My great grandmother Mary Dean Redfield Norvell’s family came from New England whereas her husband Colonel Freeman Norvell’s family were from Virginia. As such, when you have ancestors from both the north and south, you are often curious how they celebrated major holidays such as Christmas.
The country’s first colonial Christmas occurred at Jamestown in 1607, when the settlers feasted and rejoiced in the holiday. Later, in 1613, Captain John Smith recorded in his journal that the colonists had eaten oysters, fish, fowl, good bread, and had never been more merry. In contrast, Christmas 1620 in Plymouth was a work day. Governor William Bradford ordered that there should be no games or revels in the streets. Likewise, the Puritans banned Christmas in 1659 and threatened a five shilling fine for celebrating the holiday. Later, they chased a stranger out of New England when they discovered that he was a “Christmas Man.” To the Puritans, Christmas smelled of idolatry,
In the south, Christmas preparations began right after Thanksgiving when cakes were baked, soaked with wine or brandy and put away to age. Once the big houses were cleaned and decorated, nightly parties continued until after New Years. Residents of Williamsburg looked forward to fireworks, firing of cannons to salute the holidays, and parties. In other southern states, there was noise, rockets fired, and much shouting and cheering. Farmers and frontiersmen welcomed the holiday and met to socialize and exhibit their skills in turkey shoots. In general, the custom of Christmas gun shooting prevailed through out the South.
George Washington’s 1759 holiday had a blazing yule log, firecrackers, and greenery in the halls of Mt. Vernon to mark his marriage to Martha Custis. That year, Washington gave his stepchildren, John and Patsy, several gifts including a “bird on a bellows, a man smoakg (smoking), and a neat dress’d wax baby.” Yearly feasts and celebrations continued at Mt. Vernon until the coming of the War. Washington had another memorable Christmas in 1776. The Hessian mercenaries that fought in the Revolutionary War marked the holiday with a rousing German festival, which included Christmas trees. While they feasted, George Washington crossed the Delaware with his troops and defeated them at the Battle of Trenton. The Germans were too busy to set a watch.
By 1836, Alabama became the first state to recognize Christmas as a legal holiday, and by 1890 the remaining states and the District of Columbia had granted similar status. Christmas is the only annual holiday to hold both secular and religious status.