Public Celebrations and Rituals

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Public Celebrations and Rituals


Life Cycles. Certain rituals in colonial America marked the stages of a persons life from birth to death. For the majority of colonists these included infant baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Other rituals, such as admission to full church membership for Puritans, communion for Anglicans or Presbyterians, or believers baptism for Anabaptists, further served to mark important passages in life. Wherever infant baptism was practiced in colonial America it served both to confer certain religious benefits on the newborn and to initiate him or her into a particular position within the local community, a position sometimes signified by the person who stood as the babys guardian or godparent. While baptisms were religious ceremonies with minimal celebration attached, weddings might or might not be considered religious affairs and were almost always occasions for large communal festivities. Anglicans in Virginia and elsewhere viewed weddings as sacred rites to be officiated by a minister either in a church or in the brides home and sealed by an exchange of rings and elaborate vows. Virginians commonly celebrated a wedding with feasting, dancing, and gift-giving that involved the whole community and could last for days. Puritans, by contrast, considered weddings strictly civil in nature. They were usually conducted at home, officiated by the local justice of the peace, involved no exchange of rings (which Puritans regarded as a superstitious custom), and usually consisted of both partners answering a single question concerning mutual commitment and fidelity. Seventeenth-century New Englanders celebrated weddings with modest dinners (which some transformed into large feasts in the eighteenth century), and wedding guests often completed the festivities by conducting noisy charivari, banging pots, ringing bells, and cheering outside the couples honeymoon chamber. Pennsylvania Quakers observed an elaborate, sixteen-stage process to complete a wedding, mingling celebration and ritual throughout. Quakers discouraged their members from marking the end of life with feasting and drinking at funerals.

Funerals. Puritans shared with Quakers a determination to avoid elaborate funeral ceremonies or extravagant coffins and tombs, but unlike Quakers they served large funeral dinners and so much alcoholic drink that on occasion entire communities, children included, became intoxicated. Over time New Englanders began wearing black memorial scarves, ribbons, cloaks, and gloves and making fine caskets and covering them with palls or shrouds, customs that could cost the mourners large sums. Virginians observed such customs throughout the colonial period, often going to great expense and trouble to honor the dead with funerals. The more important the person, the more elaborate was his funeral, sometimes accompanied by a great procession, usually punctuated with fusillades (the discharging of firearms), and nearly always concluded by consuming great quantities of food and drink.


Outside of Puritan New England and the Quaker communities in Pennsylvania, inhabitants of British mainland America celebrated Christmas in a variety of ways. For many it was the greatest feast day of the year, with roast turkey or other fowl and plum pudding. Saint Nicholas rewarded good children among English colonists with small gifts for their years behavior, while a separate devil figure called Old Nick punished bad children with gifts of switches or lumps of coal. The two figures were later merged into one. In Dutch households a somewhat unpredictable angel called the Christkind visited children with gifts on Christmas Eve. In Virginia, Christmas was a day for settling debts and for celebrating into the night with bonfires and the discharging of firearms. By the 1730s even some New Englanders were wishing they could join in the fun. Early in 1734 the Boston poet Joseph Green wrote a friend that people who could not be persuaded to embrace Christianity by argument cannot withstand a Dish of Plum Porridge, and it is past all doubt with me, that a Christmas Sermon makes fewer Converts, than a Christmas Pye.

Sources: Hennig Cohen and Tristramm Potter Coffin, eds., The Folklore of American Holidays (Detroit: Gale, 1988);

Joseph Green to Captain Benjamin Pollard, 2 January 1734, Smith-Carter Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Special Observances. Colonists readily interrupted their routine to celebrate important events in the life of their community or to beg Gods mercy or give thanks when circumstances demanded, both informally and by official sanction. A new ministers ordination or installation was one such event that called for a special gathering to listen to sermons and then feast in the clerics honor. Quaker and German farm families in Pennsylvania often gathered to build a new meetinghouse or to help a neighbor build a new barn at a raising, an event for women as well as men to socialize over food and drink while sharing their labor. Authorities in Connecticut and Massachusetts often responded to military defeats or natural disasters by proclaiming special fast days, and ministers were appointed to preach special sermons that reminded colonists of their duties to God while calling on them to abstain from food and to spend the day praying for divine forgiveness and help. Similarly they would commemorate relief from disasters, military victories, and favorable events with special thanksgiving days which were often accompanied by special sermons, feasting, and prayers of thanks. By the 1670s at least one such thanksgiving observance became a regular November custom among many New England families and was officially sanctioned

by the laws of many northern communities. Other colonial authorities made similar proclamations when circumstances demanded, though none outside New England came to celebrate a yearly thanksgiving.

Calendar Occasions. Since the Middle Ages, Europeans had depended on the church calendar to mark the weeks, months, and seasons of the year. In most New World colonies weekly cycles were officially punctuated with Sunday worship, which colonists were expected and often compelled by law to attend. Many did not attend, however, either through indifference or because a place of worship was too far away. Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Whitsuntide (the seventh Sunday after Easter, celebrating the Holy Spirits coming) served as the most important markers. These holidays were supplemented in various ways by other religious, traditional, or national days of observance. Many European colonists continued to mark their yearly calendars by these days, fasting during Advent and Lent, feasting on fowl (often goose or turkey) and plum pudding at Christmas, and scheduling weddings, plantings, and harvests by saints days and other holy days.

Lent. Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent began on Ash Wednesday, was marked by feasting and celebration in the streets of many English Protestant colonial towns as well as French and Spanish Catholic ones. In French America this celebration was known as Mardi Gras and was accompanied by processions, great feasting, drinking, singing, and dancing. In the English colonies Shrove Tuesday became an opportunity for servants and artisans to fill the streets of port cities in noisy procession, sometimes throwing rocks at the windows of merchants, shop owners, and employers who they thought had wronged them.

Pinkster. Colonists in Albany, New York, celebrated Pinkster, the Dutch Whitsuntide, with rowdy slave-led processions through streets lined with the stalls of peddlers selling food, liquor, and trifles. The greatest celebration in Spanish America was reserved for the local patron saint on whatever day that happened to fall. The celebration usually occupied two days: the first involved religious services while bonfires were lit throughout the town; the second was marked by a great procession with a statue of the saint, celebration of a high mass in the church, feasting, music, dancing, and games. May Day was celebrated in many English colonies with feasting and dancing around a maypole, and April Fools Day was commemorated with pranks. Some colonies were more austere, however. Settlers in frontier Virginia were reported to keep no holidays other than Christmas and Good Friday, not because they objected to the others but because conditions demanded that they work hard to survive. Puritans, on the other hand, repudiated observance of church holidays, May Day, and April Fools Day as superstitious. Legislatures in Massachusetts and Connecticut passed laws that prohibited any special observance of Christmas, Easter, and other such holidays, and officials strictly enforced them by imposing stiff fines and other punishments on violators. In 1627 Plymouth governor William Bradford actually led a small invasion

party into the neighboring colony of Merrymount to disrupt a May Day celebration by cutting down the maypole and seizing the settlements leader, Thomas Morton. Puritans centered their religious calendar on weekly Sunday worship. Sunday was the Sabbath and any work or frivolous activity was prohibited. On all the traditional holy days, including Christmas and Good Friday, the Puritans worked hard; Quakers did likewise. New Englands annual celebrations came instead to focus on various civic and governmental functions.

State Affairs. Colonists were inhabitants of great European empires as well as New World colonies, and they expressed their loyalty to both with enthusiastic participation in various governmental functions and celebrations. They mourned the passing of one monarch and the coronation of his or her successor with solemn processions accompanied by military guards, fusillades, and shouts of God save the king. Colonists would carry these celebrations into the evening with elegant balls at the governors mansions, where important people drank to the new monarchs health and danced the night away. Colonial governors were likewise celebrated. A new governor would arrive at the colonial capital amid great celebration, riding to his residence in great procession. Important local officials marched before and behind the governors coach while throngs of cheering people lined the streets and tried to catch a glimpse of the monarchs representative in America.

Popish Plot. These opportunities to express loyalty to the sovereign were supplemented in many English colonies by the annual celebration of Guy Fawkes Day. The day commemorated the thwarting of the notorious Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which English Catholics had attempted to assassinate King James I. Each 5 November brawling throngs gathered in the streets to celebrate the English Protestant monarchy with raucous processions featuring effigies of the Pope. Various other occasions punctuated the year as well. Settlers throughout British America met periodically to elect representatives to the colonial legislatures. Voters and their families took these opportunities to socialize over gingerbread and hard cider or rum punch. Massachusetts colonists also celebrated an annual Election Day in which the upper house of the legislature was elected by a special court. After the election the newly chosen Assistants went in solemn procession to the statehouse, where the whole assembly sat and listened to an election sermon delivered by a prominent minister who reminded them of their sacred duties as representatives of the people. Most colonies organized militias for local defense, and muster days also became social occasions. Men fit for military duty would convene, often on Sunday afternoons, for much socializing along with some practice in marching and firing weapons. New England militiamen elected their own officers. County court days provided people another opportunity to gather from miles around not only to present their cases before the county justices but also to meet their neighbors, compete in foot or horse races, watch or participate in fistfights, and socialize at the local taverns. When a trial at the courthouse resulted in a conviction for some capital offense, people would again gather on the day appointed for public execution. There they would visit with their neighbors, purchase goods and refreshments from peddlers, listen to a minister deliver a solemn execution sermon crafted to warn all against vice and crime, and finally, watch the condemned criminal swing by the neck from the gallows.


Richard L. Bushman, King and People in Provincial Massachusetts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985);

Ramón Gutiérrez and Genevieve Fabre, Feasts and Celebrations in North American Ethnic Communities (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995);

David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (New York: Knopf, 1989);

Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982);

Myron Tassin and Gaspar Stahl, Mardi Gras and Bacchus: Something Old, Something New (Gretna, La.: Pelican, 1984).