Colonial Christmas With the Cranes

Sleepy Hollow is not only my new favorite show of the season but my new favorite show in a long time. The cast is fantastic, the writing is engaging if breathless, the effects are creepy,  and the stories are fun, weird, and off the wall. The writers play fast and loose with American history while getting the little details right for our man out of time, Ichabod Crane. I’ve had to step up my history game, too. I know about medieval and Victorian holiday celebrations, but what was Christmas like in Revolutionary War-era America?

Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) contemplates some mistletoe.
Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) contemplates some mistletoe. From

The most recent episode of Sleepy Hollow, “The Golem,” is set in early December, and finds comedy in Ichabod Crane (who “died” in 1781 and was brought back to life in 2013, basically) interacting with modern Christmas traditions.

Christmas in Revolutionary War-era U.S. was quite different. In some areas still largely operating under Puritan influence, Christmas was either banned or celebrated in a small way. In other areas, Christmas was a riotous public celebration. In either case, the celebrations of the time would seem rather different to modern Americans and Crane would not recognize most of our beloved traditions.

In 1659, for example, Christmas could not be observed at all in the Massachusetts Bay colony:

For preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction, by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God & offense of others, it is therefore ordered by this Court and the authority thereof, that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such accounts as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offense five shillings, as a fine to the county.

Christmas remained illegal until 1681, and celebrants were fined five shillings (Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas). The Puritans weren’t exactly interested in banning the religious holiday, but in banning the drunken revelry, chaos, and relaxed social mores that often accompanied holiday celebrations. Private celebrations went unpunished even as they went against scripture (The Puritans, of course, wanted to purify the Church, and few Christmas trappings appear in the Bible). Further, at that time, Christmas was still a season, only beginning on Christmas Day and ending twelve days later (hence “The twelve days of Christmas”). But it also makes sense that leaders in a struggling colony would want colonists to be working, not wasting time on partying. However, Anne Blankenship writes that carousing still occurred in some colonies, especially those outside of the sphere of Puritan influence, such as New York and Virginia.

The Masons, by the way, celebrated Christmas on December 27, the feast day of one of the patron saints of the order.

By the 1730s, Christmas celebrations became more acceptable even in Puritan colonies like Massachusetts. For example, in 1739, Benjamin Franklin (as “Poor Richard”) wrote about Christmas, “O Blessed Season! lov’d by Saints and Sinners,/For long Devotions, or longer Dinners.” But in general, writers called for temperate celebrations (Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas). Almanac writer Nathaniel Ames, in 1761, advised his readers that, “The temperate man enjoys the most delight,/For riot dulls and palls the appetite.”

The 1770s saw a rise not just in Christmas music but in Christmas music written by New Englanders specifically (Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas). English composers also continued producing music and songs. Singing carols and wassailing had been popular in England, but were included in the banned practices under the Puritans. This flurry of new songs showed how important music was for Christmas.

Diarist (and wife, mother, midwife) Martha Ballard, writing between 1785 and 1812, often described December 25th as Christmas, hence marking it as a special day, but also noted she often completed work: delivering babies, knitting, or laundry (Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas). She does record other people in her household, such as her children and servants, as using the time to court and attend dances. The diary also reveals that a lot of time was spent making special food for Christmas, including mince, apple, and pumpkin pies. Even now, of course, celebrations often mean a lot of work (especially for women), so perhaps not much has changed.

Gift giving has changed a lot since Crane’s time. In the Middle Ages, gifts were generally given on New Years, or at least at some other point during the Twelve Days of Christmas, not on Christmas Eve/Day. Gifts were about reciprocity: I give you something, you give me something, our relationship remains balanced. Among royalty, gifts might have included jewelry. Upperclass people would also give gifts to the lower classes (such as a landowner to a tenant), but in that case, gifts were usually of food or drink, or perhaps clothing to a servant (Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas). By the turn of the nineteenth century, as Christmas became a more private, “family” holiday, instead of a public drunken revelry, gift giving also had to change. After all, it’d be a little strange to give one’s spouse or children food as a gift, or as an only gift (because, for example, upper class families already ate well).

Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) gives Crane a present.
Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) gives Crane a present. From Kiss Them Goodbye

Ichabod Crane, then, might have given gifts to servants or people who otherwise worked for him, or otherwise given gifts to keep social relationships running smoothly, but he wouldn’t have given gifts to family members the way we do now. (I mean, he might have, at an individual level, but there wouldn’t have been an expectation for it.) Not long after Crane disappeared from the time stream, however, gift giving changed. Now retailers targeted families, specifically children. Nissenbaum reports that the oldest ads he was able to find date from 1806 and the ad was only for children’s gifts; an ad for 1809 included gifts for women (The Battle for Christmas, p. 136).

Meanwhile, what about Christmas trees? In the episode, Crane scoffs when his partner and friend Abbie Mills asks if he is chopping down a Christmas tree. This is clearly a tradition he would not have been familiar with, or only known as a German custom. Dr. Kim Coder explains that while the tradition of bringing in greenery dates to at least the Romans and other pagan groups, Germans began decorating trees in a way we would recognize. By the 1840s, Christmas trees were fashionable throughout the U.S. and Europe.

That said, an English woman did complain about the greenery in her church in 1712:

January the 14th, 1712.


I am a young Woman and have my Fortune to make; for which Reason I come constantly to Church to hear Divine Service, and make Conquests: But one great Hindrance in this my Design, is, that our Clerk, who was once a Gardener, has this Christmas so over-deckt the Church with Greens, that he has quite spoilt my Prospect, insomuch that I have scarce seen the young Baronet I dress at these three Weeks, though we have both been very constant at our Devotions, and don’t sit above three Pews off. The Church, as it is now equipt, looks more like a Green-house than a Place of Worship: The middle Isle is a very pretty shady Walk, and the Pews look like so many Arbours of each Side of it. The Pulpit itself has such Clusters of Ivy, Holly, and Rosemary about it, that a light Fellow in our Pew took occasion to say, that the Congregation heard the Word out of a Bush, like Moses. Sir Anthony Loves Pew in particular is so well hedged, that all my Batteries have no Effect. I am obliged to shoot at random among the Boughs, without taking any manner of Aim. Mr. SPECTATOR, unless you’ll give Orders for removing these Greens, I shall grow a very awkward Creature at Church, and soon have little else to do there but to say my Prayers. I am in haste,

Dear SIR,

Your most Obedient Servant,

Jenny Simper

Perhaps this was an isolated case, or a custom becoming more common in England that had yet to take off in the colonies. And perhaps others disapproved, just as Simper did. And decorating a house with greenery is still different than an actual tree decorated with lights and ornaments.

Even if Crane lacked a tree and presents, he still probably had a good time. People have always liked celebrations. Philip Vickers Fithian, writing in 1773, mentions “the balls, the fox-hunts, the fine entertainments.” In 1787, George Washington rented a camel for Christmas. What a shame this hasn’t become a Christmas tradition for the rest of us. (Washington apparently loved exotic animals; he’d also paid to see a lioness, cougar, and sea lion. None came to visit Mount Vernon, though.)

Mistletoe is something Crane recognizes, and it provides an opportunity for Ichabbie shippers to freak out. Like so many traditions, mistletoe is hard to track. Because it is a plant (actually, a parasite) that remains beautiful in winter, many cultures have used it for decoration. The custom of kissing beneath it may stem from Scandinavian mythology: after Balder died from a mistletoe arrow, his mother Frigga declared the plant would only be used for love. Mistletoe was also sacred to the Druids and custom dictated that if enemies met beneath a sprig, they had to lay down their weapons and declare a short truce.

I haven’t been able to track down anything solid about when kissing under the mistletoe became an entrenched tradition. However, the Oxford English Dictionary shares this quotation, from Washington Irving, of all people:

1820  W. Irving Sketch Bk. v. 39 The mistletoe is still hung up in farm houses and kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases.

The “still” suggests a long-standing tradition to me, but I wish I had something a little more substantial.

Hanging stockings by the fireplace also probably originated with German immigrants, or perhaps the Dutch. Like Christmas trees, the practice did not take off until the nineteenth century. In Little Women (published 1868-69, but the early chapters are set in 1861-62), Jo thinks wistfully about the Christmases of her childhood:

Jo was the first to wake in the gray dawn of Christmas morning. No stockings hung at the fireplace, and for a moment she felt as much disappointed as she did long ago, when her little sock fell down because it was crammed so full of goodies.

If Jo is 15 when the book starts, she is thinking about Christmas in the late 1840s/early 1850s, just the time when trees, etc, are becoming popular.

Crane receives a stocking.
Crane receives a stocking. From Kiss Them Goodbye

What about Katrina Crane, who claims to be a Quaker in an early episode of Sleepy Hollow? Tracking down a history of Quaker traditions proved to be difficult, but a modern website explains, “In modern times, most Quakers celebrate a low-key Christmas, and sometimes Easter, as part of our larger culture. However, traditionally, Quakers did not celebrate any religious holidays because all days are ‘holy days.'” It’s very likely, then, the Cranes would have a low-key celebration, though they might have friends or family over for a special meal.

It seems that Ichabod Crane, fittingly, was alive in a Christmas flux: The wild public Christmases of the seventeenth century were ending, and the more familiar family Christmases of the nineteenth century were only just beginning.

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