A Colonial Christmas in Williamsburg
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Feasting and celebration were a big part of the Christmas season in colonial Virginia. Then, as now, families and friends gathered to celebrate the holiday with the best their tables could offer. In eighteenth-century Virginia, the holiday season began on December 24 and ran through Twelfth Night on January 6. For centuries, Twelfth Night was the highlight of the holiday season. Although this celebration was not deeply rooted in the American colonies, in the eighteenth century it was celebrated in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Three to four lesson periods of 60 minutes each
- Graphic Organizer: Christmas Then & Now
- Receipts and Other Suggestions for a Twelfth Night Celebration (note: receipts is an eighteenth-century term for recipies)
- Quill pens (optional)
As a result of this lesson, the student will be able to:
- plan a colonial Christmas event
- demonstrate colonial Christmas customs
Setting the Stage
Discuss the following with students. There are no eighteenth-century sources which highlight the importance of Christmas to children in particular. In a diary entry of Philip Vickers Fithian dated December 18, 1773, he tells about "the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments." None was meant for kids, and the youngsters were not invited to attend. The emphasis on Christmas as a magical time for children came about in the nineteenth century. So what did the children of Williamsburg do to celebrate Christmas in the eighteenth century? If they were old enough, they might attend church, stick some holly on the window panes, help prepare a great dinner, go to a party, and perhaps visit friends.
Give each student a copy of the Graphic Organizer: Christmas Then & Now. Have students work in three (or six if you prefer) collaborative groups. Each group will self-appoint a group leader, a recorder and a reporter. Group I will investigate colonial decorations; Group II will explore eighteenth-century foods; and Group III will look into eighteenth-century singing. After students have read the primary sources on their topic, have the group leader facilitate a discussion on similarities and differences between today and the eighteenth century. Ask the group recorder to fill in the team's responses on the Graphic Organizer: Christmas Then & Now. Ask the group reporter to report to the class the group's findings.
Next, have students plan a Twelfth Day of Christmas party by working in three collaborative groups.
Group I can decorate the classroom with sprigs of holly in the windows. Real holly or student-created/drawn and colored holly can be used. If real holly is used, have students be authentic by using wax to adhere the holly to the window panes.
Group II can plan the food with simple fare, e.g. wassail and gingercakes. The receipts provided in Receipts and Other Suggestions for a Twelfth Night Celebration are two good recipes to use. Other authentic receipts can be found in Recipes from the Raleigh Tavern Bake Shop.
Group III can write (using quill pens, if desired) invitations to one another, other classes and/or parents. The model invitation provided in "Receipts and Other Suggestions for a Twelfth Night Celebration" will give students an idea on how to write their invitation.
After all preparations are complete, enjoy an eighteenth-century holiday with your students. Have students begin with singing, break for a short repast, and continue with more singing.
The date is December 25, 1778. Ask students to assume the role of an American solider in the war for Independence. They are to write a letter home and describe how they spent Christmas as a soldier. (Hint: have them write about things they were not able to do.)
Writing as an eighteenth-century child, each student creates a journal describing how they assisted their parents in preparing for a party in celebration of the twelfth day of Christmas. Each journal entry should describe making plans, inviting friends, decorating, and participating in this Twelfth Night party. Encourage students to include illustrations in their journals. Teacher and/or parents can prepare journal pages by soaking onion skin typing paper in coffee and allowing to dry. Then, using a sewing machine, stitch three sheets together by sewing papers in half widthwise. [Optional: Students may use quill pens to make journal entries.]
This lesson plan was developed by Carol Mason of Tiffany Elementary School, Chula Vista, California; Glenna Raper, Davis Elementary School, Davis, Oklahoma; and the staff of Colonial Williamsburg's Department of School & Group Services.
Learn more about Christmas in colonial Virginia.