I had to find a Christmas myth for this time of year . . . so let’s look at the idea that colonial Americans in general celebrated and decorated for Christmas. First it must be said that many early European-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 every human being 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.
So how did colonial Americans decorate for Christmas? (If they decorated at all.) We have documentation for English decorations that can logically be assumed to have transferred to the English colonies, documentation that shows sprigs of holly in tavern and store window panes, clumps of mistletoe hanging from tavern ceilings, vases or greenery with red berries on the mantel at home, garlands around the portraits and stuck to walls, small branches of holly or greens stuck around the kitchen, churches strewn with fresh-scented greenery, and tables set with elaborate fruit pyramids and etageres laden with fruit, nuts, and sweetmeats. No wreaths on doors, no decorated trees.
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.
thank you for this information. much appreciated.
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.
so if they didn’t celebrate christmas, what about other holidays, such as easter and birthdays?
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!
Yes, in the form of colonial-era prints that show English indoor decorations and a few historical references to outdoor decorations from London. No American prints, but it seems reasonable to assume that English colonists continued with the decorating traditions they had practiced at home. The best source, if I do say so myself, is the book I wrote with Libbey Oliver (retired, formerly in charge of decorations at Colonial Williamsburg) titled “Four Centuries of Virginia Christmas.” Try your local library or see amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Four-Centuries-Virginia-Christmas-Theobald/dp/0875171125/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1388410917&sr=1-1&keywords=four+centuries+of+virginia+christmas
I’ve had many museum curators and historic house directors tell me the book has helped them decorate in the style of a certain period.
Also see “Williamsburg Christmas: The Story of Decoration in the Colonial Capital” for further information and nice illustrations!