Tidewater Christmas Traditions
Once upon a time, Christ was remembered at Christmas, as in the Tidewater where Christmas was the summit of Advent, season of expectation, reflection, penitence in preparation for the birth of Christ. Advent, “the approach,” the anticipation of the Savior’s arrival, are the four weeks of prayer and fasting (one daily meatless meal) that conclude with the Christmas feast. Yes, yesterday’s Tidewater Christmas was a time for celebration of birth, a time quite different from today’s Tidewater where one-in-four births are violently terminated. We are not the people we once were.
Advent Season starkly draws the contrast between light and dark, birth and death … evil and good, despair and hope, it is a time of joy, belief in the promise of life and light of the Savior. The Tidewater celebration of life and birth began on December 25, Christmas Day, and extended for twelve days until January 6, Epiphany, a “festival of the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles.” The English Anglicans, the Scots, Irish, and others of the Tidewater shared the season’s celebratory carols, “The First Nowell,” “I Saw Three Ships,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” joyful songs of hearth and home distinct from solemn hymns of church and pews.
And there was Tidewater Christmas feasting: oysters, mincemeat pies, brandied peaches, ham, goose, beef, as each family might favor or could afford. And there were rum punches, brandies, wines, as each was inclined, and these were shared with friend, servant, slave–sometimes the three in one. And here we should mention: though a holiday in spirit, Christmas was not always a holiday in fact, but a laboring day, unless, of course, Christmas should occur on Sunday, our day of rest.
You might picture the pretty entertainments of Tidewater Christmas, balls, fetes, foxhunts, and rose-cheeked children anticipating the achievements of maturity, rather than childishly anticipating the indulgence of plastic diversions as now they do. Yes, Tidewater then differed from Tidewater now. As the XVI became the XVII, became the XVIII, became the XIX Century, Germanic Christians brought deep-woods traditions, the Christmas tree and bough (do not be persuaded by pro-Aryans that the Christmas tree is a pagan import, it is not), eager Tidewater shopkeepers encouraged gift giving, and from these earthy derivations came Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”, Santa Claus.
Moore, a classics scholar, understood the significance of Saint Nicholas’ generosity, the golden gifts which allowed extended innocence, which preserved family, sanctified home, and which prevented the descent of several girls into prostitution (the core of Saint Nicholas’ gift giving legend). Moore’s charming characterization of Christmas persisted until recently when Barbie-pride, anti-Christian tendencies, and anxious commercial indulgence replaced the gracious Tidewater Christmas.
This year in cultural and geographic Tidewater, Washington, DC’s White House, Tchaikovsky’s family-friendly Nutcracker Christmas pageant metamorphized into a self-admitted male-mocking, pro-queer, Marxist subversion of Christmas. We are not the people we once were. Then too, the current abortion-promoting president has forgotten the child Christ in Christmas and everywhere displays the commercial excess of X-mass.
Several decades ago, when weekending in the updated Tidewater house of a most stylish interior designer, I waved away a group of red-jacketed riders who in that rhythmic bounce of the polite hunt paced away on handsome, well-appointed horses. Once upon a time, this artsy group might have been a troop of Cavaliers, stately and refined. At this time, the group of fun-loving, trust-fund aesthetes were in houndless hunt. Down the road, over the bridge, and into the wood they rode, leaving hoofprints behind in the snow. After some little time, I noticed across the field a slight movement at the split rail fence. There a keen-eyed fox raised paw to rail, peeked over the snow-topped hay and ventured his sharp nose through the rail. A slow look left, a slow look right, then left again. A pause, the hesitant step, and then the confident four-pawed pace of one accustomed to the place, and the fox went along its way down the road, over the bridge, and into the wood.
Those patterned prints of fox and hoof long ago melted with the snow; yet their significance lives in memory. This is the way of tradition. That which is merely temporal dissolves away while the essence remains. Just so, I expect the essence of Tidewater Christmas to persist after earthly subversions melt away.
If you would deepen and extend Christ in our Christmas tradition, you might attend a true sacramental Christ Mass or a Bible-based Christmas sermon. For traditional trappings of Tidewater Christmas, you might visit a historic Tidewater home. If in Georgia, there is the Old Governor’s Mansion, Milledgeville, Georgia, where a magnificent decoratively-draped Christmas tree rises before a curved and sheltering stair. Also in Georgia, Marietta’s Christmas Homes Tour, and Savannah’s Holiday Tour of Homes offer many remembrances of good Christmases past. The Natchez, Mississippi and Charleston, South Carolina Christmas home tours recall the best of true Tidewater Christmas traditions. If in North Carolina, you can delight in the Reynolda House Christmas memories, a beautiful mix of XIX and XX Century Christmases. And there is Williamsburg, Virginia where XVIII Century Tidewater Christmas traditions deepen and extend.
Mount Vernon, George & Martha Washington’s Tidewater home, is worthy of mention because its dozens of Christmas promotions do not offer a single mention of Christ. George & Martha Washington were prayerful, devout Christians who together attended Christmas morning service when George was not away, and would upon their Christmas evening enjoy a quiet meal as on a Sunday. Today, a Christmas visit to Mount Vernon admits that the curators are uneasy with the manner of the Washingtons’ Christian Christmas devotion.
From President Washington’s many common prayers I chose the following because it applies to us all.
I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have the United States in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Devine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.
Christ continues to bless this nation, our homes and families, although we are not the good, faithful, true people we once were. And yet we might again be worthy of blessing if we remember Christ in Christmas, if in reflection and penitence we prepare ourselves for the coming of our Savior. If not, well, the fall of civilizations is a common occurrence, an occurrence that we each might have opportunity to experience. Soon or someday our nation will be no more, and then our present silliness and subversion will simply cease to be.
Christmas, Christianity, Christians have survived many countries, kingdoms, empires, and Christians, Christianity, Christmas will survive our nation. When this government, our language, and our present foolishness is no more, the Christmas tradition will beautifully deepen and widen as it did in the Tidewater, as it has done world-over these 2,000 faithful years.
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Featured image: Interior of Bruton Parish Church, established, 1674, Williamsburg, Virginia.
credit: Steve Heap
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