When Christmas Wasn’t for Kids

Merry-Christmas-Ornamental-TypographyPicture 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.

Christmas Pieces

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)

“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

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Photos: The GWF’s Delightful December

Merry-Christmas-Ornamental-TypographyThe George Washington Foundation wishes everyone a joyous holiday season!  Enjoy these from our month of festive happenings and decorations at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.

There will still be time to see Kenmore and Ferry Farm adorned for the season and delight in each site’s annual display of dollhouses, miniatures, and gingerbread creations until December 30. For details about these exhibits and our holiday hours, visit kenmore.org/events.

Photos: Holiday Decorations at Kenmore & Ferry Farm

The George Washington Foundation wishes everyone a joyous holiday season!  Enjoy these photos of holiday decorations created by wonderful volunteers!  The George Washington Foundation Garden Guild decorated at Historic Kenmore and the Lake Anna Garden Club decorated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Next week, there will still be time to see Kenmore and Ferry Farm adorned for the season as well as each site’s annual display of dollhouses, miniatures, and gingerbread creations. For details about these exhibits and our holiday hours, visit kenmore.org/events.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Christmas Hedgehog!

During the holidays, it’s the curatorial team’s job to festoon Historic Kenmore in period-appropriate holiday swag to celebrate the Christmas season.  Greenery is brought in to cheer up the rooms and a table of special desserts is laid out as if ready for Christmas guests.  These sweet treats are a pretty traditional fare but one particular dessert garners far more attention and questions than the others: the hedgehog sitting at the center of the table.

hedgehog-1

The Christmas dessert table complete with faux marzipan hedgehog in the Passage at Historic Kenmore.

“What is it?” and “Why a hedgehog?” are heard from visitors again and again.  I decided to investigate to see if I could find out how and why this spiny confection graced Betty Lewis’s table during the holidays.  Unfortunately, my research raised more questions than answers and ultimately lead me to an interesting but ambiguous conclusion based mainly on my own conjecture.

First, I have often heard the hedgehog referred to as a “cake” but it is not a cake.  It is made out of marzipan; a sweet created using sugar or honey and ground almonds.  Marzipan can be flavored, contain fruit and nuts, or even covered in chocolate …the possibilities are endless!  It is often shaped into miniature fruits, vegetables, or animals and colored with dyes.  The confection is usually eaten on special days or for special events.

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A closer view of the faux marzipan hedgehog.

No one knows for sure where marzipan was first created but it likely originated in the Middle East around the ninth-century.[1] It made its way to Europe through trade and immigration. Each country personalized the candy by adding its own unique ingredients and traditions.

Regardless of which country has the honor of creating this particular delicious dessert, it became quite popular. Recipes for marzipan began to show up in various cookbooks dating from the sixteenth century onward.   The two books most important to my investigation were The Compleat Housewife or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion by Eliza Smith published in 1727 and Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy published in 1747.  We know Betty owned both of these books because they are listed in the 1781 probate inventory. [2]

In Mrs. Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, the chapter “All Sorts of Cakes” includes a recipe for ‘march-pane’ which is an old English word for marzipan.[3]  The recipe is a traditional non-baked marzipan that includes ground almond, refined sugar and orange-flower water for flavoring. [4] Twenty years after Mrs. Smith published her book, Mrs. Glasse published The Art of Cookery and, by this time, the hedgehog had made its debut.  The Art of Cookery does not list marzipan specifically but in chapter sixteen titled “Cheesecakes, creams, jellies, whipt syllabubs” there is a recipe “To make a hedge-hog”.[5]  This is a cooked marzipan recipe that instructs the baker to form the almond paste into the shape of a hedge-hog with little slivered almond spines.

How did the hedgehog become associated with this almond dessert? The short answer is I’m not sure.  I researched hedgehogs trying to discover any relation to the holiday season, to winter, or to the New Year. I was unable to find any.

Hedgehogs are native to England, where both cookbooks were published, but not to the Americas.[6]  Colonial Americans would likely never have seen a hedgehog.   There is not a lot of positive symbolism or folklore associated with the little creatures besides being industrious and cute.[7]  They have been used medicinally for a variety of ailments and were a food source in many cultures.[8]  None of this provides a reason why these little creatures were immortalized in almond meal and sugar at Christmas.

hedgehog-3

A photo of a real hedgehog because it’s so cute! Credit: Wikimedia/AlmaGz

I think the most likely development of this holiday treat was a combination of coincidence and novelty. Someone made the marzipan for the holidays,shaped it into a dome, and then decorated it with almonds. Eventually maybe someone else thought this resembled a hedgehog and added a little hedgehog face because it was clever and cute.

Why would Betty choose a marzipan hedgehog to sit on her holiday dessert table in colonial Virginia? As previously noted, marzipan was an established treat used to celebrate special days. The cost of the ingredients, which included two pounds of almonds, orange-flower water, canary wine, cream, butter and sugar, was substantial and illustrated to guests the effort and expense the family lavished on the party.  While the table would probably have smaller bite-sized marzipan pieces in the more traditional fruit shapes, the novel hedgehog with the slivered almond spines created a visually appealing and attention-grabbing dish. The Christmas hedgehog was a great conversation starter then!  The Christmas hedgehog is a great conversation starter now!

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Habeeb Salloum, Muna Salloum, and Leila Salloum, Sweet Delights from A Thousand and One Nights: The Story of Traditional Arab Sweets, (London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2013), 168: Sidney W. Mintz, “Color, Taste and Purity: Some Speculations on the Meanings of Marzipan”, Etnofoor, Jaarg. 4, Nr.1 (1991): 103-108.

[2] Fielding Lewis Probate Inventory, 1781

[3] Thomas Dawson, The Good Huswifes Jewell (London: John Wolfe, 1587), 23; Thomas Dawson, The good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin. (London: Richard Jones, 1594), 37b.

[4] Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, (Williamsburg: William Parks, 1742), 73.

[5] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (London: A. Millar and R. Tonson, 1765), 288.

[6] Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, Mammals of the Holy Land (Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 1996), 63.

[7] Jacqueline Simpson and Stephen Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Tatjana Civjan and Dainius Razauskas, “Hedgehog in Cosmogonic and Etiological Legends of the Balto-Balcanic Area,” Tautosakos darbai, no. XXI (2004): 79-91.

[8] Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, Mammals of the Holy Land (Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 1996), 64; Vincent Nijman and Daniel Bergin, “Trade in Hedgehogs in Morocco,” Journal of Threatened Taxa, (2015): 7132-7136.

Photos: 30th Annual Gingerbread Contest & Exhibit at Ferry Farm

It’s the 30th year of a a long-standing holiday tradition: the Gingerbread Contest & Exhibit at George Washington’s Ferry Farm!  This year’s theme is “Home for the Holidays.” Read about Thirty Years of Gingerbread.

Adults and children alike will enjoy the sights and smells of the festive creations displayed at Ferry Farm!  Ferry Farm’s hours are Monday – Saturday 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Ferry Farm is closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The gingerbread exhibit ends on December 30.  General admission to Ferry Farm and the exhibit is $8 adults, $4 students, under 6 free while admission to the exhibit only is $4 adults, $2 students, under 6 free.

For more information, call (540) 370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org.

Mistletoe: More Than Christmas Kisses

In the 17th and 18th centuries, colonial Virginians decorated their homes for Christmas with all manner of evergreens.  This greenery – holly, ivy, mistletoe, and more – were seen as symbols of everlasting life.  Each year at Historic Kenmore, we also decorate the house with greenery in this tradition.

Mistletoe actually adorns Kenmore year round. The elaborate plaster ceiling in the drawing room depicts the four seasons and mistletoe is used to represent winter.  The mistletoe depicted, however, is not American mistletoe; the craftsman based this part of the ceiling on European mistletoe instead. This makes sense given that the artist was probably European. Having never seen American mistletoe, he would not know how to sculpt it.

mistletoe-on-kenmores-drawing-room-ceiling

Mistletoe depicted in the ornate plaster ceiling of Kenmore’s drawing room.

Regardless of whether American or European, how did mistletoe come to symbolize winter and hang in homes during the holiday season? How did these green branches with white berries become associated with the hope of a little fun and (possible) future romances? What is it about mistletoe that brings so much joy to the seasons’ festivities?

Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) grows in the southern United States and is native to much of North America. It has more berries and shorter, broader leaves than English mistletoe (Viscum album). Like English mistletoe, the American plant is a semi-parasite; it digs its “roots” in the host tree and sucks sap and water from the tree, but it manufactures its own chlorophyll.  Mistletoe often grows in the tallest branches of the tree, making it very hard to harvest.

The word “mistletoe” likely came from one of two sources.  Its origins may be from the Anglo-Saxon “misteltan;” “mistl” meaning different and “tan” meaning twig. Mistletoe is a very “different twig” indeed because of how and where it grows – something that would not have escaped the notice of the Anglo-Saxons.  The word’s other possible origin also translates “tan” as twig, but renders “mistel” as dung; making “mistletoe”  “dung twig.” This may have been because bird droppings contained the seeds that helped spread the plants to other trees.

an-arch-druid-in-his-judicial-habit

Imaginative illustration of ‘An Arch Druid in His Judicial Habit’ from The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Islands by S.R. Meyrick and C.H. Smith (1815) Credit: Wikipedia.

Druids, who served as priests and the learned class for the ancient Celts, valued mistletoe almost as much as they valued oak trees. These men (there is little evidence that there were women druids) climbed to the top of mistletoe-laden trees and harvested the sacred plant with a golden sickle. Those on the ground were careful to catch the plant as it fell because they believed the mistletoe would lose all of its power if it hit the ground.  Druids then used it to cure disease and promote fertility in humans and animals. It may be that the custom of hanging mistletoe stems from a Druidic tradition. Enemies who met under the mistletoe would lay down their arms and greet each other as if friends.

Mistletoe also played a role in Norse mythology and some think that our modern views on mistletoe came from one particular Norse myth. Balder, a god of peace, was the son of Odin, chief of the gods, and the goddess Frigg.  Balder began to dream of his own demise and his father traveled to the underworld to learn of his son’s fate.

baldr-dead-by-eckersberg

Baldr’s Death (1817) by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Credit: Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts/Wikipedia.

Odin returned and shared the bad news with Balder and the other gods and goddesses. Frigg went to everything in the cosmos and asked it to swear it would not hurt her son.  Everything swore loyalty but mistletoe.  Loki, the god of mischief, made some mistletoe into an arrow that killed Balder.  In the version of the story with a happy ending, Balder was brought back to life and Frigg makes mistletoe a symbol of love and kisses to those who pass under it.

The English origins of kissing under the mistletoe aren’t well known. Historical records indicate that this merriment became popular in England sometime in the 16th century, but we don’t know if it was commonplace before that.  English mistletoe etiquette had some hard-and-fast rules: women under the mistletoe were not to refuse kisses; men could only kiss women (or girls) on the cheek; after the kissing transaction, the man removed a berry from the mistletoe ball; after the last berry was plucked, the kissing ended.

the-mistletoe-bough-by-francis-wheatley

The Mistletoe Bough (c. 1790) by Francis Wheatley. Credit: Yale Center for British Art/Wikipedia

 

Harvesting mistletoe is a challenge, but 18th century Virginians came up with an ingenious way to quickly and easily gather the plant.  Instead of climbing up into the tree’s canopy, Virginian men shot the mistletoe out of the tree.  They then took the good sprigs home, fashioned them into mistletoe balls, and enjoyed the merriment of the season.  This tradition harvesting mistletoe through gunfire still continues today all over the American south.

Ancient Druids. Mythical Norse gods. 18th century Virginians. Over the centuries, these people, whether real or imagined, contributed to the myths and traditions that have made mistletoe a symbol of winter, friendship, and love.  When you share a kiss with someone special under the mistletoe this season, you might want to take a moment to share mistletoe’s long history with that someone too.

Kelly Brennan Arehart
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services