Christmas traditions changed over the centuries

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By Charlotte Patterson
for Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The mere mention of the word “Christmas” conjures up an image of color and sound, music and food, and families and celebrations. The 2017 American Christmas is a result of many changes since the early settlers.

As early as 1607 the Jamestown settlement’s survivors saluted the birth of Christ in their small chapel. By 1608, they feasted and made merry in Chieftain Powhatan’s son’s camp. Captain John Smith’s diary states that his hardy group was “never more merrie nor fedd on more plentie of good oysters, fish, wild foule and good bread.”

In 1766, the Virginia Almanac indicated home celebrations, “tis fit that we should feast and sing, and merry be: keep open house, let fiddlers play.” Washington Irving wrote of “hanging up a stocking on the chimney on St. Nicholas Eve”. Dolly Madison introduced her famous cinnamon-laced eggnog at the first White House Christmas party in 1811.

Many of the images began in 1822 with Visit from St. Nick by Dr. C. Clement C. Moore who wrote the poem to entertain his children.

President Andrew Jackson’s French chef made a sugar-frosted tree for the 1835 White House Christmas party. Young relatives came and hung stockings.

Alabama was the first state to legally recognize Christmas Day followed by Arkansas and Louisiana in 1838. North Carolina would be the 43rd to make the legal recognition.

Franklin Pierce in 1856 introduced the first White House Christmas Tree. German made ornaments appeared in stores in 1870. In 1878 German silver foil icicles were sold in America and spun glass angel hair in 1880. Two years later the world’s first electrically lighted tree decorated a home in New York. Flour “flocked” trees were the rage in 1883. Colonial Williamsburg began decorating in della Robbia style for holiday visitors in 1939 and continues the tradition today. From the introduction of the 1950s “aluminum tree”; 1960s, coordinated decorations; and 1980s “Golden Age for Christmas retailers,” decorating and celebrating has evolved to the multiple styles of the 21st century.

Whatever your favorite traditions are, join us this holiday season. Our lobby tree is decorated with ornaments made by staff and volunteers to represent our theme: An Appalachian Christmas. Programs revolve around the book the Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree written by Gloria Houston. Houston recounted the story told by her grandmother of her father going off to World War I. While you are there, visit our Tarheel in the Trenches: The Great War and the Albemarle. Sign a greeting card to be delivered to our military personnel serving overseas. The staff and volunteers wish you all a very Merry Christmas and we look forward to your visit.

Charlotte Patterson is the education curator at Museum of the Albemarle.