Christmas in America


Christmas in America or YULE-TIDE IN AMERICA

"And they who do their souls no wrong,
But keep, at eve, the faith of morn.
Shall daily hear the angel-song,
'To-day the Prince of Peace is born.'"

—James Russell Lowell.

This article on America's early christmas traditions appeared a hundred years ago

To people who go into a new country to live, Christmas, which is so generally a family day, must of necessity be a lonely, homesick one.

They carry with them the memory of happy customs, of loved ones far away, and of observances which can never be held again. So many of the earliest Christmases in America were peculiarly sad ones to the various groups of settlers; most especially was this the case with the first Christmas ever spent by Europeans in the New World.

The intrepid mariner, Christopher Columbus, entered the port of Bohio, in the Island of Hayti, on St. Nicholas Day, December 6, 1492, and in honor of the day named that port Saint Nicholas. The Pinta with her crew had parted from the others and gone her own way, so the Santa Maria and the Niña sailed on together, occasionally stopping where the port seemed inviting. While in one of these, Columbus heard of rich mines not far distant and started for them.

The Admiral and his men were tired from continued watching, and as the sea was smooth and the wind favorable, they went to sleep leaving the ship in care of a boy. Who he was no one knows, but he was evidently the first Christian boy to pass a Christmas Eve on this continent, — and a sad one it was for him.

The ship struck a sand-bank and settled, a complete wreck, in the waters of the New World. Fortunately no lives were lost, and the wreckage furnished material for the building of a fortress which occupied the men's time during the remainder of the Yule-tide.

The Niña was too small to accommodate two crews, therefore on Christmas Day many of the men were wondering who were to stay on that far-away island among the strange looking natives of whom they knew nothing.

The Chief of Guarico (Petit Anse), whom Columbus was on his way to visit at the time of the disaster, sent a fleet of canoes to the assistance of the strangers, and did what he could to make them happy during the day.

The Spaniards and the natives worked until dawn on Christmas morning, bringing ashore what they could secure from the wreck, and storing it away on the island for future use. Strange to relate, they succeeded in saving all of their provisions, the spars, and even many of the nails of the wrecked Santa Maria. But what a Christmas morning for Columbus and his men, stranded on an island far, far from home, among a strange people!

There were no festivities to be observed by that sad, care-worn company of three hundred men on that day, but the following morning Chief Guacanagari visited the Niña and took Columbus ashore, where a banquet was prepared in his honor, the first public function attended by Columbus in America. It can be pictured only in imagination.

There on that beautiful island which seemed to them a paradise on earth, with tall trees waving their long fronds in the warm breeze, with myriads of birds such as they had never seen filling the air with song, Columbus stood, attired in his gorgeous uniform and dignified, as it befitted him to be, beside his host who was elegantly dressed in a shirt and a pair of gloves which Columbus had given him, with a coronet of gold on his head.

Christmas in America

The visiting chieftains with gold coronets moved about in nature's garb, among the "thousand,"—more or less,—who were present as guests. The feast consisted of shrimps, cassavi,—the same as the native bread of to-day,—and some of their nutritive roots.

It was not a sumptuous repast although it may have been a bountiful one, yet they probably enjoyed it.

The work of building a fortress began at once. Within ten days the Fortress of Navidad was completed. It stood on a hill and was surrounded with a broad, deep ditch for protection against natives and animals, and was to be the home of those of the company who remained in the New World, for the Niña was too small to convey all hands across the ocean to Spain, and nothing had been heard of the Pinta. Leaving biscuits sufficient for a year's supply, wine, and such provisions as could be spared, Columbus bade farewell to the forty men whom he was never to see again, and sailed for the Old World on January 4, 1493.

Christmas in America - Columbus

So far as recorded, Columbus was the only one among the Spaniards who received gifts during this first Yule-tide in America, the first Christmas in America. But what seemed a cruel fate to him was the means of bestowing a valuable gift upon the world.

Had the Santa Maria continued her course in safety that Christmas Eve there might never have been a fortress or any European settlement founded or any Christmas in America. So, although it was a sad, troubled Yule-tide to the Spanish adventurers, it proved a memorable one in the annals of America.

Christmas in America - 400 years later

Four hundred years later the anchor of the Santa Maria was discovered and brought to the United States to be one of its treasured exhibits at the great Columbian Exposition, where a descendant of Columbus was the honored guest of the Government.

One hundred and fifty years after the building of the Fortress of Navidad, after many ineffectual attempts, a settlement was effected in the New World by a colony from England. They sailed from Blackwell, on the Thames, on December 19, 1606, and for six weeks were "knocking about in sight of England." Their first Christmas was spent within sight of their old homes. According to Captain John Smith's account, "It was, indeed, but a sorry Christmas that we spent on board," as many of them were very sick, yet Smith adds, "We made the best cheer we could."

Christmas in America - Jamestown

The colonists landed and solemnly founded Jamestown on May 13, 1607. That year Yule-tide - Christmas in America - was spent by Captain Smith among the Powhatan Indians, by whom he was taken captive. This colony consisted of men only; no genuine Christmas in America observance could take place without women and children, and no women arrived until 1609, and then only twenty came.

But after the ninety young women arrived in 1619, supplied to planters for one hundred pounds of tobacco each, there may have been an attempt at keeping Christmas in America although there is no record of the fact.

At this season there was usually a raid made upon the Indians. Smith's last expedition against them was at Christmastime, when, as he records in his journal, "The extreme winde, rayne, frost, and snow caused us to keep Christmas among the salvages where we weere never more merry, nor fed on more plenty of good Oysters, Fish, Flesh, Wild Fowl and good bread, nor never had better fires in England."

In after years prosperity smiled on the land of the Jamestown settlers. Amidst the peace and plenty that followed the earlier years of strife and poverty, the Virginians became noted for their hospitality and lavish observance of Yule-tide - Christmas in America.

It was the happy home-coming for daughters, sons, uncles, aunts, and cousins of the first, second, and even the third degree. For whosoever was of the name and lineage, whether rich or poor, was welcomed at this annual Christmas in America ingathering of the family.

Every house was filled to overflowing; great hickory fires were lighted on the open hearths; the rooms were brilliantly lighted with candles, and profusely trimmed with greens. From doors and ceilings were hung sprigs of the mysterious mistletoe, for

"O'er the lover
I'll shake the berry'd mistletoe;
that heMay long remember Christmas,"
was the thought of merry maidens as they decorated their homes.

Christmas in America - in old-time homes

Christmas brought carriage-loads of guests to these old-time homes, to partake of the good cheer and enjoy weeks of fun and frolic, indoors and out. For many days before Christmas arrived, colored cooks, the regular, and extra ones, were busy cooking from morning till evening, preparing for the occasion.

The storerooms were replete with every variety of tempting food the ingenious minds of the cooks could devise, for Christmas dinner was the one great test of their ability and woe to Auntie whose fire was too hot, or whose judgment was at fault on this occasion.

Lighting the Yule-Log in Colonial Days.

Lighting the Yule-Log in Colonial Days.

To the whites and blacks Christmas was a season of peace, plenty, and merriment. In the "Great House" and in the cabin there were music, dancing, and games until New Year.

Christmas in America - Virginia

The gladsome Virginia Christmas in America in time became the typical one of the South, where it was the red-letter day of the year, the most joyous of all holidays. The churches were lovingly and tastefully decorated with boughs of green and flowers by the ladies themselves and conscientiously attended by both old and young. In the South there was never any of the somberness that attended church services in the North among descendants of the Plymouth Colony who came to America later.

Christmas in America - and the Puritans of Plymouth

The Puritans of England early discountenanced the observance of Christmas. But among the Pilgrims who reached the American coast in December, 1620, were mothers who had lived so long in Holland they loved the old-time custom of making merry on that day. To these dear women, and to the kind-hearted, child-loving Elder Brewster, we are indebted for the first observance of the day held by the Plymouth Colony.

According to the Journal of William Bradford, kept for so many years, the Pilgrims went ashore, "and ye 25 day (Dec.) begane to erecte ye first house for comone use to receive them and their goods." Bradford conscientiously refrains from alluding to the day as Christmas, but descendants of these godly Puritans are glad to learn that home-making in New England was begun on Christmas Day.

Many very interesting stories have been written about this first Christmas. One writer even pictures the more lenient Elder Brewster as going ashore that morning and inviting the Indian Chief Massasoit to go aboard the Mayflower with him.

According to the story, the good man endeavored to impress the chief with the solemnity and significance of the occasion, and then with Massasoit, two squaws, and six boys and girls, becomingly attired in paint and feathers, he returned to the ship.

The women and children from over the sea met their new neighbors and guests, received from them little baskets of nuts and wintergreen berries, and in exchange gave their guests beads, toys, raisins, and such simple gifts, to which Elder Brewster added a blessing bestowed upon each child.

The story reads well. But the truth, according to history, makes the first visit of Massasoit occur some three months later, on March twenty-second. The Puritans had a happy Christmas dinner together on board the ship which was the only home they possessed as yet, and it is to be presumed that the exceedingly conscientious non-observers of the day partook quite as freely of the salt fish, bacon, Brussels sprouts, gooseberry tarts, and English plum pudding, as did those homesick, tear-choked women who prepared the dinner.

It is certainly to be regretted that vessels are no longer built with the wonderful storage capacity of the Mayflower! Beside bringing over the innumerable family relics that are treasured throughout this country, it is stated that this ship brought a barrel full of ivy, holly, laurel, and immortelles, with which the table was decorated, and wreaths woven for the children to wear.

Bless those dear, brave women who dared to bring "green stuff" for "heathenish decorations" way across the ocean! Let us add a few extra sprays of green each Christmas in memory of them. The greens, plum puddings, and other good things had such a happy effect that, according to Bradford, "at night the master caused us to have some Beere." This was an event worthy of a capital B, as the men had worked all day in the biting cold at house-building, with only a scanty supply of water to drink.

Christmas in America - on the Mayflower!

Alas! That Christmas on the Mayflower was the last the Pilgrims were to enjoy for many a long year. Other ship-loads of people arrived during the year and in 1621, "One ye day called Christmas Day, ye Gov. called them out to worke (as was used), but ye most of this new company excused themselves and said it wente against their consciences to work on yt day. So ye Gov. tould them that if they made it mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away ye rest and left them, but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in ye streete at play, openly, some pitching ye bair, and some at stoole-ball, and shuch-like sports. So he went to them and tooke away their implements, and tould them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others worke. If they made ye keeping of it mater of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but ther should be no gameing or revelling in ye streets. Since which time nothing had been attempted that way, at least openly." And thus ended the last attempt at Christmas observance during Governor Bradford's many terms of office.

Christmas in America - The Massachusetts Colony

The Massachusetts Colony that arrived in 1630, and settled in and around Boston, believed that Christ's mission on earth as the Saviour of man was too serious a one to be celebrated by the fallen race. He came to save; they considered it absolutely wicked for any one to be lively and joyous when he could not know whether or no he was doomed to everlasting punishment. Beside that, jollity often led to serious results.

Were not the jails of Old England full to repletion the day after Christmas? It was wisest, they thought, to let the day pass unnoticed. And so only occasionally did any one venture to remember the fact of its occurrence. Among the men and women who came across the ocean during succeeding years there must have been many who differed from the first colony in regard to Christmas, for in May, 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts deemed it necessary to enact a law:

"That whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labour, feasting, or any other way, upon any such accounts as aforesaid, shall be subjected to a fine of five shillings."

Christmas in America - deemed unlawful!

For upward of twenty-two years it remained unlawful in Massachusetts to have a merry Christmas. There were no pretty gifts on that day to make happy little God-be-thanked, Search-the-scriptures, Seek-wisdom, Prudence, Hope, or Charity. However, Santa Claus had emissaries abroad in the land. In December, 1686, Governor Andros, an Episcopalian, and a representative of the King, brought about the first concession in favor of the day.

He believed in celebrating Christmas in America and intended to hold appropriate services. The law enacted by Parliament in June, 1647, abolishing the observance of the day, had been repealed in 1659, and Gov. Andros knew he had the law in his favor.

But every meeting-house was conscientiously (or stubbornly) closed to him. So he was forced to hold service in the Town House, going with an armed soldier on each side to protect him from the "good will" exhibited by his fellow townsmen. He held services that day, and it is believed to be the first observance of Christmas held under legal sanction in Boston.

The great concession was made by the Old South Congregation in 1753 when it offered its sanctuary to the worshipers in King's Chapel, after that edifice was burned, for them to hold their Christmas services. It was with the implicit understanding that there was to be no spruce, holly, or other greens used on that occasion to desecrate their meeting-house.

Christmas in America - becoming a favorite holiday

Little by little the day was brought into favor as a holiday, but it was as late as the year 1856, while Nathaniel P. Banks was Governor, that the day was made a legal holiday in Massachusetts.

Christmas in America - and the Manhattan island

The good Dutch Fathers, true to the teachings of their forefathers, sailed for the New World with the image of St. Nicholas for a figurehead on their vessel. They named the first church they built for the much-loved St. Nicholas and made him patron saint of the new city on Manhattan Island.

Thanks, many many thanks, to these sturdy old Dutchmen with unpronounceable names who preserved to posterity so many delightful customs of Christmas observance. What should we have done without them? They were quite a worthy people notwithstanding they believed in enjoying life and meeting together for gossip and merrymaking.

Christmas in America was a joyful season with them. The churches and quaint gabled houses were trimmed with evergreens, great preparations were made for the family feasts, and business was generally suspended. The jolly old City Fathers took a prolonged rest from cares of office, even ordering on December 14, 1654, that, "As the winter and the holidays are at hand, there shall be no more ordinary meetings of this board (the City Corporation) between this date and three weeks after Christmas. The Court messenger is ordered not to summon any one in the meantime."

Christmas in America - rest from business

Sensible old souls! They were not going to allow business to usurp their time and thought during this joyful season! The children must have their trees, hung with gifts; the needy must be especially cared for, and visits must be exchanged; so the City was left to take care of itself, while each household was busy making ready for the day of days, the season of seasons.

What a time those hausfraus had polishing up their silver, pewter, brass, and copper treasures, in opening up best rooms, and newly sanding the floors in devious intricate designs! What a pile of wood was burned to bake the huge turkeys, pies, and puddings!

What pains the fathers took to select the rosiest apples and the choicest nuts to put in each child's stocking on Christmas Eve. Fortunately, children obeyed the injunction of Scripture in those days, and despised not the day of small things.

How fortunate it was that there were no trains or other rapid modes of conveyance to bring visitors from the Puritan Colonies at this season. There was no possibility of any of their strict neighbors dropping in unexpectedly to furnish a free lecture, while the Dutch families were merrily dancing.

The Puritans were located less than two hundred and eighty-five miles distant, yet they were more distantly separated by ideas than by space. But a little leaven was eventually to penetrate the entire country, and the customs that are now observed each Christmas throughout the Eastern, Middle, and Western States, are mainly such as were brought to this country by the Dutch.

Americans have none of their own. In fact, they possess but little that is distinctively their own because they are a conglomerate nation, speaking a conglomerate language.

Christmas in America - a mosaic from many lands

According to the late Lawrence Hutton, "Our Christmas carols appear to have come from the Holy Land itself; our Christmas trees from the East by way of Germany; our Santa Claus from Holland; our stockings hung in the chimney, from France or Belgium; and our Christmas cards and verbal Christmas greetings, our Yule-logs, our boars' heads, our plum puddings and our mince pies from England. Our turkey is, seemingly, our only contribution." Let us add the squash-pie!

Christmas in America

These customs which have become general throughout the United States, varying of course in different localities, are being rapidly introduced into the new possessions where they are engrafted on some of the prettiest customs observed by the people in former years. In Porto Rico on Christmas Day they have a church procession of children in beautiful costumes, which is a very attractive feature.

The people feast, dance, attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve, then dance and feast until Christmas morning. In fact they dance and feast most of the time from December twenty-fourth until January seventh, when not at church services. On Twelfth Night gifts are exchanged, for as yet Santa Claus has not ventured to visit such a warm climate, so the children continue to receive their gifts from the Holy Kings.

However, under the shelter of the American Flag, the Christmas tree is growing in favor. In Hawaii, so far as possible, the so-called New England customs prevail.

In the Philippines even beggars in the streets expect a "Christmas present," which they solicit in good English.

So from Alaska to the Island of Tutuila, the smallest of America's possessions, Yule-tide is observed in a similar manner.

Yule-tide has been singularly connected with important events in the history of the United States.

Christmas in America - Washington crossed the Delaware!

In the year 1776 Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night to capture nearly one thousand Hessians after their Christmas in America revelries. A few days later, December 30th, Congress resolved to send Commissioners to the courts of Vienna, Spain, France, and Tuscany; and as victory followed the American leader, the achievements of this Yule-tide were declared by Frederick the Great of Prussia to be "the most brilliant of any recorded in the annals of military action." The year following, 1777, was probably one of the gloomiest Yule-tides in the experience of the American forces. They lay encamped at Valley Forge, sick and discouraged, destitute of food, clothing, and most of the necessities of life.

Left: The Night Before Christmas

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Christmas in America

It was on Christmas Eve, 1783, that Washington laid aside forever his military clothes and assumed those of a civilian, feeling, as he expressed it, "relieved of a load of public care." After Congress removed to Philadelphia, Martha Washington held her first public reception in the Executive Mansion on Christmas Eve, when, it is stated, there was gathered "the most brilliant assemblage ever seen in America."

At Yule-tide a few years later, 1799, the country was mourning the death of the beloved Father of his Country.

Christmas in America - and the great events

In later years, the season continued prominent in the history of great events. The most notable of these were the two Proclamations of President Lincoln, the one freeing the slaves, January 1, 1863, and the other proclaiming the "unconditional pardon and amnesty to all concerned in the late insurrection," on December 25, 1868. And may the peace then declared remain with this people forevermore!

Christmas in America