Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Little Christmas History

by Linda LaRoque

In the early 1700s New England, Christmas was not celebrated in the colonies. In some it was even banned, and those caught celebrating would be fined. The Puritans and Calvinists considered Christmas to be similar to the Catholic pomp and idolatry, or worse, the pagan rituals of the Druids.

The Quakers in the Pennsylvania area didn't regard Christmas any different from any other day. Stores were open, there was no more baking than normal and no Christmas porridge on Christmas Eve.

As time passed and more immigrants moved to the Americas, they brought their traditions with them. Eventually the laws against celebrating Christmas were lifted. In 1856 Christmas was made an official holiday in New England.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia Commons
For the Anglicans, the holiday began with the Christian liturgical year, the four week period before Christmas. Time was spent in religious services, fasting, praying. It was also a time of reflection, anticipation and expectation for the coming of Christ. Both churches and homes were adorned with all types of greenery, especially those with colorful berries. Mistletoe and Holly along with evergreens were favorites. Evergreens were shaped into wreaths and tied into boughs. They added color and fragrance to their homes and were the most common decorations until the Christmas tree was introduced by Prince Albert in Victorian England.

Mistletoe was popular in the 18th century and was arranged in large clusters and tied with ribbons. The bundles were major focal points in colonial homes. The hanging of mistletoe resulted from an ancient Druid belief that it warded off evil spirits and promised fertility of crops for the coming spring.

Families attended church services, Christmas carols and hymns were sung. The most most popular of the time were those written by Isaac Watts. He wrote "Joy to the World," "The First Noel," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," among a few.

The giving of gifts wasn't as big a thing as it is today. Contemporary shops would set up displays of typical gifts such as little books, candles, and candy. It was not uncommon to give a cash tip as a gift. The Christmas card as we know it was introduced in the 1800s along with Santa Claus and the filling of shoes, and eventually stockings, with candy, fruit, nuts, and other small gifts.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
Christmas during the Civil War.

As you read in my post on December 4th here on Sweethearts of the West, Christmas feasts were extravagant for those in the cities and on farms where livestock and wild life was plentiful. For those in the wilderness and homesteads far from town, celebrations were simple in comparison.

From Dicken's Christmas Past
Courtesy Wikipedia Comons
Activities of this era did not center around the children, but rather around the adults. Children were not welcome at the fox hunts, the balls and parties. And the celebration didn't end on Christmas Day. Our ancestors didn't know what we know about the 'twelve days of Christmas'—twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany on January 6th, because Christmas day had a different connotation back then. They believed the twelve days began on Christmas day and continued for a full twelve days. Nor did they have the extravagance of Santa in his sleigh filled with toys and presents under the tree.

Christmas on the prairie was often a difficult time, especially if facing blizzards and December storms, but every effort was made to celebrate, no matter how small or meager their supplies. Some people who rarely went to town, made a trip before Christmas for extra supplies, shoes and clothing which was often given to the family as gifts. Around remote military posts, soldiers could be heard singing carols, and venison roasted on an open fire filling the air with a pleasing aroma. Writer Washington Irving wrote about the explorations of Army Captain Benjamin Bonneville in the Oregon territory. They were friendly with the Indians and Kowsoter, the local chief, invited the entire company to a feast. Following the meal, both Indian and white men competed in games of strength and ability.

If the home had room, which many early prairie homes did not, there was a Christmas tree. It might have been a cottonwood, scrub brush or a tumble weed. Every effort was given to making it look festive. Bits of ribbon, berries and popcorn strings, pieces of colored paper and possibly candles. The candles were placed in tin holders and when lit, were never left unattended for fear of fire. Gifts were most often hand made—knitted scarves, mittens, socks, dolls made of fabric (rag dolls), and stuffed with straw and miniature quilts. Boys received wooden toys like tops or other toys made from available wood. Some gifts were placed on tree branches, others were place under the tree.

Those traveling west on wagon trains also celebrated. Dinner would be sausage, biscuits, rice and game if available. Pies and cakes would be baked and served with precious commodities brought from home—preserves, tea, coffee and possibly a fruit cake they'd saved for the occasion.

This is the first commercially produced Christmas card. It was designed John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole.

I hope you've enjoyed this sample of Christmas customs and celebrations in our country. Unfortunately I was unable to find any pictures of Christmases on the prairie. I hope my descriptions will paint a picture in your mind. 


Writers Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West.

Thank you for stopping by. I hope you'll leave a comment.



  1. Very nice post, Linda. I enjoyed reading it. Merry Christmas to you.

  2. Linda--what a lovely post! Just right for Christmas Eve. I thank you for this. It seems like a gift. Now after the Christmas Eve service tonight, I will feel as though Christmas has come.
    But first--one more day to shop!

  3. What wonderful Christmas facts, Linda. A peek at a bit simpler times. Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  4. Thank you, Caroline, Celia and Tanya. I enjoyed learning some new info in gathering the information.

    Hope you all had a Merry Christmas!


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