Christmas Time In Old Virginia (1883)

Note: This piece was written in the 1880s so I would take all comments about “happy Africans” etc. with a grain of salt.


IN the “Ancient Dominion of Virginia,” as the old writers called it, Christmas has always been the great festival of the people. All classes have looked forward to it with a vague sensation of expected happiness—rich and poor, master and servant, gray haired elders, and above all the children. Each and all seem to have greeted it as a time of mirth and good will to men, and this influence of the season is perhaps as strong in the nineteenth century as in the olden time, when the homes of the old planters on the James and the York were the scenes at Christmas, of so much merriment and rejoicing.

Looking back to that early period, and reading old letters and other family memorials, it is impossible not to see that, to the Virginians, the season was one of immense enjoyment. Whatever they had left behind in the home land, they had brought Christmas with them to this country, and its importance in their eyes is easily accounted for.

The people were nearly without exception descendants of members of the Church of England, and these churchmen a little while before had been good Roman Catholics. They had abjured the old communion, but their old loves were still dear to them, and among these none was stronger than attachment to Christmas.

For ages it had been celebrated with pomp and rejoicing in grand cathedrals; year by year the chimes of the great old abbeys had greeted it; rich and poor had come together for the day in a common brotherhood, flowing wassail cheered all hearts, gifts were given to the poor, sheep and oxen were roasted whole in the courtyards of the ” manorial halls,” carols welcomed the day of joy, and all connected with the anniversary of the birth of the Prince of Peace served to emphasize the sentiment of a common humanity which was the burden of his teaching.

It is not surprising therefore that the Virginians, the descendants of these old devotees of Christmas, should have attached a paramount importance to the groat occasion. In every generation from the settlement to the present, the day has been celebrated as a time of rejoicing. – Love and kindness, mirth and enjoyment, the meetings of relatives, the interchange of gifts, and the indulgence of innocent pleasures have marked the season. The scattered members of the family have assembled beneath the old family roof tree, business has been forgotten, every care banished, and Christmas week has been spent in mirth, kindness, and the enjoyment of good cheer by all, from the gray haired master and mistress of the mansion to the children—even the ragged youthful Africans who laugh and feast in honor of the time, and dance before the blazing fires in their cabins to the music of the banjo.

The points of difference in detail between the old English celebration of Christmas and that of the Virginians are not marked. One of the instincts of the race is to cling to the habits of ancestors—to think that old things are best; and the hardy adventurers who founded the commonwealth brought the Christmas legends with them.

They had few ” Merry Christmases,” however, in those first days of danger and difficulty, and worthy Captain Smith had the least merriment of all. In the very first year of the settlement in the Virginia wilds a luckless fate found him’a prisoner at ” the time of Christmas ” in the woods of the York, where his life was only saved by the interposition of Pocahontas. We afterward find him selecting the same season for his last and decisive raid against the emperor Powhatan.

Choosing fifty of his hardiest companions, he set out through snow and ice on his expedition, but we are told by the old chroniclers that ” the extreame winde, rayne, frost and snow caused us to keepe Christmas among the salvages where we weere never more merry, nor fed on more plenty of good Oysters, Fish, Flesh, Wilde fowland good bread, nor never had better fires in England.”

This earliest announcement of the keeping of Christmas which occurs in Virginia history shows the instinctive English proclivities of the old adventurers. They were going to crush Powhatan, and duly performed that work, but on the way kept the good season with that feast of “wild fowl,” doubtless turkey, roasted brown in the ” smoky houses of Kecoughtan ” before those blazing Christmas fires which brought back old England.

In the ancient records of Hening we find a single additional hint of the manner of Christmas keeping not so merry; it was the season for attacking the savages. Three times yearly, but especially ” before the frost of Christmas,” the adventurers were to arm and march with bloody intent on the dusky people; to raid the forests on the banks of the rivers ” from Floneer de Hundred to Accomack ; ” and whosoever was ” lamed ” was to be cured at the public expense—a Christmas not so merry, no doubt, to many!

But before a very long while these old ” hard times ” of the plantation gave way to sunshine and enjoyment. The Indians caused no more trouble, and the planter in his manor house, with strong shutters and palisades, could invite his neighbors to come and share with him the mirth and kindness of the Christmas time, without fear, and after the good old English fashion. The old records give us glimpses of the worthy people in the midst of their enjoyments—of the sturdy ” commander of a hundred ” with ” gold lace on his clothes,” which others are not to indulge in; of his dame, the smiling hostess in her high heels and Elizabethan ruff; and the crowding children and grandchildren around the hospitable board; with the sleek Africans who have arrived in the Dutch ship peering in at the door and laughing.

It is certain that these dusky retainers had their share of the feast; that ale and strong waters fell to them as to the rest; and that they then and there imbibed the undying African conviction that Christmas, as it ” comes but once a year,” ought to be a time of rejoicing.

Under the new order of things — in the year 1883—while so much has changed, this African sentiment has undergone none whatever. The simple and childish race, acting invariably John Pace Of Rosewbll from impulse and with obstinate tenacity to the old Christmas legend. While the skepticism of the Latins and Teutons, so intelligent that they doubt all things, laughs at faith, the poor African, with no intelligence whatever, we are told, will not abandon his. With him Christmas is still what it was in the pious middle age—a solemn mystery as well as a joyful reality. With the rejoicing of the season is inseparably connected in his mind what this rejoicing arises from. This is shown in the African hymns which still linger in the memories of the aged. The present writer had in his household an old ” mammy” nearly a century old, and has often listened with very deep feeling to these words crooned in her low voice:—

“Oh chillun, Christ is come

To heal you of yo’ danger ;

Pray that you may be reconciled

To the Child that lays in the manger.”

Our friends, the Agnostics and other superior people, might have laughed as they listened. I confess for my own part that the words italicized, with their strange and subtle suggestions of a mysterious sanctity, caused in my mind anything else but a disposition to laugh.

To return to the old Virginians, from whom the Virginians of to-day inherit whatever distinguishes them from the rest of the world. They loved Christmas and welcomed the day with a joy which is difficult to realize. The age of doubt had not come, and the blessed Nativity was not a subject of merriment. They were true descendants of the country people of England ; clung obstinately to the habits which time out of mind had characterized their ancestors ; and would have ” the time of Xmas ” a different time from all the rest of the year.

We may go back in fancy and see the old race at their diversions in the ancient family seats on the banks of the James, the York or the Rappahannock, which still seem to ring with the mirth and laughter of the dead Christmases of the eighteenth century. Time has seemed to pass by without laying its finger on many of these haunts of the old race—” Rosewell,” the home of the Pages, standing in lonely solitude on the York, ” Stratford,” the residence of the Lees, on the banks of the Potomac, ” Saratoga,” on the Shenandoah, the ” Nelson Home ” in Yorktown, and many more in the tidewater and the valley. These old localities revive the merry diversions of a forgotten generation when hall and cabin rang with revel at the dawn of the Christmas season. The planters were cavaliers, as we may see by the flowing locks of the old Page and Nelson portraits, and that of Edmund Pendleton, the most uncompromising of churchmen. They clung to the immemorial festivals of the English Church, the first of which was Christmas; and throughout Virginia the homes and churches were festooned with evergreens in honor of the day.

At two seasons these ancient churches were beautiful with decorations —at Easter with spring flowers, and at Christmas with cedar and pine. The good fashion is still observed, and in many of the old houses of worship—St. Peters in New Kent, where Washington was married, Christ Church, Alexandria, where he attended service, coming in his coach from Mount Vernon, and in numerous others—the descendants of the elder Virginians continue to welcome Christmas with evergreens, if not in every case the Easter season with the flowers which would seem appropriate to it.

Thus everywhere and in every manner the honest Virginians were determined to divert themselves and to set aside Christmas from all other seasons as a day of pure enjoyment. For the time all was to be good will; and that ennui, which Bossuet says lies at the basis of human life, was to disappear under revelry and the sound of laughter. While the happy time lasted care and trouble were to be forgotten—by the indented servant and the African in his cabin, as by the lord of the manor in his hall. Here, in the great manor house of the ” nabob ” of Tidewater, Virginia, the Christmas festivities reached their grand culmination. The family clan has assembled, of every age and both sexes; the great fireplaces roar, lighting up the queer old  furniture ; old hounds stretched in front of the blaze seem to know that Christmas has come ; on the board the wax lights shine ; there is the clink of cups and glasses ; the good old vintages, which gave nobody a headache, cheer the heart; and the lord of the manor raises his glass, and with a smile on his ruddy face, drinks to the general joy of the whole table.

Of this crowning event of the day, the Christmas dinner, Washington Irving gives us a sketch, for what he says of the old English ceremony will apply to Virginia. In the ancient English manor house where he dined on Christmas day: ” The parson said grace, when the butler entered the hall attended by a servant on each side with a large wax light, and bore a silver dish, on which was an enormous pig’s head decorated with rosemary, with a lemon in his mouth, which was placed with great formality at the head of the table, loaded with good cheer and country abundance.

A distinguished post was allotted to ‘ ancient sirloin,’ and I could not but notice a pie magnificently decorated with peacock’s feathers, in imitation of the tail of that bird. This, the squire confessed, was not a pheasant pie: there had been such a mortality among the pheasants this season that he could not prevail upon himself to have one killed.” As an appetizer to the feast, the honest squire, intent in bringing back the good old English times, offered his guests a rich compound of ale and nutmeg ” in a huge silver vessel of rare and curious workmanship, being the wassail bowl so renowned in Christmas festivities.”

If we make due allowance for the difference in edibles between England and Virginia, this is a picture of the Christmas dinner in the Old Dominion. That ” butler ” in black dress and a face as black, certainly officiated—the present writer even remembers him in the callow days of childhood, with his white hair and imposing dignity, and if the ” pig’s head ” was absent, its place was taken by something better—the Virginia ham.

The peacock and pheasant abounded in Virginia as in England, but the great roasted turkey at the head of the table was more attractive, and ” ancient sirloin,” fattened on Virginia meadows and the rich Indian corn, was finer than the roast beef of old England.

As to the “wassail,” that abounded beyond all question in the old Virginia manor houses : the modern advocates of entire abstinence have even made the fact a reproach.  In the earlier times the famous tipple was no doubt compounded of rum, or ale and ” crabs,” but ere long we find the Virginians inventing the great Christmas beverage, eggnog. This, served, as at present, in ” a huge, silver vessel” on Christmas day, was one of the distinctive features of the season, as it still remains, and deserves all the praise that has been accorded to it as a beverage.

With the old Virginians, however, drinking toasts was the great ceremony, after the removal of the plum pudding, and with the ladies and children still at the table. For let it be said to the credit of these honest people, that they were no advocates of ” gentlemen’s dinners,” or the absence of their wives and daughters, after the bad English fashion. In that they agreed to differ on these cheerful and kindly occasions. All remained at the table, and the health and happiness of each was pledged by each in wholesome Madeira, that noble and delicate vintage which is now almost a lost memory to the race of Virginians.

Coming down from the old days to the Virginia of the present century, we find few changes in the habits of the people in their celebration of Christmas. Some additions have been made to the old ceremonies of the occasion, among them none more attractive than the “Christmas Tree.” This has become one of the joys of the time to the children of Virginia, as it has long been to those in the kindly households of Germany. Of comparatively recent origin, it is now firmly established, along with jovial Santa Claus, a personage unknown until the present century in Virginia. The tree and the saint are now fortunately a part of the traditions of the Virginia Christmas, and appeal as no other features do to the sympathies of the young. The fat saint with his bag of toys and his reindeer sled has become a real personage, and the wondrous lights and gifts of the beautiful Christmas tree are the supreme enjoyments to which the children look forward at this merry season. Without the clatter of reindeer hoofs on the snowy roof, and the glorious tree, it is safe to say that Christmas would be robbed of half its charm ; and long may the magical tree flourish!

The writer of these lines recalls many of these Christmas splendors, and, alas! some loving faces no longer lit up by them. As he muses in the old apartment of the old country home from which he writes, memory brings back the pictures of the Christmas times of half a generation. In those years which were so bright that they cast their shadow on the present, a mysterious tree always grew on Christmas night near the old portrait yonder. It resembled, it is true, the every-day cedars or pines growing in the neighboring woods, but its boughs were laden with finer ornaments than the blue berries of the real bushes. There were candy cornucopias, birds of the brightest plumage, golden fish, variegated eggs, filigree baskets full of bonbons, books, presents of every description, and silver crosses, and at the summit the star of Bethlehem. The whole shone in the light of myriads of tapers nestling in the evergreen boughs; and to put out the lamps and illuminate these, after the late Christmas dinner, was the supreme delight of all who witnessed the ceremony.

Above all, and most charming of all, was the joy and wonder of the young groups. All were present, down to “the baby” held aloft in the mammy’s arms, the rosy faces filled with delight; all eyes stared at the miraculous tree, and there wise, grown-up persons, who had lost the enthusiasm of childhood, found something nearly as sweet in the joy of the children.

In treating of Christmas, a writer naturally goes back in memory to the Christmases he has himself enjoyed  and a number recur to the mind of the writer of this page. As he muses, the bright lights seem to shine from another world, and that world in which they glimmer is the world of his youth. How the youths and rosy maidens enjoyed the time in the old Virginia homes! how they chased the flying hours with gay voices and forgotten laughter! It is dead now, but rang with much music in those happy days; they were filled with a thousand attractions, even allowing for the fresh young eyes which looked upon them; with great wood fires blazing on the brass andirons in the wide, old country fireplaces; crowds of relations assembled from far and near to re-unite the family tie in the family home; with dinners which were a spectacle on the long table illuminated by the silver branches; with the evergreens above the portraits, the bright faces, the music and games, and the mistletoe over the door for cousins to kiss under.

It was not often that mistletoe could be found in the Virginia woods, and when fortunately discovered, the wonderful plant, with its wax-like branches of a tender green and its snowwhite berries, grew on the topmost boughs of the loftiest oaks, where it was dangerous to attempt to reach it. Expert youths, inspired by the season, however, secured the bunches at the risk of their necks, and they were duly suspended in honor of ancient usage.

As to the evergreens above the pictures, they were almost invariably in the old houses as in church, and remained the decoration of the drawing-room until Candlemas. Their effect was truly charming; and the writer recalls the picturesque appearance of one of the old halls of his youth at the good season.

The house was large, with a wide hall, on the walls of which hung pictures of race-horses once famous but now forgotten ; ancient portraits in ruffles and lace, with high collars and very low bodices; a huge pair of branching deer’s antlers serving as a support for whips and fowling pieces ; and a large staircase which seemed to echo from morning to night with the tripping feet of maidens.

At Christmas the old hall was in its glory with the magical evergreens brought from the neighboring hills ; the fresh green cedar with blue berries, the pine with delicate needles, or growing in oval bunches resembling the tail of the fox, and woven between the masses either holly or the brilliant berries of a creeper common in the woods, berries of so deep a scarlet that they almost dazzled the eyes as the lamplight fell upon them. Everywhere the old portraits were crowned with evergreen cedar, staid elders with ruffled breasts, and blooming maidens with bare shoulders, and here and there ladies of the manor with sedate smiles. The evergreens made the old country house a fairy realm, and all day long was heard the laughter of merry maidens and delighted children, forty-four of whom were sheltered by the old roof tree, I remember, at one time. They filled the hall with uproar, but nobody seemed to be disturbed by it, and the growing youths and damsels were nearly as noisy. Laughter and the gayest singing mingled with the rattle of the old piano in the drawing-room, and from without came the laughter also of the happy Africans.

All day long they had been full of joy; had moved on rapid feet with smiling faces ; had shared the charms of the Christmas dinner; and the thrumming banjos in the frosty winter night said plainly that Christmas ought to be welcomed. In the large old drawing-room the youths and maidens passed the long evening in mirth and games, ” Hunt the Slipper,” ” Blind Man’s Buff” and ” Puss in the Corner.” These were followed by ghost stories, told with bated breath and lights put out; and on all this Christmas revelry the faded faces on the wall looked down smiling, one would have said, at their gay descendants!

These recollections refer back to about the middle of the present century. Many changes have taken place in the manner of celebrating Christmas, but little of its old attractions seems to have been lost. Emancipation has separated from it the African feature in a measure ; great crowds of family servants no longer take part in the joy of the household ; but it is hard to change the habitudes of human beings, and much even of this feature remains.

In great numbers of Virginia families the payment of wages to the servants is the only difference between the old and new regime, snd they share the happiness of the family at Christmas as they shared it in the past. Like the members of the household, they salute you with ” Christmas Gift!” and friendly smiles ; and still enjoy their part of the Christmas delicacies so dear to the race. In addition to the Christmas tree the youthful Virginians have long had “crackers,” with which they stun the ears of all, even after the Christinas dawn. These munitions, and if possible fireworks for the lawn at night, are regarded as essential: and each and every one is absolutely sure of a ” Christmas gift ” from many persons.

The feature of gifts on Christmas day to friends and relatives remains unchanged. In the country parishes these marks of affection are frequently taken to church, where there is always regular service, and presented with smiles and good wishes for “a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.”

After service, of which the Holy Communion is almost invariably a part, the Christmas dinner follows, as genial and mirthful as in the past. If the splendor of old times is absent, the love and cheerfulness are as great as ever; and the old attachment remains for the kindly season, and the Christmas traditions.

Will it remain unchanged ? Once the world was a world of faith, and Christmas and Easter were sacred seasons. The “Child lying in the manger,” of the rude African hymn, had entered the world and risen, it was verily believed, on these blessed days. The people still believe that, and are laughed at by the modern philosophers; for the most eminent of these has declared that ” no revelation has ever been made.” Then no star, no watchful shepherds, no Nativity and no Christ; he was not born any more than he has risen from the dead; why perpetuate that old dream by an annual rejoicing ?

But in spite of the philosophers and the good people who despond of the future, there is little reason to fear that Christmas will ever lose its hold upon mankind. The legend of the Nativity, if it be a legend, is imperishable ; it appeals to the human heart, and will continue to appeal to it to the end of time. Whatever the doubters urge, the people of all nations are apt to remain unconvinced ; and if a change is to take place in Virginia, there are no present indications of it. The Virginians continue to believe what their fathers believed before them; and will not be persuaded, even by the scientists, that their time-honored Christmas is a mere illusion.

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