Monday, December 21, 2009

18th Century Living: Deck the Halls

It's Tradition!

In keeping with my hope of writing fiction set in the 18th century for a long while to come, I wanted to research and blog about what an 18th century Christmas might have looked like. I came away with one overriding impression: simplicity

According to Emma Powers in her Christmas Customs article (Colonial Williamsburg website): "Eighteenth-century [Christmas] 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."

Here are a few more interesting facts about 18th Century Christmas, quoted from the same article mentioned above, which is well worth a full read:

"Williamsburg shopkeepers of the eighteenth century placed ads noting items appropriate as holiday gifts, but New Year's was as likely a time as December 25 for bestowing gifts."

"No early Virginia sources tell us how, or even if, colonists decorated their homes for the holidays, so we must rely on eighteenth-century English prints.... that show interior Christmas decorations [such as] a large cluster of mistletoe...."

"Then as now, beef, goose, ham, and turkey counted as holiday favorites; some households also insisted on fish, oysters, mincemeat pies, and brandied peaches."

"The twelve days of Christmas lasted until January 6, also called Twelfth Day or Epiphany. Colonial Virginians thought Twelfth Night a good occasion for balls, parties, and weddings."

I'll note that a wedding does take place on Jan 6th, in Kindred... but I won't say whose!

Looking for more information on early Christmas customs and traditions? Check out these sites:

Christmas Food History:

Another Look At Christmas in the Eighteenth Century, by David DeSimone:

Recipes for a Twelfth Night Celebration:

Do you have Christmas traditions in your family that date back more than a generation or two? The only one I can recall from my childhood was finding an orange in the foot of our stockings on Christmas morning, which to me always seemed a little strange since there were oranges in the fruit bowl in the kitchen. At some point I came to realize that it harkened back to the days of my grandfather's childhood, when an orange at Christmas was a treat, because they didn't have them or couldn't afford them for the rest of the year.
 photos by Flintlocker and fauxto_digit


  1. Wonderful post, Lori! I think simplicity is the way to go and I long for that today. There is such a natural beauty in the photos you showed with just the candlelight and evergreens, etc. Can't wait to see whose wedding that is! I just realized that you may have a love triangle going on with Mr. T, Mr. I, and S:) But that could be my overactive imagination...

  2. Laura, I worked this out on paper once when Kindred was nearly finished. There are three love/obsession triangles in the story and they all intersect/overlap at some point.

    I don't even know what you'd call that. :)

  3. I've been wondering what Christmases were like back in the "olden" days, too. I will be sure to check out your links. I actually thought to post about what my characters gave each other for Christmas and if I have time I just may do that. I'd love to know what your characters, and Laura's would have given one another!

    I long for the days of simplicity. My husband and I were talking about that the other day. How special it may have been just to get and give a few precious and thoughtful gifts rather than go into debt. Last year we spent only $100 on everyone combined since my husband was layed off. I couldn't help but feel a wee bit disapointed, but everyone seemed quite content. (My kids are older so they understood.) We had a simpler and very nice holiday. I have to admit it was nice that my parents spoiled us by giving us a family gift, and HDTV. We do not do credit so we just get what we can afford and thankfully this year my husband was only layed off for about 6 wks and just got his job back with a nice Christmas bonus so we were able to get a few nice gifts.

    I love to decorate, but have been learning to do what I can without getting into a frenzy.
    I imagine some of my characters with just a few candles and greens and a hand carved wooden nativity. Then again I have a series in the works (on hold), but it is all about Christmas and much decking of the halls. I can't wait to see how your story goes and who gets married on the 12th day, or is that Epiphany?

    I used to get an orange in the bottom of my stocking, too! Sometimes I still put one in my kids stockings.

  4. Carla, All things considered, Christmas is pretty simple in our house. Until this year we've been 3000 miles away from family. My MIL lives near us now. We don't have children, so we hang a stocking for our dog! The heart will fill those places somehow. :) So glad for your good news about work and provision, Carla. I'm thankful that for 22 years we have had only one brief jobless time, and that was voluntary. No less scary for that though!

    Hmmm, hard to say what Ian and Seona might give as gifts at Christmas time. Extenuating circumstances in the story make it almost impossible for one of them to give anything at all. But I can't say who, as that would be too spoilerish. Seona is a slave, and I would be very interested to know if they celebrated with gifts to each other. I can imagine cornhusk dolls for the children... simple hand-made gifts like that. I've read that masters would give their slaves alcohol at Christmas, but it was to keep them from going visiting off the plantation.

    One of the "gifts" I hope for this coming year is a chance to share that story with you and others... finally. :)

  5. Ooh, that was interesting hearing your thoughts on your characters Christmas gifts. And I certainly hope that next Christmas we will be rejoicing over your becoming or soon becoming published!

    It sounds like you have a pretty special dog getting his own Christmas stocking. My parents had a few dogs who would unwrap their own presents. Lots of fun!

    May your home be filled with JOY during the holidays!