaten by squirrels would have horrified everyone in colonial America, no matter how wealthy they were. Fresh fruit was rare to nonexistent during the winter and if one were fortunate enough to have some imported oranges from the Caribbean or late apples from New England, one ate them.

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     This myth originated with the DellaRobbia-style decorating that began in Williamsburg in the 1930s (when the town was being restored with Rockefeller money) as a compromise with its residents. As far as we can tell, colonists did not decorate the outside of their houses at all, but Americans in the 1930s most certainly did, and Williamsburg residents were not happy to be told that authenticity demanded they forego all Christmas decorations. Nor did the Colonial Williamsburg executives relish the thought of blinking colored lights and reindeer glowing from the rooftops of the restored town. It was decided to encourage natural decoration with materials that would have been available to the colonists, such as greenery, dried seed pods, fruit, pinecones, gourds, oyster shells, and so forth. But no matter how often Foundation executives stressed that this was NOT a colonial decorating method but a modern-day compromise, the erroneous impression spread.

Christmas Stock

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7 Responses to Myth # 101: Colonial Americans decorated their homes with fresh fruit on Christmas.

  1. Melissa Nesbitt says:

    But now, WHO can imagine a Colonial Williamsburg Christmas without fruited wreaths? It has spread of course… I’m “guilty” of doing a Williamsburg style wreath for my own front door on occasion. Love it! 🙂

    Have a question though, Mary–what about the “pomander balls” made of oranges and/or apples stuffed with cloves? Where did that come from?

    • Mary Miley says:

      Hello Melissa. Nothing wrong with “Williamsburg” decorating. I love it too! It’s just that it isn’t colonial. As for pomanders, I remember doing research on those about thirty years ago. While the details escape me, I remember that the word comes from the French, pomme d’ambre, or apple of amber (gold) or ambergris (ambergris, from sperm whales, was a fixative used to hold scent). The scented ball was originally thought to ward off illnesses. Soon spread to other parts of Europe from France. You can see prints of medieval and renaissance ladies wearing a pomander on their belt. Later (not sure when), sticking a piece of round fruit with cloves gave a nice scent that lasted a long time because the cloves preserved the fruit. More recently, it became associated with Christmas. Wishing you lovely holidays!

      Mary Mary Miley Theobald

      • Melissa Nesbitt says:

        Thank you much, Mary! I’ve just now gotten back to read your comment. Hope your holidays were good as well.

        That was interesting to know about how the Williamsburg decorations came about as a “compromise” with the residents. I wish I’d had that information last year when I gave a talk at our local DAR chapter’s Christmas luncheon. I did mention the part about fruit not being used as decorations, but now I can add this information when asked. LOVE your blog!

  2. I find it hard to believe that many colonists even celebrated Xmas, at least in New England.

  3. azambone says:

    Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
    An example of how a mild and harmless myth can be perpetuated despite the best intentions of those involved.

  4. Cindy Conte says:

    I visit Williamsburg every winter. The decorations are lovely and festive. Am I correct that colonists did occasionally decorate with a sprig of holly (hanging from ribbon) in the windows? I have seen playing cards hanging in windows at Williamsburg. I have seen the sprigs of holly in early prints. Did they also hang playing cards? Or am I mistaken?

    • Mary Miley says:

      You’re right. There are English prints (no American ones) showing sprigs of holly in window panes, also bunches of mistletoe hanging in taverns, homes with vases of holly and greens, bits of greenery stuck behind picture frames and pots and pans in a kitchen–all indicating that Englishmen (and presumably Englishmen who came to America) decorated indoors a little bit. Also dining tables often had decorative arrangements of fruits, sweetmeats, and greens, arrangements that were eaten at the end of the meal. Churches were “dressed” in greenery too. But no indication anywhere in the English colonies that the doors or exteriors of houses or taverns were decorated.

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