The Christmas That Was

We sentimentalize the holidays even as we re-gift the fruitcake, buy toys on Christmas Eve and chortle (over eggnog) about Uncle Harry’s latest girlfriend. 

The holiday season, most would agree, is a long-running spectacle. It begins coloring retail shelves in red and green in early autumn, builds momentum with an elbows-out, post-Thanksgiving shopping binge, reaches a sustained crescendo of lights, decorations, food and festivities between mid-December and New Year’s, then peters out into January gym specials and displays of deeply discounted wrapping paper and apple-cinnamon-scented potpourri. That’s the way it is—a carnival mash-up of the sentimental, sacred and profane. But if you’re more than 10 years old and celebrate Christmas, the memories are somewhat different.

The holly-and-the-ivy season in Virginia is 400 years of converging customs, cultures, prohibitions, fashions and controversies. Truth be told, there’s no such thing as a traditional Virginia Christmas, and there never really was, the season having come over from England as an already rather murky mélange of pagan saturnalia and the Christian nativity, with some agrarian-society harvest festival thrown in.

Take, for example, the Christmas tree. O tannenbaum, O tannenbaum, more than a million of you are cut down and sold every year from Virginia farms these days, but you arrived in Virginia from Germany and didn’t achieve widespread adoption until late in the 19th century. Eric Bryan, Deputy Director of the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, notes that holiday season visitors have often been surprised, and sometimes incensed, that no Christmas tree stands in the museum’s American Farm exhibit, which is interpreted for the year 1820. A Staunton newspaper from the 1850s still considered the Christmas tree such a novelty that it reported on a resident who put one up and then opened his house for everyone to come and marvel at the wonder. In an oral history looking back on her childhood in early-20th-century Patrick County, Pearl Witt Kendrick recalled, “People just didn’t put up trees when I was a child.”

What did happen on Christmas day, Kendrick said, was her father and brother going outside and firing the shotgun in the air. Apparently nothing said “peace on earth” like a hail of gunfire; the tradition of “shooting in Christmas,” or its variant, “shooting in the New Year” (sometimes with fireworks rather than firearms), was remarked upon by a visitor to Virginia at least as far back as the 1700s. Back in Patrick County, Kendrick worried, “After hearing Mama tell the story of Christ’s birth, the Lord seemed so real and close to me that I was afraid Dad might accidentally shoot him.”

For those who think the 21st-century Christmas season has gone adrift, lost its spiritual moorings, you’d have found company among the Scots-Irish Presbyterians who settled in western Virginia. But they eschewed the holiday entirely, frowning upon it as un-Christian and a transparent excuse for pagan revelry. As was dolefully recorded in the diary of one Philip Fithian, a visiting missionary, Christmas morning was “like other Days every Way calm & temperate,” absent even a single merry shout or gunshot.

Elsewhere across Virginia there was certainly plenty of church-going. There were three churches—Baptist, Episcopal, and Methodist—in the Surry of Anne Rowell Worell’s childhood in the 1930s, and as “it took everyone in the village to fill each church,” she recalled in a memoir of her childhood Christmases, “we attended all of them.” Nevertheless, nearly every family held an open house on Christmas Eve, serving “their special eggnog and fruitcake.” It was the only time alcohol appeared in Worell’s household, occasioning her mother to break out “her favorite Christmas drink, Blackberry Shrub,” as well. “I’ve never known what it was exactly but I thought it was wicked for sure.” Worell’s Christmas day was breakfast, lunch and dinner at a different relative’s household each meal, crowned by the wine Jello—“very grown-up”—at supper.

Feasting, merrymaking, dancing, and visiting—if there is one sustained theme across four centuries of Virginia Christmases, that would be it, and it started early. While the Virginia Company’s first Christmas in Jamestown seems to have gone unremarked, possibly because the colonists were otherwise engaged fighting for their lives, by the second Christmas, John Smith was already setting a precedent for visiting with his neighbors and filling his belly. Smith and a small party of men, out seeking provisions for the gang back at the fort, were forced by a spell of bad weather “to keep Christmas among the Salvages,” in a Kecoughtan village, Smith would write, where a jolly time—including a quantity of “Oysters, Fish, Flesh, Wild-foule, and good bread”—was had by all.

Later in the 1600s, a French visitor to Virginia noted “a great deal of carousing” at the home of William Fitzhugh. At Mt. Vernon, Martha Washington liked to have her favorite “Great Cake” served at Christmas; it’s recipe began, “Take 40 eggs … .” In Patrick County, said Pearl Witt Kendrick, the first neighbor stopping by on Christmas morning with a shout of “Christmas gift!” was given a drink of whiskey, apple brandy or a hot whiskey beverage called ginger stew, brewed up by her father.

On the Virginia frontier in the Shenandoah Valley, notes the Frontier Culture Museum’s Bryan, German settlers in the 18th century brought along a practice known as “belsnickeling,” which involved “going from house to house dressed up in bizarre costumes,” he says. “If you guessed who the people were, they had to take off their masks. If you didn’t, you had to give them a treat—sometimes alcohol.” Also sometimes known as “Kris Kringling” or “shanghaiing,” it persisted as late as the 1960s in the valley. Another prankish custom was carried on by the young scholars of Virginia: “Barring out the schoolmaster” meant literally locking him out of the school until he promised his pupils a holiday, a treat or possibly both.

In Richmond’s Church Hill in the early 1900s, Maggie Alease Taylor Jackson Howard’s mother would lay out a table with “every kind of cake on there you could think of,” including fruitcake, plain cake, pound cake and layer cake, as well as sweet potato, coconut, pumpkin and apple pies. When the neighbors dropped by, Mrs. Howard’s oral history recounts, she would encourage them to help themselves, saying, “Won’t you have some Christmas?” After one visitor took her rather too literally and consumed half the fruitcake in one sitting, she vowed never to put whole fruitcake on the table again and adopted a firm policy of setting out 10 slices at a time.

Others found occasion for charitable gestures. In the ever-expanding and exhausting frenzy of modern holiday gifting, in which no acquaintance, no matter how slight, is considered unworthy of being recognized with a thoughtfully selected present, we might do well to recall that Colonial Virginians seemed to have been content with bestowing a few modest trifles and small coins upon children and underlings. A publication from the Virginia Baptist Historical Society notes how the “faithful and earnest pastor” in many congregations was remembered with a Christmas “pounding.” While the name seems to have derived from the measure of the butter, flour, sugar, preserves, hams and more that might be given to fill up the minister’s pantry—or possibly from the increase in the pastor’s waistline thereafter—a pounding might also include clothing, even a load of coal, or, in the case of a congregation in White Stone, “the month of August to return to Culpeper County to visit the scenes of his childhood and rest under the spreading tree by the old oaken bucket.”

History does not tell us whether he was really hoping for an iPhone.

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