12 Days of Colonial Christmas
The day after Halloween, the Christmas decorations went up in my neighborhood. Then right after Boxing Day, there were already Valentine’s Day candies in stores. As someone who really enjoys the holiday season, this early decoration overkill and immediate disappearance seems like both too much and too little. That’s why I appreciate some historical perspective on the season.
18th century Americans didn’t decorate until Christmas Day and then spent the next 12 days celebrating with parties, dancing, weddings, and lots of eating and drinking. To take in the classic (and not so classic) wreaths, greens, and holiday trimmings essential for the holiday spirit, I spent a few days in Jamestown and Williamsburg, two living history museums in Virginia.
As British colonists, early Americans followed established mid-winter decorating traditions. They used trimmings of evergreens, berries, ivy, and mistletoe. Natural materials were cheap and abundant. The result is simple but beautiful and is, in my mind, synonymous with the season.
The early 20th century saw a period of Colonial revival in the US in which historic designs, architecture, and furniture became popular again. Of course many of the more elaborate and decorative designs of the revival were only “inspired” by colonial America.
Colonial revival Christmas decorations actually draw from the lush garlands of Italian Renaissance sculptor Luccia della Robbia. His ceramic pieces were often encircled with fruits and foliage. This new, revival style became extremely popular such that today, the recreated historic city of Williamsburg, Virginia still uses these aesthetically pleasing, but less historically accurate arrangements.
The decorations look wonderful! I’m certainly not going to complain about a little historical inaccuracy.
The historic park and living history museum checks the decorations daily to replace any rotten, damaged, or missing fruit. While squirrels generally do most of the damage, I was told that the occasional visitor has plucked items from the wreaths.
Due to the warm weather this December, the staff have also been working with a lot of dried elements, like seed pods and flowers, to keep the wreaths looking good longer.
Of course some of the more whimsical wreaths playfully try to match their house.
Compared to the glittery and overly commercialized Christmas season, the colonial (and colonial inspired) decorations are a breath of fresh air. I love the natural components and the obvious care with which they have been arranged. Homes are elegantly decorated with a wreath, some greens around the door, and single electric candles in each window. Fires blaze inside reminding us of a time when there were 12 really amazing days for celebrating with family and friends.