Plantation Yuletides a Century Ago
How Great Houses of Virginia Celebrated Christmas Festival;
Tables Groaned Beneath Goodies and Reels Ended Day
By Ruth Nelson Gordon
Nineteen hundred and thirty-four's varied methods of celebrating Christmas give the reveler little pause for retrospect but it is an interesting pastime to turn back the pages of history and live an old-fashioned Yuletide with Virginians of 100 years ago.
Perhaps one of the most graphic accounts of such a festival is that written by Charles Campbell, the Virginia historian, and published in the Southern Literary Messenger, the magazine later made famous by Edgar Allan Poe, in 1841. The author describes a Christmas party, which was typical of the festivals of the great houses of Virginia at that period, which was held at Teddington in 1839.
Teddington, with its massive walls of brick, weather-boarded to the shingled roof, was the seat of the Lightfoot family, and its wide windows looked out on the amber waters of the James River.
The guests arrive in "chariots" or in the small steamboat. He pictures them to us first on the rainy Sunday gathered around "an old-fashioned oaken fire, in the huge parlor; the eldest in the wing chairs nearest the blazing hearth--while the youngest sit in the deep window seats and look out excitedly for arriving guests. There is much talk of "poetry, and the features of the weather, and the probability of the arrival of the main body of visitors from Petersburg."
The gay youths and maidens watch the scurrying clouds and the flight of wild ducks on the stormy river. The sound of the steamboat bell rings suddenly, and off they run to the water's edge to watch five men put off in the Teddington boat to "fetch" the guests deposited at the wharf on the other side. The small boat comes rocking back and the guests jump out, hastening with laughter and chatter to the hospitable fires of Teddington.
In the afternoon there is a horseback ride on the frozen ground along the road shaded by dark pine trees, then across wide fields and along the banks of the turbulent James River. "Flocks of wild geese feeding in the field expand their broad wings with cries of 'Cohonk! Cohonk! and rising, sail trooping over the water."
At night the young people go to "Dancing Point" where witches are said to "dance their airy ringlets to the whistling wind." No witches, however, seem to be recorded on this expedition.
Christmas morning they have "Sally Lund
" for breakfast, and what Virginian does not know the deliciously brown crust and light golden interior of this famous bread? Country sausage and creamed oysters, light rolls and batter-bread and waffles were brought in by fleet, small boys, who ran continually from the outside kitchen with smoking delicacies, while the butler, a fringe of white wool around his bald pate, served the host of guests deftly and swiftly.
But the Christmas dinner is the event of the day. The shining mahogany table is stretched to its utmost capacity, and smaller tables are filled with the younger members of the family and the children.
The centerpiece is holly and crimson apples, spode china and hobnailed glass are flanked with heavy old silver. Ham cured on the plantation, a saddle of mutton, an enormous turkey; boiled rockfish from the river, stewed venizen with jelly, oysters stewed and baked, a round of beef--all prepared in the vast kitchen outside, in Dutch ovens and over the glowing coals in the huge fireplace or turned and basted on spits suspended from iron "pot-hooks."
The tablecloth is removed at last, and dessert is set on the gleaming mahogany. Pound cake baked in a fluted mould; mince pies smoking hot; cranberry tarts, lemon pudding, raspberry puffs, quivering jellies in heavy, plain cutglass bowls, syllabubs and blanc mange. Champagne was poured in crane-necked glasses and Madeira and Malaga wine served with the dinner.
After these things fruit was served. Beautiful apples grown at Teddington, oranges, almonds, olives, sweet meats and last but not least, brandied peaches.
It is sunset when this colossal meal is over; wax candles twinkle from candlelabra on the high white mantels, and the conversation falls to "slipshod" dialogue, to puns and conceits, and many a witty story.
In the evening more guests come from the surrounding plantations, and every one, from the grandmother in her lace cap and brocaded gown, to the granddaughter of 16, dance the Virginia Reel, and every lady is kissed heartily under the bunch of mistletoe in the great shadowy hall.
All these Yuletide festivities seem simple enough. If the table groans under an immense variety and quantity of food--it is all grown on the plantation, or caught in the river, or shot in the thick forests adjoining. The woods and marshes teem with game, and Virginians are bred to follow the hunt and the hounds. There are no expensive jazz bands to furnish music for their dancing--a band of Negro fiddlers pat their feet and grin joyously as they play reels, and gay jigging tunes. The elders, ensconced in comfortable chairs, watch the festive scene with keen enjoyment. The clan is gathered, and the old house hung with running cedar and holly, echoes with warmth and mirth.
Simple indeed would these festivities seem to the eye of the young modern, and unsophisticated to the point of boredom, but there were Puritans in Virginia in 1739. The Virginia Gazette said, during the Christmas holidays of that year:
The licentiousness of the ancient Christians is banished no doubt from our altars; but then we cannot say that we are altogether free from their luxury in other Places at the Time of the Year, or that we do not imitate that Pompous and Profuse manner wherein the old Roman Famens and Pontiffs celebrated their Feast of December in Honour of Saturn. But to be clear in what I intent to say on this Subject at this time I observe:
(1) That some Christians celebrate this Season in a mixture of Diety and Licentiousness.
(2) Others perform their offices in a pious way only.
(3) Many behave themselves profusely and extravagantly alone, and
(4) Too many who call themselves Christians, pass over the holy time without paying any regard to it at all.
From all of this we conclude:
(1) That those Persons must stand self-condemned who throw these Holy Days into the Common Portion of Time; because both Heathenish and Christian Ancients witness loudly against them.
(2) Little need be said to those who celebrate the Festival in extremes. 'Tis as ridiculous to do nothing but fast and mortify all Christmas, and to keep a Monkish Holiday as it is to banquet and carouse alone and make a Baccanalian Time of it.
What past at Bethlehem calls not for the same Behavior with what happened at Mount Calvary and tho we are to offer Wine and Frankincense and are taught to sing Gloria in Excelsis; yet we are forbid Excess in such like sacrifices, and every Degree of Rant and Riot in expressing our Exultation and Joy.
The persons chiefly to be addressed to are those who stand first in my Division and who celebrate the Nativity in a method composed out of both these extremes and behave themselves both piously and impiously on the Occasion.
There are people who prepare themselves most religiously for the approaching Rituals, and who upon the Day perform their offertory and sacrifices in the most solemn Forms of Religion; but their Devotions end with that night, and the other world which they had so fairly bid for on Christmas Day is quite absorbed in the good things of the present world a few days after.
On the whole they who will be over-religious at this time must be pardoned and pitied; they who are downright criminal condemned, and the littel Liberties of the Old Roman December, which are taken by the Multitude, ought to be overlooked and excused for a Hundred Reasons which hardly any understanding can be ignorant off.