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Spreading Christmas Cheer in Colonial America

This year may look and feel a little different, but despite the pandemic and gathering and travel restrictions, millions of people are still getting ready to celebrate the holidays, even if that means more online shopping, Zoom dinner parties, and a smaller holiday brunch guest list. So while you stay warm inside with a cup of hot cocoa, take some time to learn about how our ancestors celebrated Christmas, from wintry decorations to feasts fit for a king.

Unlike today, in Colonial America, Christmas was a holiday widely celebrated by adults — children didn’t sneak downstairs in hopes of bumping into the jolly fellow we know and love today. And at one time, Christmas was also not celebrated throughout the colonies. In 1659, Christmas celebrations were declared illegal in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Puritan colonies found no justification for celebrating the holiday and associated Christmas with paganism and idolatry. (Some of those who “disturbed the peace” with merrymaking were even prosecuted!) But in the southern colonies, celebrations, which included festive parties, feasts, and church services, were enjoyed by many.

Source: Craven Hall Historical Society

The Delaware Valley and William Penn’s inclusive policies created a mix of traditions not found in other colonies. Swedes, Germans, Irish, Welsh, and more settled and celebrated their traditions right here in Bucks County. Swedish settlers brought woven decorations, and Germans brought the Christmas tree, garlands, and holiday cookies that have all become classic Christmas traditions. These traditions were quickly adopted in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. As more immigrants arrived, the Christmas holiday was embraced by even more, with settlers incorporating their own traditions, like singing carols and exchanging pies, from around the world.

Rural America is said to have started the gift giving tradition on Christmas. Food and handmade items were among the most popular gifts rural Americans gave to their families and neighbors. Gifts to the immediate family were more substantial but still remained modest compared to later standards. When rural Americans moved to big cities in search of employment, they brought along their habits of gift giving, and with new jobs in factories and offices, and no time to make presents, they instead purchased small, inexpensive manufactured knickknacks, like figurines, ceramic pieces, and inexpensive jewelry, to give to their families and friends.

When it came time for a Christmas feast, many of America’s traditions came from the British: ham, roast, or turkey became the centerpiece, followed by root vegetables, like potatoes and turnips, and desserts as far as the eye could see. The Christmas pudding, a steamed cake with dried fruit, was the English ancestor of the American fruitcake — both popular choices for dessert.

This year, cook up a classic colonial dish, like the King’s Plum Pudding (recipe below), that you can pair with your Christmas ham. If your guest list is smaller, then you’ll have more time to test something new in the kitchen!

If you want to get out of the house for a little holiday cheer, we invite you to join us for our annual holiday open house on Sunday, December 13 from 12:00 p.m. — 4:00 p.m. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, Santa and Mrs. Claus will not be making an appearance this year, however, the Society will be offering take-home ornament kits and (take-out) food available for purchase. Due to current gathering restrictions, we are limiting the number of visitors allowed inside at one time. Donations are greatly appreciated, and masks are required.

The Craven Hall Historical Society wishes you and yours a safe and joyful holiday season and a very Merry Christmas!

The King’s Plum Pudding (Source: Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant Recipes)


1 1/2 pounds suet, finely shredded

1 pound brown sugar

1 pound small raisins (sultanas)

1 pound large raisins, stoned and cut in half

4 ounces citron, cut In thin slices

8 eggs (1 pound eggs weighed in their shells)


Beat eggs to a froth and then add to them a half-pint of milk and mix the various ingredients. Let mixture stand for 12 hours in a cool place and then put in a mold and steam for 8 hours. This makes 3 ordinary sized puddings. Among the presents taken to India by Their Majesties, George V and Queen Mary were a large number of plum puddings made from this receipt. Serve with hard sauce.

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