Tag Archives: Puritan

Christmas In Colonial America


George Washington’s Christmas list for his stepchildren in 1758 was ambitious: “A bird on Bellows, A Cuckoo, A turnabout parrot, A Grocers Shop, An Aviary, A Prussian Dragoon, A Man Smoakg, (a man smoking?) 6 Small Books for Children, 1 Fash. dress’d Baby & other toys.”

Children in colonial America might be given sweets or books, but most colonists wouldn’t have been this extravagant. Usually people of means gave one gift to their servants, apprentices, and children, but didn’t expect anything in return. These gifts were highly treasured and as commonly exchanged on New Year’s Day as on Christmas itself.

Christmas in colonial America bore faint similarity to the gala holiday we cherish today. The Puritans and Quakers (among other Protestant churches) banned celebrations altogether, claiming the holiday was popish and tied to pagan traditions. Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans introduced Christmas celebrations to colonial America, comprised of church services, dinners, dancing, visiting, and more of the same for wealthy folk. (*Wreath from Colonial Williamsburg)

The music featured at balls and parties was the dance music of the period, much imported from across the Atlantic. Religious carols were also sung. “Joy to the World” became popular in my home state, Virginia. “The First Noel,” “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen,” and “I Saw Three Ships” are several more carols still beloved today.

Rather than the fervor leading up to December 25th that dies out almost as soon as the last gift is opened now, Christmas Day in colonial America began a season of festivities that lasted until January 6—thus the “Twelve days of Christmas.” Twelfth Day, January 6, was the perfect occasion for colonists to enjoy balls, parties, and other festivals.

Our emphasis on Christmas as a special holiday for children didn’t come about until the mid-nineteenth century, brought to America by the more family centered Dutch and Germans. Christmas in colonial America was predominantly an adult oriented holiday. The Southern colonies were the root of many celebrations (less Quakers/Puritans in the South and more Anglicans) and these included parties, hunts, feasts, and church services. Children were tucked away in bed or left behind, neither seen or heard. One sign of entering the adult world was the honor of attending your first holiday ball. Think how exciting that must have been for young ladies awhirl in taffeta and lace.

Plantations and other colonial homes, even churches, were decorated with holly, laurel, garlands and sometimes lavender. My garden club used to decorate a colonial era home/museum and we were restricted to natural materials and native fruit like apples that might’ve been used in that day. Mistletoe, an ancient tradition and the centerpiece of every colonial home, was hung in a prominent place. Romantic couples found their way under the green leaves and white berries just as they do now. Light was of vital importance at this dark time of year. Yule logs blazed and candles were lit, the wealthier having more to light. (*Hearth in early American spring house.  Grandson above in same old house))

A key part of colonial Christmas celebrations were the large feasts. What foodstuffs were served and the amount set before the guests all depended on the provider’s income. The menu was similar to ours. Among the offerings at a colonial dinner might be ham, roast, turkey, fish or oysters, followed by mincemeat and other pies and desserts/treats like brandied peaches.

Wines, brandy, rum punches, and other alcoholic beverages were consumed in abundance in well-to-do households. Slave owners gave out portions of liquor to their workers at Christmastime, partly as a holiday indulgence and partly to keep slaves at the home during their few days off work. Intoxicated workers were less likely to run away or make long trips to visit distant relations.

One of our most cherished traditions was unknown to colonists. The Christmas tree traveled to America from Germany in the nineteenth century. Christmas cards originated in London and didn’t gain popularity until the nineteenth century. Santa Claus is a combination of Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas from Dutch and English traditions. As Americans absorbed new people and cultures, the holiday traditions expanded. Today, Christmas is an ever-changing blend of the old and new.

Our family makes these ‘Early American Ginger Cutouts’ from a colonial recipe I found in a cookie cookbook published back in the 1950′s.

Sift together dry ingredients:

2 ¾ C. flour, ½ tsp. baking soda, 1 tsp. ginger, ½ tsp. cinnamon, ½ tsp. cloves, ½ tsp. salt

Cream together:

1/2 cup butter, 1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar, ¾ cup dark molasses (we use Blackstrap), 1 egg beaten, 1 tsp. hot water, 1 tsp. apple cider vinegar

Mix wet ingredients into the dry until well blended. Cover bowl and chill dough for several hours (or more). Roll on lightly floured surface and cut with cookie cutters. Place on cookie sheets and bake at 350 degrees for approximately 15 minutes. We press sprinkles into the dough before baking but that’s a modern addition.

Enjoy this sweet spicy connection with our early American ancestors.

My Ancestral Ties to the Salem Witch Trials


(Reposted from an earlier post, mysteriously lost from my blog)

In 1760 a plot of land was laid out like this: “Beginning at a beech tree marked, it being the northeast corner, boundary of Samuel Gustin’s land; thence north 11 rods to a beech…” and thus it goes around the perimeter of the property from beech to spruce to the hemlock with stones by it.  Quaint.  And so it was while perusing old Mack family annals (Highland Scots who settled in New England) that we came upon something quite interesting but not nearly as charming–a direct link to the infamous Salem Witch Trials.

According to these records, the first Mack arrival in the New World, John, (born in 1653) emigrated from Inverness and married Sarah Bagley in Boston in 1681. She was the daughter of Orlando (note the name) and Sarah Bagley. Orlando Bagley was a man of considerable influence in the district, a constable, who apprehended his friend and neighbor, Susannah Martin, for a witch.  Good heavens, we have an ancestor at least partly responsible for the death of this unfortunate woman. (I have since learned, that Orlando’s son was also called Orlando, and it is likely he was the one responsible for arresting Susanna, as the older Bagley was deceased by this time.)

Back to the Macks; an early genealogist says the name wasn’t an abbreviation of some other such as MacDonald or McKenzie, but that they were a family of sufficient importance to have a Coat of Arms in Scotland with a Latin motto indicating they were hard workers and hopeful, of good estates and families, of liberal education, and of large experience, and they were strict Puritans. Seems it was a good enough family name to warrant admission into the upstanding Bagleys who were among the earliest Puritan settlers of Amesbury, Massachusetts.

I discovered more about Orlando Bagley and his ill-fated neighbor, Susanna Martin, at these sites:

http://famhist2.blogspot.com/2009/03/murder-in-salem.html

I watched (on Netflix) a History Channel documentary about the Salem Witch trials and combined that with the information I’ve gleaned elsewhere.  A most bizarre period of history.  Adolescent girls and young women insisted specters appeared to them in various forms, as animals or that of the accused themselves, and cruelly abused them.  Pinching and hitting them…the girls then continued these hysterics in court with lethal effect.

Panic spread far and wide with neighbor after neighbor falling under the malignant shadow until “From June through September of 1692, nineteen men and women, all having been convicted of witchcraft, were carted to Gallows Hill, a barren slope near Salem Village, for hanging. Another man of over eighty years was pressed to death under heavy stones for refusing to submit to a trial on witchcraft charges. Hundreds of others faced accusations of witchcraft; dozens languished in jail for months (*some of them dying there) without trials until the hysteria that swept through Puritan Massachusetts subsided.”
The above quote is from:
http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/salem.htm

Women in that rigidly defined community had no voice or authority, but these girls wielded an almighty power over everyone by simply pointing their fingers.  The power must have gone to their heads, along with the dizzying attention they gloried in.  However, I wonder, had they no conscience?  So many innocent people suffered and died as a result of this craze.  For a people obsessed with the fate of their immortal souls, would this not weigh heavily upon them?  Only one girl ever offered an apology.

Oddly, the individual who bore any real resemblance to a witch, the young slave woman, Tituba, who lit the initial powder keg with strange Voodoo practices from her South American background, was never hung.  She confessed (possibly after a beating) and then joined with the girls in naming suspected witches. Maybe it was payback for her slavery.  I don’t know, but she’s also responsible for taking a lot of people down.

I’ve also read about and seen a documentary suggesting there may have been an outbreak in Salem at that time of ergot poisoning (a mold similar to LSD) on the rye used for bread making.  Symptoms of such poisoning include hallucinations and physical pain which may account for some of the girls symptoms, but why only them?  Wouldn’t more people have been afflicted? Maybe more were and that’s why they tossed all reason to the wind.

As for allowing ‘spectral’ evidence as testimony, this was previously unheard of at witch trials and Salem is unique in that regard.  There were other time-honored methods for ferreting out a witch.  For example, the water test–if you sank you were innocent; if you floated, guilty, of course, and then you were put to death.  Or, strip the supposed witch, shave her entire body, then carefully examine every inch of her for a ‘devil’s’ mark.  I’ll bet a lot of men preferred this method. Woe unto you, if you had any funny shaped moles or birthmarks.

Spectral evidence based on gyrating girls shrieking that you came to them in a way that only they could see and caused excruciating torment while enticing them to make a pact with Satan was a no win scenario for the accused.  Any and all denials were met with increased screams and accusations.  Only if you confessed your sin,did they fall silent.  Then you were free to go; God alone being your judge, which makes no sense to me.  Crucify the innocent, or gain confessions from the so-called damned, thus freeing them.  But those truly concerned for the state of their souls refused to make such a blasphemous admission, preferring death.

To understand the mindset of these Salem Puritans is almost impossible, but I’ll try.  It seems they were terrified of the dark forest.  Though only six miles from the coast, Salem was on the edge of the wilderness.  The dreaded Indians dwelt in the woods, and the settlers feared Satan also brooded over the forest.  Disease and misfortune were attributed to evil entities.  Deeply insecure and preoccupied with horror of the dark forces, they sought its manifestation in everything and everyone.  And you tend to find what you look for.  Particularly when fear of the demonic is mixed in with an extremely judgmental community, resentment toward your neighbor, a means to get even, and young actresses happy to oblige you with a stellar performance.

There’s a vast deal more to be said on the subject and I may continue this post another time.  Meanwhile, if you know anything of my distant ancestor Orlando Bagley (sounds straight out of the Shire) and his part in the trial and execution of Susanna Martin, I’d be glad to know more.  And to her descendants, in behalf of our family, I offer my deepest apology.

*Two more interesting sites about the Salem Witch Trials:
http://www.salemfocus.com/index.htm

http://www.bloodlinesofsalem.org/HISTORY.HTM

Giving Birth Out of Wedlock in Colonial America


colonial womanYes, gentle reader, if an unwed pregnant woman or new mother was reported to the authorities she was in big trouble in early America. We all remember The Scarlet Letter? The Puritans had a letter for every sin in the alphabet. Other colonies treated the matter differently, but punishment was dished out all the same. Remember, before the Revolution, Colonial America wasn’t into separation of church and state yet, so it was a moral and a legal offense to give birth out of wedlock. A fine was placed on the woman’s head, which if she couldn’t pay (and she couldn’t) resulted in a public lashing. Most of these unfortunates were servants, possibly indentured, and not wealthy women.

Accounts of such lashings are recorded in the antiquated book entitled The Annals of Augusta County, a neighboring Virginia county to my home in Rockingham. A lashing involved stripping away the woman’s clothes so that her back and sometimes her breasts were bare for all to see. Shame as well as pain.

If the father of the child acknowledged his part (most were married so this wasn’t kewl) and came forward to pay her fine, she was released with a warning. I read of one noble man coming forth to pay the fine and rescuing a young woman from such a harsh fate. Good for him!

I’m guessing, if at all possible, unwed mothers secreted their pregnancies. Bear in mind that this punishment was meted out to the less fortunate unprotected women. Isn’t that the way? If a young lady had family who took her in and kept her secret or beat up anyone who threatened her, that was another matter. But that sort of family also likely saw to it that she was wed before the pregnancy became obvious. The mistress of a prominent man was not likely to be at risk either. Although many times a mistress had the title Mrs. in front of her name in the event that she needed a husband either absent or present to pin the pregnancy on. And thus it was…

Prostitution was another matter entirely.

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