Christmas in Colonial Virginia

Sunset on December 2, on the James River near Jamestown Island.

Sunset on December 2, on the James River near Jamestown Island.

Our Christmas is an amalgamation of many diverse strands of meaning, custom, and tradition.  The first English colonists who ventured to Virginia on behalf of the Virginia Company of London brought their traditions and customs with them.  And those customs were already an odd mix drawing bits from the ancient world of the Neolithic Celts, the Greeks and the Romans; all molded into the contemporary post-Reformation culture of urban England.

Keep in mind that the early Virginia colonists were a mix of gentlemen, craftsmen, and soldiers; who came to Virginia as a business venture to find gold, as the Spanish had further south, and to look for that elusive trade route to the rich markets of Asia.  Unlike their Puritanical cousins who settled further north along the coast 13 years later, they were not a particularly religious lot.  Members of the Church of England, they came in search of profit.  Unsuccessful in those early attempts to find gold or other valuable minerals, they eventually settled on turning a profit from agriculture and trade.

Hungry deer can be found all along the Parkway

Hungry deer can be found all along the Colonial Parkway.  Though game was plentiful, early colonists rarely left their fort to hunt due to the threat of attack from the local native tribes on whose hunting land they had settled.

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And so their traditional English Christmas celebrations from Christmas Eve until Twelfth Night were about good food, plentiful drink, merry making; with a church service to mark Christmas Day.

Going back to the beginning proves a useful way to understand where we find ourselves today.  And the “beginning” of our Christmas can be found all around the planet in the celebrations of the return of the sun after the winter solstice.

Even Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland are built to track the movement of the sun.  The winter solstice sunset is perfectly framed in the great trilithon at Stonehenge.  Visitors arriving at Stonehenge from the Avenue look directly into the sunset on the winter solstice.   Sunrise on winter solstice, from December 19 to 23 sends a beam of light down the passage at Newgrange to illuminate the heart of its chamber.  Newgrange was constructed around 3200 BC; Stonehenge sometime later over a period of several centuries.  Archeological evidence has been found which indicates that feasts were held at Stonehenge to mark the winter solstice.

Winter solstice celebrations are about reversals.  Most simply, the sun reverses in its path across the horizon and in doing so, rises higher in the sky each day; illuminating the Earth for longer and longer days.  The “re-birth of the sun” with its promise of survival for another year lies at the heart of the celebration.  The Romans called the festival “Deus Sol Invictus” or the festival of the Undefeated Sun God.

Sunset fills the sky a little earlier each day.  By December there is little left to eat except for fish and game near Jamestown colony.

Sunset fills the sky a little earlier each day. By December there is little left to eat except for fish and game near Jamestown colony.

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At the time of year when days are short and cold, food scarce, and weather fierce, people gather together in extended families and communities to celebrate the return of the sun.  They hope their family will be among those who survive the winter and greet a new year.  This has been true since Neolithic times, probably before, and certainly was true in Colonial Virginia.

Animals slaughtered in December won’t need to be fed from precious stores of grain during winter.  So meat is abundant for feasting.  Fermentation of beer, ale, and cider is complete so strong drink is available.  Yule logs are lit in the hearth and parties with games and song continue through the long nights.  This was the original celebration at the solstice.

At the solstice, when the sun reversed direction, it became common for people to reverse their roles as well.  The “Lord of Misrule” from Rome’s Saturnalia survived in English custom and came with the early settlers to Jamestown.  Dressed in colorful costumes with lace, ribbons, bells, the “Lord of Misrule” and his merry company led the festivity and songs.

Christmas of 1606 found the first Jamestown colonists still at sea on their small ships.  They didn’t land at Jamestown Island until May 14 of 1607.  Their first Christmas in Jamestown found them hungry and at odds with the local native tribes.

Captain John Smith went to Chief Powhatan’s seat of government at Werowocomoco to trade in hopes of bringing much needed food home to Jamestown.  Instead, he was held prisoner for a time while he was questioned by the chief about the colonists’ intent.  The colonists, fewer than half of those who had arrived in May, huddled against the cold in their settlement over that first Christmas.

Canadian Geese on the James River yesterday afternoon.

Canadian Geese  are abundant on the James River .

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Little written record is left by diarists about those first Christmas celebrations in the Jamestown colony.  We know that the colonists would have found an abundance of evergreen holly, pine, cedar, mistletoe, and magnolia to cut for decorations if they wanted to brighten their living quarters.  They had a minister and a church was among the first structures built in 1607, so a Christmas service most likely was held.

Christmas 1608 found Captain Smith and his men in Kecoughtan, modern Hampton, again on a mission to trade with the local natives for food.  A fierce storm was blowing and he stayed with the natives living there for about a week, during which they feasted on seafood and other native foods.  Smith recorded in his diary, “There, the extreame wind, raine, frost, and snowe, caused us to keepe Christmas amongst the Salvages, where wee were never more merrie, nor fedde on more plentie of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild foule, and good bread, nor never had better fires in England then in the drie warme smokie houses of Kecoughtan.”

Brackish water surrounds Jamestown Island, and there is no spring or well.  When drought left the James even saltier than usual, the colonists suffered without fresh pure water to drink.

Brackish water surrounds Jamestown Island, and there is no spring or well. When drought left the James even saltier than usual, the colonists suffered without fresh pure water to drink.

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The few records we have indicate that the winter months were especially brutal on the early colonists, and that Christmas was remembered mainly with religious observances and carols.  Surely a Yule log was lit for light and heat in the drafty shelters where the colonists lived together.  We remember the winter of 1609-1610 as “the starving time” when all but 60 of the 500 colonists perished.  They were prepared to abandon the colony and return to England when ships arrived in June bringing fresh supplies, a new governor, and a new group of colonists.

Once the colony grew stronger and more secure, more English customs were reinstated.  One of the much loved customs from home brought to Virginia was “The Lord of Misrule”, who presided over the festivities.  Dressed in a bright costume, he led the music making, games, feasting, drinking, dancing and revelry on Christmas Day.

Jamestown Island is surrounded by marsh.  The early colonists didn't know that cattails growing in the marsh can be eaten.

Jamestown Island is surrounded by marsh. The early colonists didn’t know that cattails growing in the marsh can be eaten.

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Back home in England, tensions over Christmas were already apparent.  The Church of Scotland had banned Christmas in 1583.  They recognized its strong roots in ancient “pagan” cultures, and that most of its customs came from the Roman holiday called “Saturnalia.”

During the week long celebration of Saturnalia masters and slaves changed places, with the masters serving their servants a feast.  Every home was decorated with greens, herbs, fires and candles.  Normal rules and standards of behavior were generally relaxed during a week of parties, gaming, merry making, feasting, drinking and celebration.  Government, schools, and many businesses shut down.  Gifts were exchanged, music made, and bands of carolers even ran naked in the streets with their “Lord of Misrule.”

In fact, when the Roman government decided to adopt Christianity in the mid-Fourth Century CE, they promised converts that they could keep their Saturnalia celebrations.  The Gospels don’t record a year or date for the birth of Jesus, but the new Roman church adopted the date of December 25 in 354 CE.  This was the traditional date for the birthday of previous “Sun Gods,” or “Sons of God,” including Horus, Cernunnos, and Mithras.  These gods were annually “reborn” on December 25, several days after winter solstice; when the days grew visibly longer once again and the sun was reborn in the winter sky.  Early church leaders, including St. Nicholas, believed they would gain more converts by keeping the festivals people already enjoyed.

Christ’s Mass, or Christmas, a fixture in the Roman Catholic Church, was not celebrated enthusiastically by the protestant church leaders in Scotland and England.  Christmas was banned in England by Oliver Cromwell’s government in 1652.  The Puritan Massachusetts Bay colony banned the celebration of Christmas between 1659 and 1681.  Celebrants could be arrested, fined, and punished for any observance of this “pagan” holiday.

Evergreen pine, holly, cedar and magnolia were readily available in the forest to craft Christmas decorations.

Evergreen pine, holly, cedar and magnolia were readily available in the forest to craft Christmas decorations.

Christmas was never outlawed in Virginia, and it was observed with feasting, music and revelry throughout the colony’s history.  It was a far simpler affair than it is today, however, and barely rated a mention in most surviving diaries.  There were church services, and communities came together to mark the day.

During December, I’ll continue to post about the history behind some of our favorite Christmas time traditions here in the United States.  Later this week we’ll take a look at some of our favorite Christmas decorations.

On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear what news those angels bring;
News of great joy, news of great mirth,
News of our Saviour King’s own birth.

The Sussex Carol, traditional English  

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

6 responses to “Christmas in Colonial Virginia

  1. Interesting to learn that Jamestown was largely a commercial endeavor. (History wasn’t my strong suit!) Paganism runs pretty strongly at this time of year. Like you mentioned earlier, it is practically embedded in our DNA! 🙂

    • 😉 Happy Boxing Day, Eliza! Yes, VA was settled by businessmen in search of gold and profits. There was some Utopian motivation behind the endeavor, too, by those who wanted out from under the thumb of Royals and church- but a far cry different from those who came to Massachusetts! Hope you are enjoying the weekend 😉 WG

  2. Reblogged this on Forest Garden and commented:

    Merry Christmas to you and yours on this Christmas Day. Christmas is our favorite holiday here in the U.S., It is interesting to look back and consider how the first European colonists in Virginia celebrated Christmas over 400 years ago. Please enjoy this little retrospective written last December as you take a break today from opening gifts and enjoying good food with loved ones. Thank you for your comments and likes, and for the time you spend throughout the year visiting Forest Garden. We send you all good wishes for a happy Christmas day. WG

  3. I love your first photo, beautiful sunset!!!!

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