Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Colonial Christmas, Feast and Customs, by Diane Scott Lewis

For years I lived near the historic town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, named after the then Prince of Wales, Frederick Louis, father of George III. Poor Fred never did become king.
Fredericksburg was an important tobacco-shipping town on the Rappahannock River. I decided to write a Christmas story set during the dawn of the American Revolution, when Virginia, at the time of my story, was still part of England. Researching in the Virginiana Room at the local library, I came across many interesting Christmas customs from this time period—but I found that many originated from earlier eras before Christianity.


In the eighteenth century, the cooking would have been performed in a broad, deep hearth, with a wide chimney where meat could be smoked. Ham, an expensive cut of meat, was popular for a holiday feast.

On December 12th, the Yule Log would be put into the dining room fireplace. This log was kept burning until January sixth, with enough left over to kindle the following year’s Yule Log. The custom of burning the Yule Log dates back before medieval times and was originally a Nordic tradition left over from the pagan days of celebrating the Winter Solstice.

Mince pies were prepared, basically as they are today. But also a specialty called a "stack" cake would be served.

Sweetened, spiced dough was rolled into thin layers, and slices cut using a dinner plate to form a perfect circle. After baking, the cake rose but little. The colonials cooked dried apples and peaches separately, then spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg the fruit was mashed and spread like paste between the cake layers. The cake would be allowed to sit a few days to soak up the fruit.

Another cake would be prepared with a bean baked into one slice. The person who got that particular slice became the King of Misrule. He would rule from Christmas day to Twelfth Night, performing various trifling acts to ensure good weather for the next year. He’d also preside over celebrations, and sometimes cause mischief. This custom can be traced back to ancient Rome, when the King (or Lord) of Misrule was appointed for the feast of Saturnalia, and he represented the good god Saturn. During this time the ordinary rules of life were reversed as masters served their slaves.


Back to the eighteenth century, for holiday decoration, a Christmas Bush would be fashioned using two wooden rings. Binding the rings side by side, fresh cuttings of evergreen, boxwood and sweet William were added. Bright red apples, some rare lemons and pine cones were included for color.

On Christmas day, after dark, the bush was hung in the window with a candle at its center.


For a table centerpiece, a wooden cone adorned with headless nails was speared with apples. Boxwood was stuffed around the apples, and a pineapple put on the top.

On Christmas morning, the people attended church service. Returning to their residence, the home’s owner would enter the house with two sprigs of holly, thus ensuring he would remain master of his house for the coming year.

Then the meal would be laid out for family and friends who might drop by. A punchbowl filled with tea, sugar, pineapple juice and rum was placed next to the centerpiece. As well as the punch, another popular drink was "bumbo" made with rum and sweetened water.

Dried figs and nuts were available to snack on. The ham, smoking for hours, was brought out surrounded by sweet yams. Two roasted fowl would be added to the meat choices. The bread was usually cornbread, served with a hunk of butter.

Muskets and pistols would be fired outside to augment the Christmas festivity.

Celebrations and church attendance on specific days would last until Twelfth Night. This tradition marks the feast of Epiphany, when the three wise men brought gifts to the baby Jesus.

Sources: Wikipedia and the Virginiana Room at the Rappahannock Regional Library, Fredericksburg, Virginia.
And the Williamsburg Marketplace

For more information on my eighteenth-century novels, visit my website:

http://www.dianescottlewis.org