In colonial Virginia, residents were free to celebrate Christmas in December, but New Year’s Day was observed in March. In 1582 Pope Gregory decreed January 1 as New Years Day, but the new calendar wasn’t accepted by the British Empire (which included the American colonies) until 1752. So Christmas in Virginia was a stand-alone holiday, though it lasted for twelve days, from December 25 through January 6. New Year’s Day came two months later.
Not accepting the Gregorian calendar was only one dispute the British had with the Pope and Catholic monarchs of Spain and France. Politics and religion were intertwined and governors took strong positions on religious issues like holiday celebrations. Edmund Andros (1637-1714) served, at various times, as royal governor of New York, New Jersey, New England and Virginia. He descended from the feudal aristocracy, was a strong royalist with powerful connections at the king’s court in London.
Andros was an aristocrat, a conservative, and adherent to the traditional Church of England. He served as governor of New York from 1674 to 1681, appointed by the Duke of York who later became King James II. In 1681 colonists in New York charged Andros with financial irregularities and favoritism and he was recalled to London to stand trial. Once home in London he didn’t stand trial and instead returned to North America with a promotion: Governor of the Dominion of New England in 1686. He ended up as governor of a territory that stretched from Massachusetts to New Jersey.
Puritans and Christmas
The Puritans of New England disapproved of the celebration of Christmas, and it was banned in Boston from 1659-1681. Andros revoked the ban and also revoked the ban on festivities on Saturday nights. He may have been liked by some people, but he was unpopular with the Puritans. They criticized him for limiting the legislature to one meeting a year, and interfering with colonial laws and customs. Andros, of course, had to deal with numerous legislatures serving the various colonies in his new Dominion, all located far apart considering transportation in those days. He was so despised in Connecticut that his name is still excluded from the state’s list of colonial governors.
In April 1689 King James II was overthrown and Andros attempted to escape New England dressed as a woman. He was caught when someone spotted his boots beneath his dress. Once again, he was sent back to London for trial. On arrival in London, he was immediately released again, and later returned to the colonies as Governor of Virginia (1692-1698).
Traditional Colonial Christmas Celebrations
Traditional colonial Christmas celebrations are kept alive today in Williamsburg, Virginia. Colonists decorated their homes with greens and gave small gifts of cash tips, little books and small quantities of sweets to dependents and children. Colonial Williamsburg keeps the tradition of wreath making, and candlelight dinners.
The tale of Governor Andros leaves us with a few thoughts for the New Year. He faced many challenges. Every time he lost a job, he found opportunities to succeed. Each time he was promoted and given greater responsibility. Did he receive the first “golden parachute” on North American soil? He lived to retire, left a detailed will, and when he died he was buried with honors with a marching retinue of sixty-six men, each carrying a white branch light.They were followed by twenty men on horseback, and six mourning coaches, each pulled by six horses. One of his legacies to the new world is the celebration of Christmas, which of course has become more elaborate than he would have imagined.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to all.