Picture it. No Santa. No Christmas tree. No big-ticket Christmas present. No little Susie or Bobby up to their eyes in wrapping paper, as their parents snap a photo of every gift they unwrap. To die-hard Christmas fans today, this sounds like a nightmare. Where is the wonder and joy? Where is the standing in line or the surfing online all night to find the perfect gift? Where is the fulfilling of little Susie and Bobby’s every Christmas wish?
Christmas, as a celebration, was not always so focused on small children. Until the 1800s, Christmas was a holiday mainly for adults. Most of the festivities in the 18th century were designed to provide opportunities to socialize and celebrate with adult family and friends from far and near. The Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 – January 6) were a time to make merry, unless you were a kid.
Now, to say that children had no chance to enjoy holiday festivities would be an overstatement but not by much. Kids made “Christmas pieces,” or cards that they decorated and adorned with poems, for their parents and siblings. This tradition eventually grew into the modern activity of sending Christmas cards.
Reproduction “Christmas pieces” in Betty Washington Lewis’ Bed Chamber at Historic Kenmore.
Colonial children did receive small gifts from friends and family – little presents like books, fruit, and nuts. There was nothing expensive, nothing breakable, and nothing age-inappropriate. These presents served as small tokens of affection as parents showed children that they were remembered during the season. Gift-giving in the 1700s was a top-down affair – parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents could provide little gifts to the children but children were not expected to return the favor. Modern children might be envious of their 18th century counterparts if they knew that they were off the hook for giving presents to their parents and older siblings. But Colonial Virginia was a hierarchal society with children near the bottom. Christmas gift-giving enforced these rules of deference and even at a festive time it remained clear who was firmly in charge.
One reason children were left out of Christmastide festivities in the past may have been just the lack of kid-friendly activities. Firing guns, going fox hunting, and getting married at a holiday ball weren’t (and, in some cases, still aren’t) activities associated with children. This is not to say that children did not take delight in these activities when adults did them.
Young boys could not partake in the fox hunt, but it didn’t make it less exciting for them. Boys admired their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and brothers as they prepared for the hunt. Boys who were a little older could watch as their male loved ones dashed off on their horses and into the excitement of the hunt. George Washington was an enthusiastic fox hunter starting in his-mid teens, at which point a young man would be up to the physical challenge. Boys also surely excitedly watched the men fire guns into the air as a way to say “Happy Christmas!” to the neighbors.
“Twelfth Night in Devonshire” (1863) shows men firing guns to celebrate the holiday in “Das festliche Jahr in Sitten, Gebräuchen und Festen der germanischen Völker” by Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld. Credit: Wikipedia
Girls probably happily helped their mothers or older sisters prepare for the Twelfth Night ball even though they would not attend. It wasn’t until a boy or girl had gone through puberty that they were ready to go to the ball. Some children started their dancing lessons early, while others started later. George Washington was taking lessons by age 16. Even the nature of the 18th century dancing would have been too difficult for children. At the beginning of every ball, the guests danced the minuet, a complicated series of steps performed on the tip-toes. This would be nearly impossible for children and their still developing motor skills. Until they were older, little boys and girls admired the festivities from afar.
Couples took advantage of the Christmas balls and family get-togethers to hold weddings. The 12 days between Christmas and Twelfth Night were a popular time for couples to get married. Thomas Jefferson married Martha Skelton on January 1, 1772 and George Washington and Martha Dandridge Custis married January 6, 1759. This was a joyous occasion for the whole family, but the children of the family were certainly not the center of attention.
Perhaps the greatest example of how Christmas in the 18th century wasn’t for kids is the fact that many people, adults and children alike, did not celebrate the day at all. Seventeenth century Puritans in Massachusetts saw the Christmas celebrations of the Church of England (and, by extension, Virginia celebrations) as a mockery of the Puritans’ devout faith. “Yuletide is Fooltide” was the attitude and, except for going to church all day on Christmas, Puritan children did not participate in any of the frivolity of the season. At least Virginian children could enjoy the celebrations even if they were not their focus.
More than anything, Christmas provided 18th century children with the chance to learn the etiquette and proper behavior that would be important for them as adults. Both boys and girls observed how men and women prepared for and behaved during Christmastide and the rest of the year. That’s right, modern American children, the biggest Christmas gift that 18th century children received was learning how to behave.
Kelly Brennan Arehart
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services