Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The December holidays are ideal focuses for special exhibitions and activities at museums, historic sites, villages and history-oriented visitors attrac­tions throughout Pennsyl­vania. Eighteenth century Christmas observances are popularly re-created and inter­preted because many settle­ments on the East Coast were established prior to 1800. By interpreting this seasonal living history program, museum curators and profes­sional historians attempt to bring history alive for even the most casual and nonchalant of visitors. While holiday decora­tions festoon the many historic house museums and villages throughout the Common­wealth, research has proven that the omnipresent beribonned evergreen swags and towering trees were not part of the eighteenth century observance. In fact, current reenactments of eighteenth century Christmas celebra­tions would be foreign to Pennsylvanians of that century. What most people consider as a “good old­-fashioned” holiday was not instituted until the nineteenth century.

The observance of Christ­mas traditions in Pennsylvania during the eighteenth century was primarily religious, which can be traced to the original holiday created by the ancients. Celebration of Christmas was fixed long after the actual birth of the Christ child which it commemorates. Biblical narrative offers no indication of the date the event occurred and, eventu­ally, many dates were suggested by early church leaders. December 25 was selected probably because the Romans observed the day of sol invictus, the day of the unconquered sun god. The birth of Christ symbolized the victory of light over the forces of darkness, but it also coincided with the pagan celebration of the winter solstice, after which the days grew longer. With crops harvested, time was available for much merrymaking, feast­ing and general celebration. In many ways, the holiday which has evolved as the most signif­icant day of the Christian calendar is rooted in pagan festivities.

In Medieval England, the holiday continued to be celebrated with feasting and merrymaking. Apparently the festivities grew so fervent that both the Puritans and Quakers came to scorn the activities. In 1647, Oliver Cromwell’s parliament outlawed Christ­mas and the British subjects were even forbidden to cook an additional roast or pie in celebration. With the restora­tion of Charles II to the throne, the harsh edict was repealed, allowing many in England to return to the customary holiday celebra­tions.

Jt is small wonder that the Puritans, upon landing in New England, brought with them their dislike for any observance of Christmas. The Mayflower arrived at Plymouth in December 1620 and work on building the settlement began on December 25. Master William Bradford’s diary records the day: “Munday, the 25th day. Some to fell timber, some to saw, some to rive, and some to carry, so no man rested all that day. We went to work on Plymouth’s first building, the Common House, construction of which began on Christmas Day.” George Willison, in the Pilgrim Reader, recounted that” … there was a little good cheer on Christmas night. Captain Jones invited all, Saints (Pilgrims) and Strangers (non­-sect members) alike, to share together, which all did to their content.” The following year appeals were made by non­-Puritans to observe December 25 as Christmas; the request was granted, but the Puritans immediately put a stop to the celebration upon seeing the early settlers playing games. Until 1681 the Massachusetts Bay Colony levied fines on individuals daring to celebrate Christmas. Instead, Thanks­giving became the most important day throughout New England. American clergyman Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) offered his early recollections in the December 26, 1874, issue of the Pittsburgh Gazette:

To me Christmas is a foreign day, and I shall die so. When I was a boy I wondered what Christmas was. I knew there was such a time, because we had an Episcopal church in our town, and I saw them dressing it with evergreens, and wondered what they were taking the woods in church for; but I got no satisfac­tory explanation. A little later I understood it was a Romish insti­tution, kept up by the Romish Church. Brought up in the strict­est state of New England, brought up in the most literal style of worship, brought up where they would not read the Bible in church because the Episcopalians read it so much, I passed all my youth without any knowledge of Christ­mas, and so I have no association with the day. Where the Christ­mas reveal ought to be, I have nothing. It is Christmas day, that is all.

In the South, especially Virginia, Christmas was tradi­tionally celebrated as it had been in England with gay gatherings and bountiful feasts for family and friends. Eventually religious obser­vances became an integral part of the day. In a letter written by an Ann Little of Baltimore on December 26, 1769, she succinctly described the day: “Yesterday being Christmas­-day, the Lord’s supper was administered here … we had Meeting as well as Church here yesterday. – they always have on Christmas-day.” Celebrations usually contin­ued until twelfth night on January 6 and her letter dated January 29 of the next year to friends in Lancaster (probably Pennsylvania) described the duration of the entire celebra­tion:

… You spent twelfth night very merrily I dare say, and we Marylanders are not behing with you, for I believe there has been a dozen Dances since Christmas came in, in this small place; there was one on twelfth night; – we have had several Dances here, you would be surprised to see the number of Gentleman and Ladies that attend, at one dance we had in our House there was above Forty Ladies and you may be sure as many or more Gentleman, this place is filled with Beauty – The Ladies dress expensive gay, their Hair very high, full and the most of them very much Powdered, their hair set full of some kind of stone, I suppose not many Diamonds among them ….

Moravians who settled at Old Salem, North Carolina, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, did not abandon their Christ­mas celebrations upon disem­barking in North America. The first Moravian Christmas in North Carolina in 1753 was recorded in the Bethabara Diary of the Encampment near the Yadkin River:

24. At 9:30 P.M. we began the Christmas Eve Watch service. We read the story of the birth of our Savior, and rejoiced that the Holy Child was born for the salvation of the world. We had a Lovefeast also, and soon after midnight closed our first Christmas Eve Watch meeting in North Carolina.

25. Brother Grube held morning prayer. At noon he read for us a sermon preached by Count Zinzendorf on a Christmas Day, and we enjoyed it. In the evening we sang hymns relating to the Holy Christ-Child.

Although it has been speculated that Methodists did not celebrate Christmas in the New World during the eighteenth century, a passage discovered in the journal of an itinerant Methodist preacher proves that the day was observed in New Bern, North Carolina, in 1772. Following church services, houses were opened by the “genteelest Congregation” to Joseph Pilmore. In 1796, Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury “met with friendship, fellowship and love, and held meeting on Christmas day, it being the Sabbath.”

Philadelphian James Sprunt sojourned in North Carolina on Christmas in 1787 and a lengthy portion of his journal entry is dedicated to the preparation of a quart of egg nog – complete with a half pint of rum – which was customarily consumed before breakfast.

Christmas celebrations in Pennsylvania were most probably observed midway between the wholesale denial of the Northeast and the joyous occasions in the South. Nearly a century later, the Lancaster Intelligencer described earlier years: “In this country Christmas has never been fully observed, except in the South …. In Pennsylvania Christmas has always been honored; but it was never celebrated with an approach to old English heartiness except at the South.” By sheer virtue of its geographical location halfway between the centers of disparate thought, Pennsylvania was inevitably influ­enced by two radical extremes.

Pennsylvania’s Quakers virtually ignored Christmas day, opting instead to keep their shops open. Philadelphia Quaker Elizabeth Drinker’s diary entries for December 25, 1795, characterized her sect’s reactions to the local obser­vances. “Called Christmas day: many attend religiously to this, others spend it in riot and dissipation, We, as a people, make no more account of it than another day … ” Drinker’s records of Christmas in 1799 evidence her displea­sure. ” … our black Jane is out, now at near 11 o Clock, she is a Methodist, and this is Christmas Eve … if Jane dont come home by the time I have looked over the house, I shall lock her out.” Her other recol­lections of the holiday disdain­fully mention the growing “Frolicking.”

Peter Kalm, who recorded his impressions of life in eighteenth century Philadel­phia, carefully recounted Christmas in the city in 1750:

To-day Christmas Day was celebrated in the city, but not with such reverence as it is in old Sweden. On the evening before, the bells of the English Church rang for a long time to announce the approaching Yuletide. In the morning guns were fired off in various parts of town. People went to church, much in the same manner as ordinary Sundays, both before and after dinner. This took place only in the English, Swedish, and German churches. The Quakers did not regard this day any more remarkable than other days. Stores were open, and anyone might sell or purchase what he wanted. But servants had a three-day vacation period. Nowhere was Christmas Day celebrated with more solemnity than in the Roman Church. Three sermons were preached there, and that which contributed most to the splendor of the ceremony was the beautiful music heard to-day. It was this music which attracted so many people. It must be empha­sized that of all the churches in Philadelphia only the Swedish and the Catholic possessed organs. … Consequently an organ was to be heard only in the papal place of worship. The officiating priest was a Jesuit, who also played the violin, and he had collected a few others who played this same instrument. So there was good instrumental music, with singing from the organ gallery besides. People of all faiths gathered here, not only for the high mass but particularly for the vespers. Pews and alter were decorated with branches of mountain laurel, whose leaves are green in winter. … At the morning service the clergyman stood in front of the altar; but in the afternoon he was in the gallery, playing and singing.

There was no more baking of bread for the Christmas festival than for other days; and no Christmas porridge on Christmas Eve. One did not seem to know what if meant to wish anyone a merry Christmas. However, (after I had written this) I heard several members of the English Church wish one another a happy Christ­mas holiday. In the English church a sermon was preached in the morning; but after dinner only a prayer meeting was held, and on the day after Christmas again, only a prayer meeting … the Quakers paid not the slightest attention to Christmas; carpentry work, blacksmithing and other trades were plied on this day just as on other days. If Christmas Day falls on a Wednesday or a Saturday, which are market days, the Quakers will bring all kinds of food into the market as usual; but no others will, and only Quakers will buy anything of them on such a day. Others make provisions so that purchases will prove unnec­essary until the first market day after Christmas. The same custom is observed at New Year’s. At first the Presbyterians did not care much for celebrating Christmas, but when they saw most of their members going to the English church 011 that day, they also started to have services.

For Pennsylvania’s eighteenth century Episcopali­ans, Christmas was one of only four of five times each year that communion was offered. Their church was decorated with holly and greens, in much the same manner as was done in England. The services at Phila­delphia’s historic Christ Church were heralded throughout the city by bell­ringing. Specially appointed “ringers of the bells ” were, according to 1758 vestry minutes, to “be paid the sum of 10 pounds Yearly, as usual, for ringing the bells on Sunday, etc. And for their ringing on the following holy days, viz: Christmas, Circum­cision, on New Year’s Day, Easter, Whitsunstide … they are to receive from the church wardens fifteen shillings for each of said days.” Many important political personages of the period and their families attended the December 25 services at Christ Church.

Christmas – whether celebrated as holiday or holyday – was marked as a time for giving to the poor and probably servants, or at least those less fortunate. At Christ Church, a Mary Andrews left a bequest for distribution to the needy at Christmas and church records contain many testimonies attesting to the need and worthiness of individuals applying to this fund. Another congregation member, Elizabeth Graeme of Graeme Park, Horsham, was formally thanked by Elizabeth Willing Powel, wife of the mayor of Philadelphia, for her generosity in a letter dated January 3, 1772. The note, with its seasonal greetings, might well indeed be a precur­sor of today’s familiar Christ­mas card. “Accept my dear Miss Graeme my best Thanks for your very friendly Wishes and permit me in return to assure you that I most sincerely wish you with the Compliments of the Season the Enjoyment of every Happiness with as little Allry as falls to the Lot of Mortality. I am sure you will be pleased,” the letter continued, “to know that your generous Donation to a distresed Person came very seasonably. She returns you her most grateful Thanks. The Pleasure you derive from an Act of Benevo­lence and Humanity makes it needless for me to thank you in behalf of the poor Woman as these Acts are their own Reward …. ”

Members of the Dutch Reformed Church who settled in Pennsylvania during the eighteenth century also celebrated the holiday. A congregation in the Bucks County area issued a call in Dutch to Dr. Jonathan DuBois, a minister, to preach on Christmas Day, 1776. A hymnal – printed in German in Germantown – was used by congregations; it contained twenty-two hymns especially for Christmas services.

Moravians settling in Pennsylvania about 1740 were lead by County Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf who christened their primitive settlement Bethlehem on Christmas Eve in 1741. The Moravian observances were strictly religious and the tradi­tional love feast – a simple service of worship, music and food – was a highlight of the activities. At a specific time during the religious ceremo­nies, the food – usually sweet­ened yeast buns and coffee­ – was shared by the assembled followers. A diary surviving from the early colony describes the holiday activities and places most import on the observances conducted on the evening before Christmas. It also includes references to invitations extended to local Indians to join the vigils and love feast.

Although many of the eighteenth century Christmas activities in Pennsylvania were religious and somewhat somber in tone, the day was, in some respect, a holiday for the colonists. Beginning with St. Nicholas Day on December 6 and continuing through Twelfth Night on January 6, the month-long period provided a special time for some merriment and leisure. The Pennsylvania Gazette, a Philadelphia publication, advertised “Entertainment for the Curious … over the Christmas holidays” and “Goods for the Season,” but both notices were subtle, apt to be lost among other small advertisements.

In western Pennsylvania, the holiday customs kept by Virginians seemed to have reached the frontier. Presbyte­rian minister David McClure (1748-1820) lamented the revelry of the settlements in the western region: “Rode 7 miles to Mr. Stevenson’s & preached. The hearers mostly Virginians … Several present, appeared almost intoxicated. Christmas & New Year holly days, are seasons of wild mirth & disorder here.”

During the Revolutionary War, American soldiers marched, camped and battled just as if December 25 was an ordinary day. A diary kept by an American soldier in December 1781, however, alludes to his staying at a household several miles from camp in order to “keep Christ­mas.” The British, on the other hand, enjoyed their celebrations in the colonies during their occupation. Had it not been for the Hessian festivities in December 1777, George Washington might have been denied his impor­tant battle at Trenton, New Jersey.

Despite the long-held beliefs and long-standing traditions cherished by individuals today as “eighteenth century” customs, most of the current obser­vances can be traced directly to Pennsylvania German practices common during the nineteenth century. Certainly the ubiquitous tree – becom­ing popular in Pennsylvania about 1850 – was a favorite Yuletide centerpiece for the German immigrants – and not the settlers of the previous century. Wreaths, too, were not popular until the nineteenth century. In fact, wreaths were unknown as a Christmas decoration prior to 1827. In many cases, greens­ – particularly lush evergreens and holly sprigs – would have been used in the houses of celebrants, excluding, naturally, the Quakers. Eighteenth century drawings depict sprays of holly and boxwood adorning windows. Often, fruits, nuts, sweets and cakes served as decorations.

But what of the “eighteenth century” decorations commer­cially manufactured and advertised today?

An unpublished research report by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1955 concluded that the customs and traditions employed by Colonial Williamsburg have “no place in the eighteenth century picture” but “it is felt by officials of that organization that they would be greatly missed by inhabitants and guests if excluded from present-day activities.” Thirty years later, attractions still continue to present what the visitors expect, but many historic sites and museums­ – aware of sophisticated audiences – offer only holiday observances that can be documented.


For Further Reading

Becker, Mary Lamberton. The Home Book of Christmas: A Treasury of Songs, Stories, History, Tradition and Much More. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1941.

Belden, Louise Conway. The Festive Tradition: Table Decoration and Desserts in America, 1650-1900. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983.

Cure, Karen. An Old-Fashioned Christmas: American Holiday Traditions. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1984.

Museum of the Concord Antiquarian Society. An Olde Concord Christmas. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980.

Shoemaker, Alfred L. Christmas in Pennsylvania: A Folk­-Cultural Study. Kutztown, Pa.: Pennsylvania Folklore Society, 1959.

Yuletide at Winterthur: Tastes and Visions of the Season. Winterthur, Del.: The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1980.


Marian Ann J. Matwiejczyk serves as historic site manager of Graeme Park, the eighteenth century residence of Dr. Thomas Graeme in Horsham, Montgom­ery County, administered by the PHMC. A native of Bucks County, she is a graduate of Central College, Pella, Iowa, and received her master’s of arts degree in museum studies/Ameri­can decorative arts from Cornell University. She served as editor for a booklet entitled The Penrose Family at Graeme Park, 1801-1920, and as consulting curator for a recent exhibition mounted by the Atwater Kent Museum, Philadelphia. This article grew out of research conducted for the annual display of eighteenth century holiday decorations at Graeme Park.