Finding the First American Christmas

The first proper Christmas celebration we know of in what would become the United States doesn’t get anywhere near the amount of attention we justifiably lavish on the story of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth. With so many liberals demanding that we look back critically at our first founders, however, it might be a good time to revisit the simple, rough, but wholesome Christmas celebrated by Captain John Smith and other Jamestown settlers in 1608.

Old traditions in the new world

The Jamestown settlers are frequently maligned as lazy and ignorant adventurers who made every possible bad decision. In truth, many of the men were experienced soldiers who simply followed the reasonable but somewhat uninformed orders they had received from London.

The real first Christmas in Jamestown  was thus not a very cheerful holiday. The few surviving colonists were besieged by hostile natives, suffering from disease and starvation, and shivering in their inadequate shelters.

Even if there was any desire to hold a celebration, there was no food or drink to celebrate with. The heroic but already sick and dying chaplain Reverend Robert Hunt probably held a service in their crude church, described by Captain Smith as resembling a barn.

Back in England, the holiday season traditionally featured a twelve day celebration which blended Christmas and New Year commemorations, marked by familiar customs like caroling, gift giving, feasting,  nativity plays, and church services.

The men would have also been familiar with wassailing, a custom which has not quite found its place in the modern American Christmas. This tradition saw locals going door to door singing carols and in exchange receiving drinks or food from the homeowners.

The carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” comes from this tradition, with its repeated threat of “we won’t go until we get some” becoming slightly more menacing when you imagine it being sung by a crowd of your intoxicated neighbors.

Christmas in Kecoughtan

By the end of 1608 things had improved somewhat for the beleaguered colonists, now under the competent and pragmatic leadership of Captain John Smith, who had by this time already survived his famous encounter with Pocahontas and her father.

Captain Smith and a group of settlers were returning from one of his many expeditions of exploration upriver late in December when a severe snowstorm forced the Englishmen to seek shelter at the Indian village of Kecoughtan, now the site of Hampton, Virginia.

For once there seems to have been little tension between the natives and the Virginia colonists. Smith reports of that Christmas that he and his men “were never more merry, nor fed on more plentie of good Oysters, Fish, Flesh, Wild-foule, and good bread; nor never had better fires in England.”

The account is no more than a single sentence but it isn’t hard to imagine why Smith and his ragged group of explorers felt “never more merry” than when they found their unexpected hospitality in a village which had never even heard of Christmas.

Relations between the Powhatan Confederacy and the English settlers were rarely good and mutual distrust and animosity culminated in a number of ruthless massacres carried out by both sides, before and after the Christmas of 1608.

Still, the fact that the celebration had no lasting importance and that Kecoughtan and Jamestown would both ultimately be wiped off the map of the new Virginia should not make the simple tale of our first American Christmas any less cheerful.

The forgotten colonists

The Jamestown colonists will certainly never receive the kind of love we have traditionally spared for the pilgrims, especially now that even the pilgrims are becoming a politically incorrect blot on our liberal historiography.

The men who founded Jamestown were, firstly, men and not families. They were looking for adventure and fortune, rather than fleeing persecution. Many were aristocratic and most came from a military background. They were greeted with arrows and mosquitoes, rather than a friendly and English speaking Squanto.

These very English and very Christian adventurers have no place in the kind of image 21st century America would prefer to construct for itself but they are precisely the kind of people we have to thank for building this country.

There are no Ellis Island arrivals or heartwarming immigrant stories without those grimy Englishmen huddled together in a Kecoughtan hut eating oysters and turkey on a frigid Christmas in 1608.

It was not technically the first Christmas celebration to take place in what is now the United States but it is certainly the first we know of which reflects the kind of Christmas spirit we cherish as a country.


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