Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

A Few Thoughts on Holidays in #VastEarlyAmerica

· December 21st, 2017 · No Comments

by Nadine Zimmerli, Associate Editor of Books

“We had no ardent spirit of any kind among us”

Member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, December 25, 1805

‘Tis the season. I am daily reminded of this by cheerful notices in my inbox from my alma mater’s bookstore and other retailers, which interrupt the steady flow of more relevant messages from OI authors and from colleagues at the University of North Carolina Press. The juxtaposition is a stark one, because the retail and the publishing messages structure my annual calendar in divergent, and conflicting, ways. Emails prompting me to buy gifts or to donate to charitable causes are centered on the upcoming holidays, culminating in celebratory gatherings with friends and family in late December. Work-related messages are focused on the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in early January (one of the most important conferences for editors) and a bi-annual marketing meeting at UNC Press the second week of January, when we’ll discuss publication schedules and the best strategies for promoting Fall 2018 books. Even though academic life follows the well-known rhythms of the holidays, with the fall semester ending in mid-December, the festive season does not at all align with the rhythms of academic publishing. It even poses a bit of an unwelcome interruption right before two crucial meetings.

From Old Christmas from the Sketchbook of Washington Irving (London, 1886), Project Gutenberg.

Thanks, Washington Irving! As Liz Covart, the OI’s digital projects editor and host of Ben Franklin’s World, reminded me, Irving’s 1809 satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New-York helped popularize elements of Christmas as it is now celebrated, especially the figure of Sinter Klaas/St. Nicholas (who eventually became Santa Claus). Christmas, as observed in the United States today, is an early-nineteenth-century invention that owes many of its features to the customs that Dutch and German migrants brought to American shores. This is well known among early Americanists, as is the fact that the Puritans attempted to outlaw the holiday (on this, Michael Hattem wrote a concise overview for the Junto a number of years ago.

It bears repeating, though, that the rhythms of life for early American peoples differed from our own, and also from one another, in terms of the festivals and holidays that structured their sense of time and the customs that they observed. Only a few OI books deal outright with the evolution of holidays; David Waldstreicher’s 1997 In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes comes closest, while Brendan McConville’s 2006 The King’s Three Faces contains colorful discussions of British holidays, such as pre-Lenten Shrovetide, in the colonies. The primary research of current OI scholars does not focus on the topic of festivals, either (with the exception of WMQ editor Josh Piker’s first book, Okfuskee, which contains a fascinating analysis of the Creek Busk, a sacred ceremony that sanctified the harvest and enforced and strengthened communal ties). That said, some aspects of our sources and forthcoming OI books do contain snippets on holidays that I find intriguing. An evocative selection follows below.

In the early sixteenth century, as Nick Popper, the WMQ’s book review editor, pointed out to me, the pre-Reformation English calendar was still a liturgical one, punctuated by a vast number of holy days in honor of the patron saints of churches and parishes. These Saints Days marked the passage of time alongside the seasons, and they were social as much as religious occasions. Far-flung communities came together to enjoy lavish feasts; churches would display their best candelabras and jewels, alcohol would flow freely, and attendees used the occasion to contract marriages.

On the topic of weddings, marriages and holidays seem to have gone hand-in-hand throughout the early modern into the modern period. Carolyn Arena, one of our postdoc fellows, noticed in Solomon Northup’s memoir Twelve Years a Slave that he had wed his wife Anne on Christmas Day, 1829. While enslaved in Louisiana between 1841 and 1853, Northup could enjoy neither his wedding anniversary nor the Christmas season, but he observed that enslaved men and women often got married over Christmas. Northup wrote that the season was the only time of the year in which the enslaved enjoyed a “respite from constant labor” and were “allowed a little restricted liberty.” As Carolyn observes, “Christmas festivities reinforced the paternalistic ideals slave owners held about themselves in the antebellum United States, where they could consider the food and time off as ‘generosity,’ rather than a necessary and cruelly inadequate period of rest within a violent institution.”

Planters on Jamaica and other Caribbean islands similarly understood eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Jonkonnu celebrations as a charitable concession to their slaves. In her research, Shauna Sweeney, who is also an OI postdoc, has come across these processions, which coincided with Christmas and New Year’s Day and involved masquerading men in elaborate costumes who portrayed specific characters, from livestock to kings and queens, recited passages from Shakespeare, and engaged in pantomime. For the enslaved, the celebration held fiscal rewards, since white spectators threw money onto the masked men or put coins into the collection boxes held out by revelers, but, more importantly, masqueraders played with power in ways that planters often missed. Over time, it became increasingly clear that enslaved people had their own understandings about the significance of the parades (which resembled the rituals of male secret societies in West Africa), beyond the control of white elites. Shauna points out that fear of black revolt infused observers’ accounts of enslaved Christmas celebrations and motivated later (unsuccessful) attempts to ban Jonkonnu parades after emancipation.

In a very different context, OI fellow Deborah Hamer also found an instance of fear curtailing a holiday celebration in her sources. Deborah studies Dutch Brazil and came across an account of Simchat Torah as celebrated by the Zur Israel congregation in 1650 Recife. Usually, Simchat Torah, a fall festival that marks the completion of one full cycle of Torah readings and the beginning of a new one, is a time of extensive celebration, including dancing and drinking, when the doors of the synagogue are thrown wide open. However, in 1650, the Recife congregation decided to shut and lock the doors of their synagogue so that “every disturbance and scandal shall be avoided.” As Deborah interprets the incident, Simchat Torah would have presented an opportunity for the Jewish community to mix with Recife’s non-Jewish population, but they deemed this occasion too potentially rowdy and therefore too volatile. Here is an example of an old world festival curtailed in light of new world circumstances.

On a lighter note, “rowdy” is the best descriptor for the ways in which traders celebrated the festive season in the American interior. Kathy Burdette just finished copyediting Susan Sleeper-Smith’s forthcoming Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest: Indian Women of the Ohio River Valley, 1690–1792 and shared with me a passage from the book on the 1789 Christmas season in the Ohio River valley. That year, Anglo and French traders hosted a great number of Native guests at Miamitown, and feasting lasted from the week before Christmas until New Year’s Day. Alcohol flowed freely, and one Anglo trader celebrated the arrival of the new year by tossing powder and shot into his fireplace. Apparently, the loudness of the subsequent explosion very much pleased all present. (In comparison, the early morning gun salute with which the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition marked Christmas Day 1805 seems positively tame.)

The Anglo trader’s New Year stunt in Miamitown also serves as a good reminder that New Year’s Day was just as, if not more important, than Christmas to various early modern peoples. Liz Covart confirms that New Year’s Day was the big day for social visits and festive dinners among the Dutch communities of Albany and New York City. Early modern English men and women, meanwhile, would sometimes gift each other broadsheets that contained poems or songs supplying well-meant advice as a New Year’s custom. As Nick Popper charmingly sums up the tradition, to some, New Year’s was “an opportunity to give the gift of publication,” and it seems to have been common to make resolutions for other people instead of oneself.

Whether you will celebrate the festive season by blowing up your fireplace, making a New Year’s resolution for yourself or others, or preparing for important January meetings, all of us here at the OI wish you happy holidays and a wonderful 2018!

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