Christmas in British and French Colonial America
This article stems from research done for the historical novels, The Pride of the King and Beyond the Cliffs of Kerry available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
The English and the French that settled Colonial America brought long standing Christmas traditions of spiritual celebration, feasting, games, music and dancing to the New World. With this new landscape and lifestyle they incorporated Old World traditions into new celebrations, some of which still exist today.
While the English Puritans and devout Anglicans observed only the spiritual aspects of Christmas, many groups were far more liberal with feasting and music. Those with wealth gave elaborate balls and sponsored fox hunts as the ordinary colonist prepared special meals of turkey, roast beef, root vegetables and wassail, syllabub or cider.
English homes were decorated with evergreen or ivy on the mantle and around the windows, accented with pinecones and berries. These embellishments were simple by our standards today. Wreathes were fashioned of natural New World materials, such as dried fruit, shells and feathers. Flowers and aromatic herbs were scattered throughout the house as well. The tradition of the Christmas tree was not observed until the mid-nineteenth century by the Germans.
The ancient tradition of burning a Yule log was brought to the New World too. To honor Christ bringing light to the world, a huge slow burning log was thrown onto the grate adding not only warmth but as a celebration of the savior’s gift of light. Burning a blaze of candles on Christmas Eve by the colonists was another way to symbolize Christ’s light of the world as well.
The Christmas season extended until Epiphany on January 6th. At that time landholders threw lavish balls and gave servants and slaves small gifts. The widespread gift giving we observe today was not traditional in English or French Colonial America.
The French also brought their Christmas traditions to the New World. There was feasting, music and games and they too decorated their homes and churches with pine boughs and berries and pinecones.
The Christmas Nativity or Crèche was an essential element of Christmas for the French and these figurines were placed in many homes and churches. The colonists were unable to construct elaborate statues of the Holy Family, so instead fashioned the Nativity out of corn husks and the stable out of bark and straw.
Predominantly Roman Catholic, the French started their Christmas celebration with midnight Mass followed by a Reveillon, or party. After attending Mass, parishioners would file back to their homes holding candles or torches where the feasting and dancing would commence. The French table consisted of turkey, la tourtiere, a traditional holiday meat pie, wine and a Buche de Noel, a cake shaped like the Yule log. The dining and dancing would last well until dawn. The Reveillon is still observed today among the French Canadians, and by many French families in Louisiana.
The French New Year was observed with La Guiannee. Young men disguised as woodland animals would beg food and drink from the wealthy residents of the village and these items would then be served at a Twelfth Night feast and dance a week later. This tradition like so many of the Christmas traditions of English and French Colonial America still survive today in one form or another.