Tradesmen & Traditions

The lights are hung, the wreaths are out, and the blow-up Santas are waving from every other lawn-- it must be Christmastime. Today the holiday season is marketed as starting right after Thanksgiving and lasting through December twenty-fifth. It is marked by bright lights, gaudy ornaments and lots of food. But the holiday season was not always celebrated this way. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries New Jersey enjoyed a wide variety of traditions brought by its diverse immigrant population, each celebrating the holiday season in their own way.

Colonial and Early National Christmas celebrations differed from the modern holiday season in many ways. For most colonial New Jerseyans, the holiday season would not have started until the twenty-fifth of December, but would have lasted through the beginning of January, aligning with the feast and saint days. Decorations would have been very different as well. Some German and Dutch immigrants may have had a Christmas tree, but the vast majority of people would have decorated their homes with evergreen and holly garland and boughs, a tradition that dates back to pagan practices in ancient Rome.  Another difference is that few presents would have been exchanged. During the colonial period it was customary for masters to provide small gifts to their servants and apprentices, but little thought was given to providing gifts between equals or to children. The one exception was in New Amsterdam, where children left out their shoes for SinterKlaas (Saint Nicholas) to fill with small gifts.

There are some colonial Christmas traditions that are still familiar to us today including feasts, parties and music. While the food and drink that we consume today during Christmas dinner and at parties differs from that of the colonial period, the tradition of providing a wide variety and plenty of food for guests still stands. Holiday parties also remain popular today and the Christmas Ball was often the highlight of the Colonial season, bringing together family and friends for the festivities. Carols have changed over time as has the method of listening to the music. Today we listen to them on the radio rather than play the fiddle ourselves, but the enjoyment it brings remains the same.   We invite you to join the Museum of Early Trades & Crafts in the tradition of gathering together friends and family for holiday music and come to our holiday Messiah Sing on Saturday December 14th at 2:30pm. Come to sing along or just to listen.

The mission of the Museum of Early Trades & Crafts is to enhance the understanding and appreciation of America's past by presenting and interpreting the history, culture and lives of ordinary people through educational programs, through preservation and stewardship of our collection, and through exhibition and demonstration of the trades and crafts practiced in New Jersey from its earliest settlement.  Website:


The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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