Remembering Christmas on the Northern Neck
As bills for last months gifts come rolling in, Commentator Thea Marshall looks back at Christmas past, and Christmas bills present...and longs for the good old days of "Barter"....and the time in our Colonial past, when holiday gift giving was a time of small gifts of sweets and such to one's children ...one's servants...but never to one's equals...
It’s just about a month since Christmas trees and Christmas wrappings, and perhaps a few broken toys have been swept away into memory, and in their place come the bills. Predictably my thoughts go back to the very early days, the very early Christmas’s on the Northern Neck. What were they like? Where did folks shop? How did they pay for their gifts and what kind of gifts were exchanged?
Well, first things first. Christmas wasn’t much celebrated, as a matter of fact, the celebration of Christmas was banned for a couple of years because the King back in England thought it was a bit pagan, but when it was later permitted, it still wasn’t much, at least by today’s standards. Phillip Vickers Fithian, tutor to the children of Robert Carter III of Nomini Hall, reported in his journal that there were great meals and balls, but that was nothing new, there seemed to always be feasting and as far as he was concerned, he a strict Presbyterian studying for the ministry, far too many balls.
Actually, John Smith, way back in the 1600’s celebrated and feasted according to his diary, quote, “…among the savages, where we were never more merry nor fed more plenty of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild fowl, and good bread,” unquote. As to gifting, the children, the servants, the slaves and apprentices, might receive small gifts of sweets and such, from their masters or parents, but peer to peer gifts, or gifts to one’s superiors were at least a century or two away. This from Fithian’s journal again, “I gave Tom the coachman who doctors my horse, for his care, two bits. I gave to Dennis the boy who waits at table, half a bit. So that the sum of my donations to the servants for this Christmas appears to be five bits.” Fithian goes on to tell us what a bit is, quote, “A bit is a pisterine bisected, or an English six pence, and passes here for seven pence halfpenney.” So Fithian’s Christmas bills didn’t amount to much. And about those bills, of course there weren’t any, and that’s mostly because of barter.
Even the hugely wealthy planters bartered at times. Historian James Merrell has suggested that the ordinary colonials, particularly enterprising colonial women put their talents to good use. Quote, “They didn’t markedly differentiate between trade and hospitality. Prepared food became a common exchange item, as did shelter and the occasional bout of nursing or midwifery,” unquote.
So, as my Christmas bills start arriving, I’ve been rethinking gifting, and my thoughts have been returning to barter. Of course it’s a bit late, it’s pretty tough to barter with Citibank, but just wait until next year.
This is Thea Marshall