In this episode of the 18th Century Podcast, I discuss what Christmas was like during the 18th Century. Most of what is discussed in this episode focuses on the English and Colonial traditions, but a couple others are mentioned as well. This will be the last 18th Century Podcast episode of 2019. The show will resume in January of 2020. I do not know the exact date as of yet, but it will be a Saturday. I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year.
Welcome back to the 18th Century Podcast. I am your host, Cj. In today’s episode, we’ll be discussing Christmas during the 18th Century. The main focus will be on the British and the Americas for Christmas, but I may try to delve into a few other Countries’ traditions too. If you’d like to read the script for this episode and its citations, go to 18thcentury.home.blog that’s 1, 8, t h, century dot home dot blog. Type the numbers don’t spell them. Alright, let’s get right into it!
PART 1 HISTORY
18th Century Christmas was similar to modern 21st in some ways, and others, very different. Starting with the Colonies. I’m going to cheat again here and jump back to the 17th Century. For the most part, the Colonists were Protestants. Many of which in the 17th Century New England was a mixture of Puritans among a few other Protestant groups. In these early days, they frowned upon the celebration of Christmas, and in some areas, even outlawed it. For example, in Massachusettes during the year 1659, the General Court forbade the celebration of Christmas. If someone was caught celebrating, they would suffer a fine of five shillings per offense. Around the same time, the Assembly of Connecticut also prohibited the celebration of Christmas and Christmas related material, such as the Book of Common Prayer. Their view at the time was that Christmas was too close to Pagan ceremonies, thus it was greatly frowned upon. This would continue into the 18th Century, though as time went on, attitudes relaxed a little. Many denominations still didn’t celebrate though. For example, the Quakers would treat Christmas during the 18th Century just like any other day. Presbyterians didn’t pay it much mind, but they saw their congregation attend other churches on Christmas, so they eventually picked up the practice as well. Christmas was more celebrated by denominations such as Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and a couple of others. If you’d like to get a better geographic picture of where Christmas was celebrated it was more in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the Southern Colonies. Now, if we hop over to Europe, we see Christmas celebrated more. Festivities were held in Great Britain and most of the rest of Europe too. During the 18th Century, we’ll see the development of some Christmas Carrolls, Hymns, and early versions of Christmas Cards. I’ll be going over these and a few other things related to Christmas as we go further into this episode. But I think we should first discuss how long the Christmas celebration really was.
PART 2 Christmas Time
Christmas in modern times is typically celebrated on two days, December 24th and December 25th. Unless you’re an Orthodox Christian, then Christmas is celebrated on January 7th. Yet in the 18th Century focusing on Western Christianity, the Christmas season could last between 12 to 40 days long. December 25th would still mark Christmas day. Now the next days going forward would depend on your denomination if you would celebrate them or not. So, December 26th marked Saint Stephens Day. Then, December 27th marked Saint John the Evangelist’s Day. December 28th would mark Holy Innocents day. This would go on until January 1st which would mark the Circumcision of Jesus. On January 1st it would end with the Feast of the Circumcision. Between December 25th and January 1st, this was referred to as the octave week, since it was an 8 day-long celebration. Then going forward to January 6th, we have the Epiphany of Jesus which was celebrated with the Feast of the Epiphany. Thus this would mark the 12 days of Christmas. So, where do the 40 days come from then? February 2nd marked the Purification of the Virgin Mary, which was also celebrated with a feast. Here’s an interesting tidbit I found as well, on December 27th, which was Saint John the Evangelist’s day, it was especially celebrated by the Free Masons. During the 18th Century, there were considered 2 patron Saints of the Free Masons. The first being Saint John the Evangelist, and the second being Saint John the Baptist. The Masons would celebrate in their towns or villages with special activities and sometimes dressed in their full garb. For example in Virginia, the Masons would hold a procession from their lodge to their local church. The Masons at the time would then hold a special sermon that may have invoked feelings of brotherhood, love, and unity. Afterward, they would have attended a ball and supper with their wives and friends. One of their members would have been selected to organize the event which would have taken place either in a local tavern or someone’s home. Now, were going to take a short break and when we come back, we’ll take a look at some of the traditions and customs that made up an 18th Century Christmas. We’ll be right back.
PART 3 CHRISTMAS FOOD
Welcome back. We’ll begin the second half of today’s episode by discussing Christmas foods of the 18th Century. Due to improved agriculture, Christmas foods differed from the past few centuries. Some foods would come into favor, and others would fall out of favor. Roasts and fowl were common meats seen at the Christmas table. Yet as the years dragged on and especially in the Colonies, turkey became the main meat at Christmas. In England, mince pies were popular and had been popular for a couple of centuries. They were first made with minced meat, but as time went on they were made with dried fruit and spices instead. Other popular foods from the time which you might have found at the Christmas table were cheeses, soups, duck, geese, and pudding. There would also be some variation based upon where you lived during the time. For drinks, alcoholic punches were popular along with wine and brandy. One more thing I want to mention here is Twelfth Night Cake. This would have been a very large cake. To give you an estimate on size, if your Twelfth Night Cake weighed five pounds, that was on the light side of things. Townsends did an excellent video on how to make a Twelfth Night Cake, and I will post their video on the blog. I highly recommend watching it. One tradition surrounding the cake was that while it was being made, a bean or perhaps a coin was placed into the mixture. If you were the lucky soul to get the bean or coin in your slice you were regarded as the King for the night. It all went along with a festive attitude.
PART 4 CHRISTMAS CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS
One modern conception of Christmas is the focus around family and children. However, children played a lesser part in 18th Century Christmas celebrations. The Christmas Parties which would occur later in the day were reserved typically for adults only. At Christmas Parties, games were prevalent too. Certain card games would have been played, along with other games such as Hunt the Slipper, blind man’s bluff, and shoe the wild mare. Stories were told, Carolling was to be had, and dances were common. Mix the games with an assortment of food and alcohol, and the time was very merry. Decorations were common in churches. There was a practice called, “sticking of the Church” during the period where green boughs were placed in the Church on Christmas Eve. From the Church roof, walls, and pillars, garlands of holly, mistletoe, ivy, and the like were hung. The pews and pulpit were also decorated with garlands as well. Herbs were placed throughout the Church to give it a pleasant holiday scent. People’s homes were also decorated in a similar fashion. Though the amount of decoration was based upon what you could afford given your social standing in society. Gift giving was something we today would have in common with the 18th Century celebration. Small gifts were given to children such as little books, or small amounts of candy. Children would not give gifts to their parents or other important adults in their life. One tradition from Amsterdam was that St. Nicholas would fill the wooden shoes of children with fruit or perhaps candy. Gifts were exchanged among adult peers as well. It was also common for the wealthy to bestow gifts to those they employed. We also see the beginnings of Christmas Cards. Though they weren’t exactly cards. They were called, Christmas Pieces, and they were pre-printed with holiday-themed borders and they were written by schoolboys. These Christmas Pieces were only popular in large cities such as London. Now one of the largest symbols of Christmas in modern times is perhaps, the Christmas tree. Though in the 18th Century, the Christmas tree was largely reserved to the Germans. The first recorded Christmas tree in England was in the year 1800, which is the cut off for this podcast. Though it was brought forth under King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte.
PART 5 CHRISTMAS CAROLS AND OTHER SONGS
For the last section of this episode, we’ll discuss Christmas Carols along with other holiday songs and music. I want to start off by saying, they were very popular. One popular hymn, Joy to the World, was written in 1719, though the tune was different than what we know it to be today. A man named Isaac Watts was the author and he based, Joy to the World, on Psalm 98. Watts didn’t create a tune for the hymn and he sorta left it up to interpretation. Another carol which may have been sung was, Hark the Herald Angels Sing. This hymn was first published in 1739, by a man named Charles Wesley. Though Wesley’s original writing of the carol was a bit different than our modern version. Instead of, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” it was, “Hark! How All the Welkin Rings.” The word, “Welkin” was a word that meant, “vault of heaven.” Though the change of lyric occurred in 1753 when the evangelist George Whitefield, thought that the word, “Welkin” might confuse some people, so he made the change and added it to his anthology of hymns. Again, we don’t know exactly how these carols were meant to be sung, and even during the 18th Century, there was variation. One carol that we probably would recognize though in entirety is Deck the Halls. Though it should be noted that Deck the Halls is the secular version of a Welsh hymn. People would sing out these and many other carols to celebrate the holiday. Carols would have been sung in church and at the home, in private with family, and at parties. Singing Christmas Carols was very popular.
This brings us to the end of this 18th Century Podcast episode, and it’s the last episode of the year. Yes, dear listener, I will be taking a break for the holiday season. The podcast will be returning sometime in January. I don’t know the exact date, but I will continue with the Saturday uploads once the podcast returns. I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year. The script and citations for this episode and all other episodes can be found at 18thcentury.home.blog that’s 1, 8, t h, century dot home dot blog. Type the numbers don’t spell them. If you’d like to support the show, please share it and leave a review. I’ve been your host Cj, and thank you for listening to this episode of the 18th Century Podcast.
DeSimone, David. “Traditions – Another Look at Christmas in the Eighteenth Century.” Traditions – Another Look at Christmas in the Eighteenth Century : The Colonial Williamsburg Official History Site, 1995, https://www.history.org/almanack/life/christmas/hist_anotherlook.cfm.
Powers, Emma L. “Traditions – Christmas Customs.” Traditions – Christmas Customs : The Colonial Williamsburg Official History Site, 1995, https://www.history.org/almanack/life/christmas/hist_customs.cfm.
Early Modern England. “Georgian Christmas: An Eighteenth Century Celebration.” Early Modern England, 22 Dec. 2013, http://www.earlymodernengland.com/2013/12/georgian-christmas-an-eighteenth-century-celebration/.
Carroll, Heather. “Your Guide to an 18th Century Christmas.” The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century, 21 Dec. 2009, http://georgianaduchessofdevonshire.blogspot.com/2009/12/your-guide-to-18th-century-christmas.html.
“Colonial Williamsburg.” Colonial Williamsburg, https://www.history.org/almanack/life/christmas/graphics/hist_customimage.jpg.