Virginia Holiday Traditions
With the holidays fast approaching, we’re all busier than ever preparing for our celebrations. Have you ever stopped to wonder how Virginians celebrated the holidays in times past? Some of the holiday traditions our ancestors had are not much different than our own.
Did you know that in colonial times, the holiday festivities stretched from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night (either the 5th or 6th of January)? People celebrated with feasts, dancing, music, games, decorations, gifts and fireworks.
One of our best sources for Virginia colonial history is, of course, Colonial Williamsburg. Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg during December are treated to beautifully decorated houses and shops, and traditional food and hot cider served in the taverns. Many of us try to duplicate some of these decorations in our own homes, and in my case, do not succeed! But if you’re interested in trying, check out the books Colonial Williamsburg Decorates for Christmas or Christmas Decorations from Williamsburg. Both books have beautiful illustrations and instructions on how to make decorations using natural materials–wreaths, fruit cones, apple fans, garlands, and topiaries, among other things. The book Christmas Decorations from Williamsburg’s Folk Art Collection has instructions for making decorations based on traditional folk crafts, such as cornhusk dolls, pinecone angels and various needlepoint projects.
Holiday dinners in colonial times often included salad, chicken, ham, or turkey, dressing, potatoes, wassail (hot mulled cider) and pie or plum pudding. Not so different from what many of us serve today! For sample menus and recipes for a colonial holiday dinner, check out these books: Favorite Meals From Williamsburg, The Williamsburg Cookbook, or The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook.
By the mid-nineteenth century, some new traditions had been added–ornate Victorian decorations, holly sprigs and poinsettias became popular. However, in Virginia, it was difficult for some people to celebrate the holidays during the Civil War years, due to the extreme hardship faced by some of the state’s inhabitants during the war. If you’re interested in first-person accounts of holiday events during this time, the library has published versions of a few diaries and letters from Fauquier County residents during the Civil War, including the Journals of Amanda Virginia Edmonds, Lass of the Mosby Confederacy, 1859-1867, and ‘My Heart is So Rebellious,’ The Caldwell Letters, 1861-1865.
Don’t forget the local newspaper, the Fauquier Democrat / Fauquier Times-Democrat / Fauquier Times, for articles on more recent local holiday celebrations, including parades, Santa visits, etc. The library has most issues of the newspaper on microfilm from 1907 to 2014.
Lastly, if you want an overview of Virginia holiday traditions throughout the years, check out the book Four Centuries of Virginia Christmas by Mary Miley Theobald and Libbey Hodges Oliver. The book covers holiday traditions from Jamestown to the end of the 20th century, with good illustrations, and is a fun read.
Happy holidays to all of you, and as the song goes, “May your days be merry and bright!”
∼ Vicky, Reference Librarian, Warrenton central library