Monday, December 11, 2023

Early Americans: To Christmas or Not to Christmas?

by Denise Weimer

As we approach Christmas, we might venture to say that most Americans, certainly those with a Christian heritage, eagerly anticipate the celebration of the holiday. However, in the early days, those of different denominational backgrounds were much more sharply divided about whether to celebrate Christmas or not.

Many early Puritans and later Protestants saw Christmas as a holiday created by the Catholic pope. Plus, the celebration led to unseemly revelry. The Scottish Presbyterians were among the skeptical, although over the years, they began to allow some religious observations after seeing other denominations celebrate. They might sing some hymns by Isaac Watts, even though he was Congregationalist.

Anglicans, Catholics, and those of Germanic descent, especially  the Moravians, were much freer in their celebrations. While Anglicans observed Advent as a time of penitence and expectation, including fasting all but one full meal a day (and that, often without meat), the feast of Christmas on December 25 began a season of the twelve days of Christmas with balls, hunts, and parties until Epiphany. Churches were decorated with boughs of holly, ivy, mountain laurel, and mistletoe hung from the roof, walls, pillars, pews, pulpit, and galleries. This was often done on Christmas Eve in “the sticking of the church.” Anglicans added lavender, rose petals, and rosemary and bay. Carols sung might have included early favorites such as “The Snow Lay on the Ground,” “The First Noel,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” “I Saw Three Ships,” and “Lully Lullay” (the Coventry Carol).

Revelers traveled in noisy groups on Christmas, Second Christmas (the day after), and New Year’s Eve morning. Sometimes these groups were called “fantasticals” or New Year’s Wishers, and they might wear costumes, carry noisemakers, and fire guns. At times, they would set out at midnight on New Year’s Eve and stop outside the windows of neighbors, asking to grant the family a wish. After the spokesman offered a blessing and they group fired guns, they might go inside  for brandy, rum punch, wassail, mince pies, or cakes. Twelfth Night, January fifth, was an occasion for many fancy balls and weddings.

Moravians, an early sect of plain people I wrote about in The Witness Tree, brought some of the earliest Christmas traditions from their native Germany. They were among the first to make use of the Christmas tree, well before Queen Victoria. The Moravian diaries of the Cherokee mission at Springplace, Georgia, state: December 21, 1805, This was a very clear but unusually cold morning. Soon after breakfast we drove about three miles from here to the Conasauga River in our dray wagon with our pupils to fetch small green trees for Christmas as well as cedar wood for delivery. We were successful in finding both, and after we had spent a very pleasant day there, we stopped in at the mill on our way home.

Shortly before Christmas, a room of the house would be closed to children while the adults prepared the putz, a display of moss, evergreen, laurel, and a grotto with a manger scene including the magi and a star.

On Christmas Eve, Moravians held a “love feast,” primarily a song service opened in prayer. Sometimes there would be two, the earlier one for children with a simple lesson and the hymn “Morning Star.” The evening service could include an address by the minister and singing of “Silent Night.” Then coffee or tea was passed in mugs from the aisle, followed by a slightly sweetened bun. Men distributed the mugs, women the baskets of bread. Children would sing verses they memorized, then be presented a gift. Finally, cream-colored candles tied with red ribbons were lit and taken home. Christmas Day heralded another morning service in which string or brass bands might provide music.

Have you had an opportunity to attend a love feast or visit a Moravian historic site? Did your ancestors or settlers in your area pass down unique Christmas traditions? If so, share below! 

Read more about the Moravians in my marriage of convenience romance, The Witness Tree, .

Denise Weimer writes historical and contemporary romance from her home in North Georgia and also serves as a freelance editor and the Acquisitions & Editorial Liaison for Wild Heart Books. A wife and mother of two daughters, she always pauses for coffee, chocolate, and old houses.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today. I had not heard of many of these celebrations. It's interesting to know about them. I'd like to see a "putz", it sounds unique.