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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.

colonials on the street

Just some locals in Williamsburg enjoying the holidays.

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.

Christmas at Jamestown

A few greens on the mantel at Colonial Jamestown.

Christmas decorations, Governor's mansion, colonial Williamsburg

Green boughs and pine-cones over the entrance to the ballroom at the Governor’s mansion in colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

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 apple and pineapple wreath

While this semi-circular wreath is beautiful, no sane 18th century family would have hung fresh fruit (assuming they could get it) over their door to rot.

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.

orange, apple and clam Christmas wreath

A wreath of lemons, apples, dried oranges, and local clams

Pomegranate Christmas decorations

Pomegranates decorate the historic courthouse.

The decorations look wonderful!  I’m certainly not going to complain about a little historical inaccuracy.

A festive door decorated with apples.

A festive door decorated with apples.

Oranges and pine cones wreath, colonial Christmas decorations

Orange and pine cone wreath – a modern day interpretation of Colonial Christmas decorations

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.

House with colonial Christmas decorations

Boarding house with decorations

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.

Colonial Christmas wreath with dried flowers and pods

Double decorations of dried flowers and pods.

Colonial Christmas wreath with dried flowers and pods

Red door and green wreath with dried components… and an artichoke

Of course some of the more whimsical wreaths playfully try to match their house.

Dried spice Christmas wreath

Spices and spoons over the door of a hot drink shop that serves warm cider.

Weaver's Christmas wreath

The wreath over the Weaver’s workshop.

Cooper Christmas wreath

Wood shavings make up the bulk of this wreath over the Cooper’s workshop.

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.

Christmas decorations Kings Arms Tavern

Some interior decorations at the Kings Arms Tavern

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I love this post! I am always in search of a classic and lasting Christmas. Today is (for us at least) the twelfth day of Christmas. Our decorations are all still up, and our lights are brightening the winter gloom. Tomorrow we will celebrate epiphany. Contrastingly, our local Costco has Easter eggs in store. Sigh. Thank you for bringing this lovely Christmas to us – historical inaccuracy or not – and a merry Christmas and happy new year to you!


    January 5, 2016

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