Christmas in early America

Christmas in early America

By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

The intrepid Captain John Smith, on one of his expeditions out of Jamestown, wrote in his journal an account of what was probably the first recorded Christmas celebration in North America. The year was 1608, and the noted Captain described the occasion thusly: “The extreme winds and rayne, frost, and snow prevented our returning home and caused us to keep Christmas among the savages where we were never more merry, nor fed on more plenty of good oysters, fish, flesh, wilde fowl, and good bread, nor never had better fires in England.”

In 1621, Governor Bradford of Plymouth records in his diary that on the day called Christmas, their first in the New World, the Pilgrims were called out to work as usual, but some complained this went against their consciences and, instead, played games such as stool ball and pitching the bar.

The Puritans were much more conservative in their beliefs and did not believe Dec. 25 was the date of the Nativity and prohibited any “pagan revelry.” A law was enacted in 1659 in Massachusetts that said, “Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting or in any other way shall be subject to a fine of five schillings.” It was not until the middle of the of the 19th century that Christmas became a day of gift-giving, Christmas trees, and festivities in New England and among those Yankees who settled the Midwest.

The fun-loving early Dutch colonists of New Amsterdam (New York), although they observed Christmas by attending church services, singing carols, and having family gatherings, made it their principal holiday when Sint Klaas (St. Nicholas) came to visit astride his white horse to fill the children’s stockings with gifts.

In the southern colonies there was usually visiting between members of neighboring plantations and farms, with feasting, dancing, and primitive fireworks. It was the custom to present each servant or slave with a gift and a holiday from work as long as the Yule log burned.

The traditional burning of the Yule log is said to be pagan in origin. It is thought it was instigated by ancient Scandinavians to honor their god Thor. The tradition of burning a Yule log became firmly entrenched in early America, though few practice it today. Usually a large log was brought to the house on Christmas Eve, placed on the hearth, and usually anointed with salt and oil before it was lit in the belief the flames would repel the devil from the household in the coming year. The variety of the log, the way it was lit, and the ceremonies attached to the ritual varied from region to region and with the ethnic background of the family.

My father, whose parents were Swedish immigrants, recalled that when he was a boy on the family farm in Rock Island County, the lighting of the Yule log on Christmas Eve was a cherished tradition. After the log was blazing, the family dined on lute fish (lutfisk), the traditional Scandinavian holiday dish

Hessian mercenary soldiers, who later formed communities of “Pennsylvania Dutch,” introduced the Christmas tree to early America during the Revolutionary War.

The names Kriss Kringle (a misuse of the German word for Christ child), St. Nicholas, and Santa Claus did not become generally applied to the children’s patron saint until the early 1800s.

Other Old World customs were brought to America by Italians, Irish, Spanish, Mexicans, Slavs, and other nationalities that added flavor to the melting pot.

The first recorded Christmas celebration in our area took place in1674 in the vicinity of what is now Chicago and was recorded by the famous missionary-explorer Father Marquette. The celebration took place on Christmas Eve in a crude hut on the shore of the Chicago River. Some three score of Indians, clad in buffalo robes, gathered to greet Father Marquette upon his return from a trip to Green Bay. He celebrated mass at midnight, and then they feasted on a unique Christmas dinner. A large bowl of porridge, mixed with buffalo fat, was passed from man to man as only one spoon was available. The banquet was topped off with a special treat, a boiled dog, which the good father observed, “was enjoyed by all.”

I doubt if boiled dog will be on many Christmas Day menus, but have a Merry Christmas anyway.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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