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Christmas Customs

Christmas Past

Christmas Customs

An article from The Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, vol. 16, no. 4, winter of 1995-96 written by Emma L. Powers, a historian in the department of Historical Research at Colonial Williamsburg.

Christmas in colonial Virginia was very different from our twentieth-century celebration. Eighteenth-century 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. It’s certainly a short list, I tell myself, as I plan meals, go shopping, bake cookies, write three hundred cards, stuff stockings, and dog-ear or recycle the hundreds of catalogs that begin arriving at my house in October.

Attend church, stick some holly on the window panes, fix a great dinner, go to one party, visit or be visited. It sounds so refreshingly easy and simple and quick. But I’d miss a tree with lots of lights and all my favorite ornaments collected over the years. And if there were only one special meal, how could I hope to eat my fill of turkey and goose, both mince-pie and fruitcake, shrimp as well as oysters? Materialist that I am, I would surely be disappointed if there were no packages to open on the morning of December 25.

Our present Christmas customs derive from a wide array of inspirations, nearly as various and numerous as the immigrants who settled this vast country. Most of the ways Americans celebrate the midwinter holiday came about in the nineteenth century, but we’re extraordinarily attached to our traditions and feel sure that they must be very old and supremely significant. What follows is a capsule history of some of our most loved Christmas customs. Perhaps both residents and visitors will enjoy learning the background of one or more of these rites. I offer them in the spirit of the season: with best wishes for continuing health and happiness to all!

Christmas, a children’s holiday? No eighteenth-century sources highlight the importance of children at Christmastime–or of Christmas to children in particular. For instance, Philip Vickers Fithian’s December 18, 1773, diary entry about exciting holiday events mentions: “the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments. . .” None was meant for kids, and the youngsters were cordially not invited to attend. Sally Cary Fairfax was old enough to keep a journal and old enough to attend a ball at Christmas 1771, so she was not one of the “tiny tots with their eyes all aglow.” The emphasis on Christmas as a magical time for children came about in the nineteenth century. We must thank the Dutch and Germans in particular for centering Christmas in the home and within the family circle.

Gift giving. 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. Cash tips, little books, and sweets in small quantities were given by masters or parents to dependents, whether slaves, servants, apprentices, or children. It seems to have worked in only one direction: children and others did not give gifts to their superiors. Gift-giving traditions from several European countries also worked in this one-way fashion; for example, St. Nicholas filled children’s wooden shoes with fruit and candy in both old and New Amsterdam. (Eventually, of course, “stockings hung by the chimney with care” replaced wooden shoes.) We must attribute the exchange of gifts among equals and from dependents to superiors to good old American influences. Both twentieth-century affluence and diligent marketing has made it the norm in the last fifty years or so.

Santa Claus too is an American invention, although an amalgam of American, Dutch, and English traditions: partly the lean, ascetic Saint Nicholas, he is also related to the bacchanalian Father Christmas. While many countries and ethnic groups have a Christmastime gift bringer, the “right jolly old elf” dressed in red and fur and driving his sleigh and reindeer sprang from the pen and imagination of New Yorker Clement Clark Moore. In his 1823 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” Moore created the new look for the Christmas gift-giver. Cartoonist Thomas Nast completed the vision with his 1860s drawings that still define how we see Santa.

Christmas cards. Printers have been cashing in on Christmas since the eighteenth century–at least in London and other large cities. Schoolboys (and I do mean only the young males) filled in with their best penmanship pages pre-printed with special holiday borders. “Christmas pieces” they were called. But the Christmas card per se was a nineteenth-century English invention.

Garlands and greens. Decorations for the midwinter holidays consisted of whatever natural materials looked attractive at the bleakest time of year–evergreens, berries, forced blossoms–and the necessary candles and fires. In ancient times, Romans celebrated their Saturnalia with displays of lights and hardy greenery formed into wreaths and sprays. Christian churches have long been decorated for Christmas. The tradition goes back so far that no one knows for certain when or where it began.

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. Of the precious few–only half a dozen–that show interior Christmas decorations, a large cluster of mistletoe is always the major feature for obvious reasons. Otherwise, plain sprigs of holly or bay fill vases and other containers of all sorts or stand flat against window panes. (I cannot tell for sure how these last were attached; perhaps the stems were merely stuck between the glass and the wooden muntins.)

Christmas trees. If we had to choose the one outstanding symbol of Christmas, of course it must be the gaily decorated evergreen tree with a star at the very top. German in origin, “Tannenbaum”:; gained acceptance in England and the United States only very slowly. The first written reference to a Christmas tree dates from the seventeenth century when a candle-lighted tree astonished residents of Strasbourg. I have found nothing recorded in the eighteenth century about holiday trees in Europe or North America. By the nineteenth century a few of the ” German toys” use Charles Dickens’s phrase) appeared in London. But these foreign oddities were not yet accepted. When a print of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s very domestic circle around a decorated tree at Windsor Castle appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1848, the custom truly caught on.

At about the same time, Charles Minnegerode, a German professor at the College of William and Mary, trimmed a small evergreen to delight the children at the St. George Tucker House. Martha Vandergrift, aged 95, recalled the grand occasion, and her story appeared in the Richmond News Leader on December 25, 1928. Presumably Mrs. Vandergrift remembered the tree and who decorated it more clearly than she did the date. The newspaper gave 1845 as the time, three years after Minnegerode’s arrival in Williamsburg. Perhaps the first Christmas tree cheered the Tucker household as early as 1842.

Christmas foods and beverages. Everyone wants more and better things to eat and drink for a celebration. Finances nearly always control the possibilities. In eighteenth century Virginia, of course, the rich had more on the table at Christmas and on any other day, too, but even the gentry faced limits in winter. December was the right time for slaughtering, so fresh meat of all sorts they had, as well as some seafood. Preserving fruits and vegetables was problematic for a December holiday. Then as now, beef, goose, ham, and turkey counted as holiday favorites; some households also insisted on fish, oysters, mincemeat pies, and brandied peaches. No one dish epitomized the Christmas feast in colonial Virginia.

Wines, brandy, rum punches, and other alcoholic beverages went plentifully around the table on December 25 in well-to-do households. Others had less because they could afford less. Slave owners gave out portions of rum and other liquors to their workers at Christmastime, partly as a holiday treat (one the slaves may have come to expect and even demand) and partly to keep slaves at the home quarter during their few days off work. People with a quantity of alcohol in them were more likely to stay close to home than to run away or travel long distances to visit family.

Length of the Christmas season. Eighteenth-century Anglicans prepared to celebrate the Nativity during Advent, a penitential season in the church’s calendar. December 25, not a movable feast, began a festive season of considerable duration. 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. There seems to have been no special notice of New Year’s Eve in colonial days. (Maybe that is to be expected since Times Square was not yet built and Guy Lombardo had not been born.) Most music historians agree that the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with all its confusing rigmarole of lords a-leaping and swans a-swimming was meant to teach children their numbers and has no strong holiday connection.

In the late 1990s the Christmas season seems to begin right after Halloween and comes to a screeching halt by Christmas dinner (or with the first tears or first worn-out battery, whichever comes first). We emphasize the build-up, the preparation, the anticipation. Celebrants in the eighteenth century saw Christmas Day itself as only the first day of festivities. Probably because customs then were fewer and preparations simpler, colonial Virginians looked to the twelve days beyond December 25 as a way to extend and more fully savor the most joyful season of the year.

 

First Thanksgiving

As a student in America’s public school system you are taught “Thanksgiving” began on the shores of Plymouth, in present-day Massachusetts, in the year of 1621. However, historical documents describe an earlier record of a “Day of Thanksgiving” celebrated on the shores of the James River, in 1619 when a group of 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Hundred on the North bank of the James River, near Herring Creek in an area then known as Charles Cittie.

On the day of their arrival, December 4, 1619, Captain John Woodleaf held a service of thanksgiving and declared, “Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

The Charter of Berkeley Plantation specifies that “the first day of its occupants arrival shall be observed yearly as a “day of thanksgiving to God”. Berkley Hundred is located about 20 miles upstream from Jamestown, where the first permanent settlement of Virginia was established on May 14, 1607.

Genealogy Kind of Christmas

The Genealogy Christmas Gift

The realization of my husband’s unknown ancestry becomes my quest, ‘To find the stories of his Ancestors past’.   He has very little information about who they were or where they came from, so I dig in hard to see what I can find.  It becomes like a hidden treasure map to me, soon finding one then the next with many of the men in his direct paternal line being men of elevated standing during their time.  One is the youngest state attorney ever appointed, another a senator, the next a war hero-if I may, who his opponent could never hold, but one in the same as the Lieutenant who lost several cousins riding with him in Florida’s First Calvary.  Proudly reporting back to my husband, with one find then the next, I easily go back several generations, finding more and more.  The hunt becomes an addiction.  Who or what will I find next?

For Christmas of 2007, we give my father in-law a family tree of his direct paternal lineage going back to the 1600’s, and in return I receive the best gift I could ask for.  Not a gift as a package would be, but a request to find a new story.  My father in-law wants to know about the Minorcan heritage he always heard of through his grandmother’s line, the Senator’s wife, who became the third female to take and pass the Florida bar.

Her name is Nancy L. Langford, born September 22, 1879, Bradford County, Florida.  Her father John Alexander Langford, born Columbia County, Florida November 26, 1837. Her mother, Nancy Alice Roberts, born in 1844.  I continue up the maternal line with Roberts leading me to John J. Roberts her father and Sarah “Sallie” Sweat, her mother, the beginning of a new line to explore, the Sweats.

Buried not far from where we currently live on old family property, we go to the cemetery and find their graves.  The question of the Minorcan heritage again surfaces.  Could Sallie Sweat be of Minorcan descent?

Maybe it was pronounced Sweet?  Sweat could be Sweet I thought.  In genealogy we find there can be many variations in a single generation, depending on who records the entry.  Not far to our east is St. Augustine, where many Minorcans lived in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, when Florida was a Spanish Territory.  Could it be so simple?

As a genealogist, we search for facts that can be supported by records or documents such as birth records, a last will and testament, a census, tax and land records and even the local telegraph.  With a very clear documented history, Sarah “Sallie” Sweat’s father is John Sweat, born c. 1794 Burke, Bulloch County, Georgia (Pioneers of Wiregrass, 1850 Columbia County, Florida Federal Census.) John Sweat married Charlotte Moore, (Pioneers of Wiregrass.;  and then I find them in 1850 Columbia County, Florida (Federal Census).  John Sweat dies in 1868, New River County, which is now known as Bradford County, Florida.  John served in the Indian Wars as a private in Captain Jonathan Knight’s company of Lowndes County Militia, 1840. (Pioneers of Wiregrass)  Is this another clue?   Jonathan Knight is my husband’s fourth generation direct paternal great grandfather.  Soon after arriving in Florida, John Sweat served as a Justice of the Peace in Columbia County, Florida from 1845 to 1847 (source: Pioneers of Wiregrass.)

Further,  I trace back another generation to Nathan (sometimes written Nathaniel) Sweat, R.S., born between c.1753-1760 of Marion District, South Carolina.   Nathan is listed in Captain Robert Lide’s Company of Volunteer Militia who signed a petition to the Council of Safety of South Carolina on 9 October 1775. He was counted as white in 1790, head of a Beaufort District, South Carolina, a household of one white male over 16, one white male under 16, and four white females [SC:11].  Next I find another reference to a Nathan Sweat in a book by Genealogist/Historian Paul Heinegg, called “Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.”

Free African Americans?  But Nathan Sweat, R.S. is listed as white in the census of 1790 Beaufort, SC.  Is this the same Sweat family?

Looking in the Georgia Black Book, I find on page 90 a Nathan Sweat, son of Nathan Sweat (R.S.) being arrested and gives his physical description.
Sweat, Nathan – Cattle Stealing, 7 Jan 1836 Appling Co., Farmer Georgia 39 yrs.,  6’2″
Dark complexion, dark hair, dark eyes. He is pardoned 30 Nov 1837.

John’s father Nathan had at least seven children, and one was named Nathan, Jr.   With my interest now peeked, my search intensifies.  According to the Reverend Alexander Gregg, Rector of St. David’s Church in Cheraw, South Carolina, William was the father of Nathan, James and William Sweat. [Gregg, History of the Old Cheraws, 101, 311, 312].   William Sweat marries Lucy Turbeville/Turbevil, c. 1750, South Carolina. Reverend Gregg’s account also lists William Sweat as a Mulatto/Melungeon.

Until this point, every census has listed  their race as White.  I now realize the Sweat line is not of a Minorcan heritage at all, it is documented to be Melungeon.

Melungeon-(pron.) is a term traditionally applied to one of a number of tri-racial isolate groups.

Tri-racial-(pron.) describes populations thought to be of mixed European, sub Saharan African and Native American Ancestry.

On 23 July 1763 William Sweat is named as executor and son-in-law of John Turbeville who mentions his daughter Lucy Sweat and grandson Nathan Sweat in his Craven County, South Carolina will (which was proved 3 August the same year.) [WB RR: 55].   On the 16th July, 1772, William receives a grant of 150 acres on Three Creeks in Craven County, Beaufort District of South Carolina.  William Sweat dies 23 Jul 1783, in Hunt’s  Bluff, Cheraw District, Chesterfield, SC.   He becomes known as William Sweat of Hunt’s Bluff.

Who is William Sweat of Old Cheraw? His father was also named William Sweat.  He was born in 1690, Surry County, Virginia.  Surry County…….this is a new clue.  Note: Part of James City County, VA became Surry County, VA.

Next a simple google.com search sends me into a tale-spin!

From the Minutes of the Governor’s Council.

17 October 1640: James City Court: “Whereas Robert Sweat hath begotten with child a negro woman servant belonging unto Lieutenant Sheppard, the court hath therefore ordered that the said negro woman shall be whipt at the whipping post and the said Sweat shall tomorrow in the forenoon do public penance for his offence at James City church in the time of divine service according to the laws of England in that case provided.” [Virginia Council and General Court Records 1640-1641, in “Virginia Magazine of History” Vol. II, p. 281] This was a general law against fornication that applied to all members of the colony.   Note that she was a servant and not a slave.

Within six months, she again is brought before the court, but this time by her husband.

March 31, 1641-Suit of John Gowen;

“Whereas it appeareth to the court that John Gowen, being a negro servant
unto William Evans, was permitted by his said master to keep hogs and make
the best benefit thereof to himself provided that the said Evans might have
half the increase which was accordingly rendered unto him by the said negro
and the other half reserved for his own benefit: And whereas the said negro
having a young child of a negro woman belonging to Lt. Robert Sheppard which
he desired should be made a Christian and be taught and exercised in the
church of England, by reason whereof he, the said negro did for his said
child purchase its freedom of Lt. Sheppard with the good liking and consent
of Tho: Gooman’s overseer as by the deposition of the said Sheppard and Ewens
appeareth, the court hath therefore ordered that the child shall be free from
the said Evans or his assigns and to be and remain at the disposing and
education of the said Gowen and the child’s godfather who undertaketh to see
it brought up in the Christian religion as aforesaid.”

My heart sinks.  Who is this woman?  What is her story?  How did she find herself in such a situation?

Subscribe to my blog and continue to read my discovery of her story.

Colonial genealogy

For the last seven years my focus has been Colonial Genealogy and the first English settlement on the shores of James River which the English named Virginia.  Controlled by an English developmental company the Virginia Company of London, four shires were established.  They were James City, Charles City, Henrico and Kikotan (Elizabeth City). For the first fifteen years the Virginia settlement experienced ups and downs but continued to grow even though it was plagued by illness, dysentery, Indian attacks and starvation.  But, in 1622, the great Indian massacre killed a quarter of the population (347 settlers) with the surviving settlers convening in some eight plantations deemed capable of defending themselves.  The rest, some seventy or so plantations were abandoned.  The hardest hit areas were Martin’s Hundred where seventy eight colonist were killed and Bennett’s plantation on the south side of the James River, where some fifty plus colonist perished.  With the conditions of the colony and the inner fighting of the Virginia Company of London, the Crown revokes the companies patent and Virginia becomes an English Colony under the crown of King James I.

By 1634 the four original corporations were split to permit the creation of Warwick River (Warwick), Warrosquyoake (Isle of Wight) and Charles River (York), making a total of seven shires in the vicinity of the James River’s estuary.  Accawmack was added as an eighth shire encompassing the population of the Eastern Shore.  Most of these people lived near riverbanks because travel in most cases was limited to the boats, skiffs or ships in the rivers, the Chesapeake Bay or the Atlantic Ocean.

When beginning your work, you must recognize which counties were formed from or carved from which shire, parish or county, depending on your local.  Most colonial records are scarce due to the fires which  burned in Richmond during the American Civil War, so in the 1950s the Virginia Colonial Records Project was established by the Virginia Historical Society, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the University of Virginia Library, and Library of Virginia to reconstruct the archives of Virginia’s colonial history, making any of these a great place to begin.

A simple Google search

 

GOOGLE.com

With the Internet making such great strides, many Genealogists put their work on-line.  When you hit a brick wall, (not “if”, because you definitely will) sometimes a simple Google search can provide you with enough suggestion.  The reason I say suggestion, is you must verify all the information that you add to your family tree.  Don’t consider anything and everything to be factual.  Genealogists are humans too, and even the best can make mistakes.

As you Google make sure to check Google Books which is located on the far right side of your google.com task bar.  You may have to drop down the “More” icon to locate it.   Many historical books are on the internet and are fully accessible.

So, make sure to Google.  You never know what you might find!

How it all began….

In the warmth of the morning sun I ride Peanut, my Shetland pony, down the winding dirt trail through the grove past my great-grandmothers house while dodging the occasional orange tree limb.   We trot across the open meadow where the garden was planted in the spring and around the corner where the briars are thick and the blackberries are sweet.  We turn back heading down to the boondocks, where either a small stream or a trickle of water can be flowing through the little ravine.  The hope is always for enough water for Peanut to jump across rather than trot right through.  We continue up the hill, past Granny Suggs rabbit pen, through the grapefruit grove and across the clay road.

I’m on my way to have a picnic.  I’m not alone, they are all there.  Aunts, Uncles, grandpas and grandmas at least seven generations back.  I know them all.  As I walk with my great-grandmother, she tells me stories of her favorite sister Creasy, her Uncle Asbury who was killed in the war, and the neighbor that caused her much distress letting food go bad instead of giving it to another in need.  Regardless of their relation, they all now lay resting in the small community cemetery, each  with a different headstone or a memorable symbol I use to remember their story.  As she places the flowers in the vase at the base of Papa Johnson’s grave, she reminds me that she just couldn’t hold on to her two boys, Olin and Paul, which her husband now rests  beside.  “Only the girls were strong enough to make it,” she says in a quiet voice.  Even at the young age of five, I know her heart is torn.

Fast forward forty (40) years; With my own children grown up and gone off on their own adventures, I turn to the stories of my childhood re-igniting an addictive passion within me.  “Genealogy”.

As I share my great-grandmothers stories with my husband, I realize that he never knew any of his ancestors.  How could this be?  How could he not know his Grandparents?   I now realize how lucky I was growing up surrounded by family. I had three of my four grandparents and one very healthy great-grandma, which I saw most every day.   It seems our family lived in the same small community forever.  I always knew where I came from or should I say who I came from  and the stories told by a great woman who wished to keep her ancestors memories alive.  Some died in a war, others from a disease that’s now been extinguished some five or six decades, and then there were those who died of old age, but they all had stories, great stories.

Genealogy search engines

How many teenagers today actually sit down and talk with their grandparents, if they’re lucky their great-grandparents, listening to stories of another time?  Stories that will soon be forgotten if they haven’t been already.  What can we do to resurrect them?  Through genealogy you can bring many of them back to life, returning them to paper or computer, so they can be remembered, archived in the internet world, for the technical savvy generations to come.

To Genealogy, “the computer” is ingenious, and devastating at the same time, and we must adapt.

http://Ancestry.com, http://Fold3.com, http://Findagrave.com and the list goes on.  With today’s technology there are endless ways of searching for your ancestors without leaving your computer.  These three search engines above can be instrumental in finding your ancestors.  They are paid sites used by professional genealogist, and they will hasten your results.  But if you like the search, a “free” simple google.com search can get you started.  It all begins with YOU.

Birth certificate, marriage license,  census – (every ten years there is a federal census that can track re-location), property records, baptismal records, and newspapers to name a few.  The internet brings all of these records to one location, your computer.  Ingenious for Genealogy.

Why do you ask is the computer devastating to Genealogy?

No longer do families sit together passing stories down from one generation to another, stories told to them by theirs.  We have lost a whole generation of storytelling to the computer.  Computers now occupy our children’s lives.

Therefore, if you can’t beat them, join them, as long as we continue to pass down and preserve the stories of our ancestors, with the new technical tools of the future.

Genealogy 101

Do you really know who you are?

Everyone comes from somewhere and everyone has a story.

Do you know the stories of your grandparents and great-grandparents?  Where did they live?  How many children did they have?  What trials and tribulations did they face?  These are all questions that may not have been answered during  your younger years.

Genealogy can give you the answers.

Where do you start?  That answer is with “YOU”.