Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg

Now Christmas comes, ‘tis fit that we
Should feast and sing, and merry be;
Keep open house, let fiddlers play,
A fig for cold, sing care away;
And may they who thereat repine,
On brown bread and small beer dine.

Virginia Almanack 1766

To paraphrase former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld: There’s the Williamsburg Christmas we ought to have and the Williamsburg Christmas we actually have.

And thus are culinary myths born.

Modern-day Williamsburg Christmas only faintly resembles Williamsburg Christmases past. Only in 1935 did the current trend in decorating begin in Colonial Williamsburg, thanks to the bottomless coffers of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, who restored what used to be Virginia’s capitol city until 1780. Prior to that, people would place greenery boughs and simple wreaths inside their homes and that was about it. No one used fresh fruit in decorations, for such a practice would waste scarce and costly food.

Christmas in colonial Williamsburg was celebrated in a fairly somber manner. Since most Virginians followed the tenets of the Anglican Church, like Catholics, they observed the season of Advent, fasting and repenting of sins real and imagined. Yet families enjoyed dances and parties. A celebratory meal on Christmas Day followed. Diaries and letters, such as a few of George Washington’s, mention church services and a nice meal. Unfortunately the details of dinner menu rarely merit a mention. Servants, originally indentured,* were sometimes given part of the day off and some money, mostly just the odd coin or two.

Traditionally Dressed Interpreters

Since large extended families gathered at Christmas, weddings abounded at this time of the year, too.

London Magazine in 1746 stated that

All over the Colony, an universal Hospitality reigns, full Tables and open Doors, the kind salute, the generous Detention …  . Strangers are fought after with Greediness, as they pass the Country, to be invited.

The groaning tables held a magnificent array of food, including fresh meat, because butchering took place during this period of cooler weather.

The wealthier members of society hired special cooks to create pastillage, scenes made of sugar, marzipan, and pastry, similar to the little ceramic (or plastic) houses and whole “antique” villages popular today. And dessert tables abounded as well.

Food arrived on Williamsburg’s Christmas tables in many forms. Some came from England, in the holds of leaky sailing ships. But much came from the local bounty that made the starvation at Jamestown seem unreal. Roast beef or venison, duck, turkey, geese, pheasants, partridges, oysters, clams, fish, mussels, mincemeat pies, plum pudding, fruitcakes, nuts, jellies, fresh fruit, pickles of various types, puddings — all these brought full bellies and warm memories.

Still Life with Oysters, by Osias Beert (1610)

Fresh oysters no doubt appeared on the tables of most celebrants, but just to make sure they’d have their oysters, housewives learned to pickle oysters, too.

To Pickle Oysters

Take a quart of large oysters in ye. full of ye. moon perboyld in there one liquar for ye. pickle take ye. liquar a pt of white wine & vinegar mace pepper & salt boyle & scum it wth. Tis Cold keep ye. oysters in this pickle (Anonymous 18th century manuscript cookbook)

For further reading:

Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library

Lewis, Taylor Biggs and Joanne B. Young. Christmas in Williamsburg. Revised Edition. 1976.

Oliver, Libbey Hodges et al. Colonial Williamsburg Decorates for Christmas. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 1981.

Oliver, Libbey Hodges and Theobald, Mary Miley. Williamsburg Christmas. 1999.

Rountree, Susan Hight. Christmas Decorations from Williamsburg. 1991.

Sheppard, Donna C. A Williamsburg Christmas. Colonial Wiliamsburg Foundation. 1980.

*90% of early Virginia settlers were indentured servants, as opposed to 1.85% in New England.

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One comment

  1. Very interesting. I have not been to Williamsburg (yet) but I’ve heard marvelous things about their Christmas celebration. Isn’t it funny how we idealize different time periods, places but in actuality they were not that different from our own, or even less spectacular than what we see today?

    Jen

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