Myth #101 Revisited: Colonial Americans decorated their homes at Christmas.


     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.


     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.


11 Responses to Myth #101 Revisited: Colonial Americans decorated their homes at Christmas.

  1. Diane Thornton says:

    I totally enjoy all of your posts! This one was especially interesting. So interesting how “traditions” don’t necessarily go back as far as people assume.

  2. janice says:

    thank you for this information. much appreciated.

  3. Deborah Brower says:

    Good food for thought. We have come to picture the celebration of the holidays in a certain way and that’s people want to see. It evokes their vision of the past right or wrong.

    I sing carols during the Christmas season at a historic site and people will ask did they do that then. I have to answer not exactly. The carols like the decorations provide a setting for the visit and without it the site would lose a significant revenue opportunity, not unlike the Grand Illumination at CW. As one of the pervious posts said it is amazing how quickly some thing becomes traditional.

  4. janice says:

    so if they didn’t celebrate christmas, what about other holidays, such as easter and birthdays?

    • Evelyn Fidler says:

      Christmas celebrations were seen as pagan to such groups as Baptists and Quakers but Easter was a Holy day celebrating the Lords resurrection and was not on a fixed date unlike Christmas. No decorating was associated with Easter. Birthdays? not sure

    • Beth H says:

      Christmas and Easter were days to go to church. In the distant past, people didn’t know their exact birthday, just the season or month and the year, and only noted it to keep track of their age. If you’ve ever tracked someone through census records, you will have found that their stated sge is oftrn off by a year or two. Famous people were remembered on the anniversary of their death, not birth. I think this was because people were aware of the day the king (or whoever) died.

      People need days to celebrate, so there were often local holidays.There was a post-harvest dance and other occasions.

  5. Lynn says:

    I know this is getting away from the myth part, but does anyone have any sources for how those who celebrated might have decorated? Thanks!

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