Christmas in the Colonies, c. 1812
Recently, in our holiday preparations, members of the Provincial Marine were discussing our annual decoration of the Commissariat Building for the season. Now, over the past decade or so, the way we decorate our headquarters has changed drastically. Not so many years ago, it was quite common for us to go "all out" in our decorating, putting up lights, garlands, tinsel, various candles and statuettes, and, of course, a fully decorated Christmas Tree in one corner. Over time, however, we came to realize that, if we truly wished to represent our 1812 era ancestors properly, we needed to decorate the building in a manner that more appropriately reflected how Christmas might have looked in a household or business office in Amherstburg in the early nineteenth century. And upon a little research and reflection, we realized that we were missing the mark by a very wide margin!
You see, the modern traditions of Christmas decoration practiced throughout most of the British Commonwealth countries and the United States can be traced back very specifically to the Victorian era, more than a quarter century later than the period we strive to portray in our historical impression. Prior to this, British Christmas customs were really quite understated. Yes, there was a traditional Christmas feast held (where it could be afforded, of course), but decoration was rather minimal. It really was, in fact, a celebration that in most ways might even be viewed as "very British" in it's restrained austerity, in keeping with the rather overall conservative nature of the Church of England.
The modern traditions of Christmas decoration throughout the British Empire were actually the direct result of Queen Victoria's marriage to Prince Albert. Victoria was awed by the far more spectacular Christmas customs common to the Germanic traditions of her new husband, and in order to make him more comfortable in his new home during the holiday season, set about implementing them within the Royal household. These traditions included taking the pageantry and spectacle of the traditional holiday feast to soaring new heights, and surrounding it all with lavish and spectacular decoration, both within the palace and without. Naturally, the social preferences of the monarchy were very quickly copied by British high society, and before long percolated down to the masses, beginning the rather ostentatious decorating traditions most of us still adhere to today.
However, in Georgian times, Christmas holiday decoration tended to be simple and understated. Especially here in the North American colonies, and particularly outside the few larger population centres, simple festive decorations tended to be largely made with natural materials, most notably rather plain garlands or wreaths of evergreen boughs. The few interior decorative items would have tended to be primarily religious in nature, with simple crosses or crucifixes being heavily featured. Other minor touches might have been added, in accordance with the location, faith, and wealth of those doing the decorating. It must be remembered that, as today, a wide variety of Christian sects were present in colonial Canada and America, from Church of England protestants to French Catholics, and Scots Presbyterians to Quakers... each with their own views on what, if any, decoration was appropriate to their faith.
In the end, our decoration of the Commissariat this year was very simple and understated; we placed evergreen bough garlands across the front window sills, and hung a simple evergreen wreath on the front door, decorated with a tartan bow (a self-indulgent nod to my own Scots/Irish heritage). Inside. we placed Osage Oranges in each room, with each sitting on a scrap of green and red cloth for a small splash of festive colour, giving the building a pleasant holiday scent. The stark simplicity of the decorations seems to really compliment the old building, and our members were very happy with it when they attended our annual Christmas gathering, which is held each year following our December Board of Directors' meeting.
On behalf of Captain May, myself, and the entire crew at Provincial Marine Amherstburg, I take this opportunity to wish each and every one of you reading this a safe and happy holiday season, and a prosperous new year. Happy Christmas!
11/12/2022 07:47:07 pm
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Lt. Dale Kidd
A 20 year member and current President of Provincial Marine Amherstburg, acting 2nd in Command operationally.