Thoughts on a Virginia Christmas
Here it is two days from Christmas eve in Charlottesville. l’etoile will finish dinner service on the 23rd then it is off to be with family and friends for Christmas. I just thought that I would pass some thoughts on a colonial Christmas and how some of the tradtions are still evedent today.
Christmas in colonial Virginia was very different from our twentieth-century celebration. Eighteenth-century customs don’t take long to recount: church, dinner, dancing, some evergreens, visiting–and more and better of these very same for those who could afford more. It’s certainly a short list, I tell myself, as I plan meals, go shopping, bake cookies, write three hundred cards, stuff stockings, and dog-ear or recycle the hundreds of catalogs that begin arriving at my house in October.
Attend church, stick some holly on the windowpanes, fix a great dinner, go to one party, visit or be visited. It sounds so refreshingly easy and simple and quick. But I’d miss a tree with lots of lights and all my favorite ornaments collected over the years. And if there were only one special meal, how could I hope to eat my fill of turkey and goose, both mince pie and fruitcake, shrimp as well as oysters? Materialist that I am, I would surely be disappointed if there were no packages to open on the morning of December 25.
Our present Christmas customs derive from a wide array of inspirations, nearly as various and numerous as the immigrants who settled this vast country. Most of the ways Americans celebrate the midwinter holiday came about in the nineteenth century, but we’re extraordinarily attached to our traditions and feel sure that they must be very old and supremely significant. What follows is a capsule history of some of our most loved Christmas customs. Perhaps both residents and visitors will enjoy learning the background of one or more of these rites. I offer them in the spirit of the season: with best wishes for continuing health and happiness to all!
Christmas foods and beverages. Everyone wants more and better things to eat and drink for a celebration. Finances nearly always control the possibilities. In eighteenth- century Virginia, of course, the rich had more on the table at Christmas and on any other day, too, but even the gentry faced limits in winter. December was the right time for slaughtering, so fresh meat of all sorts they had, as well as some seafood. Preserving fruits and vegetables was problematic for a December holiday. Then as now, beef, goose, ham, and turkey counted as holiday favorites; some households also insisted on fish, oysters, mincemeat pies, and brandied peaches. No one dish epitomized the Christmas feast in colonial Virginia.
Wines, brandy, rum punches, and other alcoholic beverages went plentifully around the table on December 25 in well-to-do households. Others had less because they could afford less. Slave owners gave out portions of rum and other liquors to their workers at Christmastime, partly as a holiday treat (one the slaves may have come to expect and even demand) and partly to keep slaves at the home quarter during their few days off work. People with a quantity of alcohol in them were more likely to stay close to home than to run away or travel long distances to visit family.
The Christmas Cake as we know it today comes from two customs which became one around 1870 in Victorian England. Originally there was a porridge, the origins of which go back to the beginnings of Christianity. Then there was a fine cake made with the finest milled wheatflour, this was baked only in the Great Houses, as not many people had ovens back in the 14th century.
Originally people used to eat a sort of porridge on Christmas Eve. It was a dish to line the stomach after a day’s fasting, which people used to observe for Christmas Eve, or the ‘Vigil’ as it was called long ago. Gradually, they began to put spices, dried fruits, honey etc in the porridge to make it a special dish for Christmas. Much later it was turned into a pudding, because it got to be so stiff with all the fruits and things, that they would tie it in a cloth, and dunk it into a large cauldron of boiling water and boil it for many hours. This turned into Christmas Pudding.
But it was not a Christmas cake, but a Twelfth Night Cake. Twelfth night is on the 5th January, and has been for centuries the traditional last day of the Christmas season.. It was a time for having a great feast, and the cake was an essential part of the festivities. This was slightly different in different countries, and also at different social levels.
In the GREAT HOUSES, into the cake was baked a dried Bean and a Pea. one in one half and the other in the other half. The cake was decorated with sugar, like our icing, but not so dense, and ornamentation. As the visitors arrived, they were given a piece of the cake, ladies from the left, gentlemen from the right side. Whoever got the bean became King of the Revels for the night, and eveyone had to do as he said. The lady was his Queen for the evening.
In smaller homes, the cake was a simple fruitcake, with a bean in it, which was given to guests during the twelve days of Christmas. Whoever got the bean was supposed to be a kind of guardian angel for that family for the year, so it was an important task, and usually, it was arranged that a senior member of the family would get the bean! This was observed until recently in Poland in fact.
In Britain the cake was baked as part of the refreshments offered to the priest and his entpourage who would visit on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, to bless each house in the parish. this custom died out after the Reformation in the late 16th century.. In Mallorca, the main island of the Spanish Balearics Islands, they have a similar custom which takes place at Easter.
The festive cake in Britain was revived at the end of the 17th century, and became very much part of the Twelfth night partying again. It is recorded In royal households, that the cakes became extravagantly large, and the guests divided into two side could have a battle with models on the cake! One battle was a sea battle, and there were minature water canon on the cake which really worked!
This is the Church festival of Ephiphany. The traditional day when Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi or Three Kings at Bethlehem. It used to be the time when people exchanged their Christmas gifts. The feast was marked, as were all the old feasts, by some kind of religious observance. A visit to the church, a service or some kind, and then a folk observance which was tightly wrapped up as part of the Church activities. As we have seen, Twelve Day (the day following Twelfth Night) entailed the blessing of the home, and in some countries is still observed. But after the Reformation, these customs of the Church were banned by the Puritans, and fell into disuse. Without its religious overtones, Twelfth Night became a time of mischief and over indulgence. By 1870, Britains Queen Victoria announced that she felt it was inappropriate to hold such an unchristian festival, and Twelfth Night was banned as a feastday.
God bless and Merry Christmas from all of us at l’etoile.