Over the years, we’ve often discussed how colonial-era Christmas celebrations and decorations were different from our own modern-day versions (read here, here, here, here, and here). Each year, throughout the month of December at Historic Kenmore, we depict the Twelfth Night festivities possibly enjoyed by the Lewis family because, in the 1700s, the main holiday celebration took place in January at the end of the Christmas season, rather than on Christmas day. We show an elaborate dessert table, loaded with fanciful sugar creations and treats, waiting for midnight revelers to partake during a break from music and dancing. We place simple jars of greenery around the house, and show a large punch bowl at the ready to serve holiday visitors. There are no Christmas trees or mentions of Santa yet – those would come later, in the 19th century.
This year at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we have a new challenge: how do we show the Christmas season in the Washington house? The Washington family lived at Ferry Farm in the 1740s when Colonial Virginia was a more rustic place. While the Washington family was living in a far better situation than most of their neighbors, they still couldn’t imagine the luxuries that the Lewises would know at Kenmore 40 years later. So what was Christmas like for the Washingtons?
Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of information from that early part of the 18th century to give us much detail. The Christmas season was rarely mentioned in correspondence or journal entries, and so we can surmise that the lack of mention means that the holidays weren’t an especially unusual time in the lives of most early Virginians.
Interestingly, we actually know more about the seasonal happenings of an even earlier time – that of the very first colonists to arrive in the New World during the 1600s. Because those early colonists were religiously devout, they observed the sacred aspects of the season strictly, even in the harsh environment they found themselves in after crossing the ocean. There are a number of holy days, feasts and saints’ days that occur throughout the Christmas season, and marking each of them with church services, large meals or simply readings and recitations comprised the holiday period for those early Virginians. With a few exceptions, decorations, special foods, small gift-giving, music, parties and the other secular trappings of the holiday would be largely confined to the late 18th century celebrations known to places like Kenmore. The Washingtons at Ferry Farm probably fell somewhere in between these earlier and later extremes.
Although the Washingtons probably decorated even less than the Lewises, we do have the opportunity at Ferry Farm to show one aspect of early 18th century Christmas that we cannot show in a traditional antique-filled house museum – the use of fragrant herbs.
Early in the 18th century, it was common practice not to decorate one’s home for the holidays, but rather to put the effort into decorating the sanctuary of the local church (if you had one). Clergymen urged local parishioners to ensure “the church be swept, and kept clean without dust, or cobwebs, and at great festivals strewed, and stuck with boughs.”
For most colonial era churches, incense was an expensive and not easily obtained luxury. To mimic its pleasant smell during holy days, parishioners strew fragrant dried herbs on the floors of the sanctuary. As the herbs were crushed under foot, they added a pleasant holiday aroma to the room. Sage, rosemary, and thyme were the most commonly used herbs but lavender and rose petals might also be added.
This practice of strewing herbs on the floor was adopted in private homes, too, especially when a household didn’t have a church nearby and services were conducted at home. Sachets of herbs might also be hung from doorways and windows, and small bundles of herbs might be occasionally tossed into the fire to add to the scent. The practice served to sanctify the house, but also gave people a break from the never ending parade of bad smells they encountered on a daily basis.
Another common practice among parishioners in decorating their churches was to place sprigs of holly and mistletoe in the muntins of the windows. Like the strewing of herbs, sprigging the windows found its way into the home and likely was the only greenery early 18th century colonial Virginians like the Washingtons used to mark the season.
At Ferry Farm, because the Washington house is filled with reproduction furnishings, we can use both real herbs on the floors and real sprigs of greenery in the windows. It may be much less than our 21st century eyes are accustomed to, but the Washingtons would have recognized these signs of the season right away.
This holiday season, we invite you to visit both Ferry Farm and Kenmore to experience these sights and, for the first time this year, the smells of the 18th century’s evolving Christmas celebrations as marked by the Washingtons, the Lewises, and their fellow early Americans. To learn about visiting Ferry Farm and Kenmore during the holiday season and to see a list of special holiday events, click here.
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations