In The World Is Yours episode titled “Christmas in the Colonies,” which aired December 26, 1937, the host, Old Timer, reminds “two young moderns” that in Colonial America, Christmas looked very different from how we celebrate it today.
The episode starts with a couple remarking on the simplicity of the Colonial Room of the United States National Museum, and how the woman wouldn’t have received a wristwatch for the holidays if they had lived back then. Old Timer chimes in, noting that they wouldn’t have had any Christmas if they lived in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
[Mona] What did you mean about not having any Christmas if we lived in Plymouth?
[Old Timer] Christmas was against the law in Puritan times.
[Mona] Against the law? Why, I always thought that Christmas was a holiday everywhere.
[Old Timer] Yesterday, all Americans celebrated the day with glittering Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and turkey dinners, but the early colonies of New England, New Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Virginia, each had its own way of spending Christmas.
[Jim] That sounds like a story Old Timer.
[Mona] And just the right kind of story for the 26th of December. Oh, I never can stop feeling Christmassy when I should.
[Old Timer] Well, why should you? In New Amsterdam, Christmas legally lasted five weeks.
[Mona] Oh, begin at the beginning, please Old Timer.
[Old Timer] Well, the beginning would be the first Christmas of the Pilgrims. In the year 1620, the company was still living on board the Mayflower…
The program then moves into a dramatization of two Pilgrim women lamenting on Christmas Eve about how much they miss the music and lights of Christmas in England, while the men can be heard chopping logs to build houses in the background. One of the women, Rose, says that the thing she misses most is the holly her family would put up every year. At the end of the dramatization, the preacher announces that construction on the first house will begin the next day, on Christmas, and Rose’s husband presents her with holly he found in the woods to remind her of their first winter holiday together.
Next up is a history of how Governor John Winthrop abolished all celebrations of Christmas in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of Boston, proclaiming that any and all who celebrate the day will be fined five shillings per offense. In another dramatization, Reverend John Braxton blatantly disobeys Winthrop’s decree. The ban stood until 1686, and Christmas wasn’t made a legal holiday in Massachusetts until 1856.
The experience in Massachusetts is contrasted by the lengthy celebrations of the holiday in New Amsterdam in the next segment of the program.
[Old Timer] As early as the fourteenth of December, ol’ Peter Stuyvesant had a proclamation read at the City Hall.
[Town Crier, while ringing a bell] Hear ye! Hear ye! Honest people of New Amsterdam. As the winter holidays are at hand, there shall be no more ordinary meetings of a city corporation between this date and three weeks after Christmas. The court messenger is ordered not to summon anyone in the meantime.
[cheers from a crowd]
Old Timer goes on to talk about the modern traditions that came from the early Dutch and German settlers, such as Santa Claus and Christmas trees, before a reenactment of a Christmas ball held in the governor’s mansion in New Amsterdam. This is followed by a description and dramatization of Christmas at George Washington’s estate in Mount Vernon, with particular emphasis placed on the yule log burning in the fireplace.
One of the things that is different about this program compared to the other The World Is Yours episodes I have listened to is the music. Every episode has had melodic music surrounding the dramatizations, but this episode is peppered with snippets of Christmas carols. Some of the carols are familiar to me, such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In),” but others I had never heard before, such as “Ceremonies for Christmas,” which was sung during the yule log reenactment.
However you celebrate, we here at the Archives wish you and yours a very Happy Holidays!
- Smithsonian Institution Sound Recordings, circa 1915-1941, Accession 05-142, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- “It's National Radio Day and The World Is Yours,” by Emily Niekrasz, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archive
- “Hearing ‘The World Is Yours’,” by Kira Sobers, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives