A Look at a Williamsburg Christmas During Colonial Times

Christmas is come, hang on the pot, Let spits turn round, and ovens be hot; Beef, pork, and poultry, now provide To feast thy neighbors at this tide; Then wash all down with good wine and beer, And so with mirth conclude the Year.



Virginia Almanac (Royle) 1765

This poem from 1765 makes the holiday sound strikingly similar to today’s traditions – but there are a few specific changes we’ve made over the years. Ranging from tree trimming to gift giving, traditions have changed a bit.

red and green stockings hung off mantle

Gift Giving Was a Bit Different Without Santa Claus in the mix, eighteenth century shopkeepers would suggest items appropriate for gifting. Customs like candy in wooden clogs, came over from Europe and eventually transformed into stockings. Learn more about it here

12 Days of Christmas: Each night of Christmas was celebrated and Twelfth Night was the most festive night for parties and balls. While most people who observe Christmas today only celebrate the 24th and 25th, the advent calendar is a relic of the past that carries the tradition of multiple days of merriment. 

12th Night:  Dancing, drinking, eating, and games ruled. Perhaps a bean and a pea, or two coins of different value, baked into the Twelfth Night cake.  Selecting this “King of the Bean,” for instance, is a custom as old as the Roman Saturnalia. The idea was to bake a bean into a cake, with the honorific going to the person who drew the lucky portion. The lucky pieces settled the succession of the party and the cake from year to year. Learn more here

happy Twelfth Night scene
Twelfth Cake

Lord of Misrule:  The chosen captain of all holiday mischief always wears yellow and green scarves as he does a jolly dance through the streets on Christmas Day. This whimsical tradition fell out of fashion when more puritanical ideals took hold. Today, a holly jolly Santa Claus has the cheery undertones of this character without the mischief.   

No Christmas Trees: The tradition of a Christmas tree first started to catch on in Europe in 1848 when a decorated tree graced Windsor Castle. Around the same time Professor Charles Minnegerode, moved to the United States to teach German at The College of William and Mary. With him came the tradition of tree trimming when he delighted students by decorating a tree outside the St. George Tucker House. In 1928, The Richmond News Leader wrote about this grand day when Martha Vandergrift decades later. Learn more here.

Decorations: You’ll see gorgeous wreaths up and down Duke of Gloucester Street this year; a time honored tradition, though one that we can’t be sure the accuracy of. One thing is for sure; the hanging of a sprig of mistletoe was a common practice in these days.

Tune into this local program to learn more about what a Colonial Christmas was like with a guest appearance from the Lord of Misrule and demonstrations of traditions of the past.

As we look back through history and observe the traditions of the past, it begs the question, what traditions will stand the test of time and what will change or fade away in the future? Are there any traditions you would like to add or traditions you can’t stand?

One tradition that seems to stick is a holiday greeting in all shapes, sizes, and languages. So Merry Christmas to all!

lady in green blouse and skirt standing in doorway of cabin