In 1770, Christmas at Tryon Palace in New Bern was vastly different than the way we celebrate today. Food, however, has always played a major role in the season.
Everyone is getting ready for the holidays. Christmas trees are up and decorations line the streets of eastern North Carolina. The malls and shopping centers are full of people picking up Christmas gifts for friends and loved ones. Menus are being prepared for the holiday table. The hustle and bustle of the season is in full swing. But flash back a few hundred years, Christmas was much simpler. Walk along the streets of New Bern on Christmas Day in 1770 and you probably couldn’t tell it was the holiday season.
“Christmas as we know it today really was never celebrated at the Governor’s Palace.”
Interpretative Programs Coordinator for Tryon Palace Amber Satterthwaite. Tryon Palace served as the first permanent capital of North Carolina and a home to Royal Governor William Tryon and his family.
“The Governor’s Palace burned in 1798 and many of the Christmas traditions that you and I are familiar with today didn’t begin to emerge until the mid-19th century.”
Food, however, has always been a major part of the holiday season.
“Can you tell me what’s on the menu today? Lemon cheesecake which would be a dish served at the Governor’s table because it’s got sugar and spices in it which are both expensive. For the servants who don’t get any such expensive things we’re going to have some corn chowder which is made with items from our garden.”
That’s Tryon Palace volunteer Joey Carlton. She is busy in the kitchen at Tryon Palace preparing a made-from-scratch meal that would traditionally be served during a colonial Christmas.
“We have onions here and I’m chopping those up to put them in the corn chowder. And then I’ll be chopping up some potatoes to go in the corn chowder as well to make it a little bit hearty. On a day like this, you want a nice hearty warm soup. And I’ll take some herbs that we have from the garden as well… sage and chives, and some dried herbs put away that I’ll use as well some dill and basil.”
Spices and herbs not only added flavor, but sophistication and elegance to make the meal extra special. Spices were expensive and hard to get, so cooking with cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon was a great way to impress people of political importance who were honored guests at the Tryon table.
“The cinnamon is grated and so are the nutmegs. That gives you the powder form that you can use to flavor the food. And we also have some pepper corns over here. And the peppercorns have to be ground up.”
On Christmas morning, the kitchen was a busy place. There was a head cook who was in charge of the operation, kitchen maids to help with preparation and baking and kitchen boys to turn the spit, tend the fire and fetch and carry items. But everywhere else in Colonial New Bern, it was just your average day. No presents being opened, no carols being sung.
“They did drink a lot. Maybe it was because it was December and it was cold.”
Research Historian Lindy Cummings says they do have records of some marking the occasion with the consumption of alcohol.
“There was one traveler that noted they commemorated Christmas morning by having a glass of eggnog to begin the day, that was sort of the pre-breakfast beverage. But then he noted later on they were drinking gin and cherry bounce, and eggnog in the morning as well. Probably just warding off the chill.”
The first holiday celebration held by Governor Tryon happened in 1770. But it wasn’t Christmas he was celebrating, rather it was the king’s birthday. Interpretative Programs Coordinator Amber Satterthwaite.
“And the interesting thing is the King’s birthday was in June, yet they held off until this time of year maybe because the Tryons had only just moved into the palace.”
Major players in the community were invited and fine foods were served. Dancing and games were also a part of the evening entertainment. These types of celebrations became an annual tradition at Tryon Palace and in the community. Cummings says the holiday was the main social time of the year.
“Christmas is a marker in the year, it’s more a day rather than a season. And it’s going to start with the 25th and run through Epiphany, so the 12 days of Christmas. That’s going to be more of the season for us rather than for us running from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day and maybe to New Year’s.”
December 25th and the days leading up to Epiphany in colonial New Bern were much like any other day, with the exception of special religious services.
“The 12 days of Christmas were a mix of social events and religious observance. So that’s an important part of the 18th century Christmas observance that we don’t always think about today. But it was a solemn, somber time, a time for reflection, and a time for attending church services.”
The 12 days of Christmas culminated with a feast and celebration known as Twelfth Night. At Tryon Palace, this was a time of dancing and entertainment for 20 to 40 family members and guests.
“The centerpiece that you will find in the Governor’s palace is the monument of food that’s being presented to the guests. So imagine a very formal, symmetrical table filled with these exotic sweets and desserts that the Governor had to pay a hefty amount of money for.”
Before dessert, an exquisite main course consisting of 20 to 30 meat dishes were served including beef, pork, squab, and oysters to name a few.
“There’s a functional reason why meat is being served in this time of the year. And that’s that in the winter, that’s the time for slaughtering because you don’t have the risk of meat spoiling. But it’s also because the more meat you have, the more wealth you are displaying.”
After a decadent meal served around 2’o clock in the afternoon, guests took part in dancing and games and of course, drinking that lasted into the night.
“Dancing was their favorite thing in the 18th century. Everyone loved music and dance. But parlor games were extremely popular for the Twelfth Night engagement. And those games included gambling games, card games, pantomime, games like “memories and forfeits” where the leader says a verse and the people have to repeat the verse. And then the leader adds a second verse and the people have to repeat both verses. Very similar to the 12 Days of Christmas, the song that we know today may have begun as that type of song.”
During the 18th century, people rarely exchanged gifts with one another. Displaying decorations wasn’t really a part of holiday tradition either. Christmas trees, ornaments, garland and wreaths didn’t come into fashion until the mid-1800s.
“So the Christmas decorations that you’ll see at Tryon Palace today are colonial revival in style. And that’s a style that emerged in the early 20th century when Christmas was becoming more important culturally.”