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John Smith’s Christmas of 1608
By Nancy E. Sheppard

JS1608 imageThe early years of the English settlement in the Virginia Colony were nothing short of horrific. Plagued by unknown diseases, lacking in supplies, and a constant succession of death due to starvation, illness, and war with the native population, it is rather amazing that the colonists persevered. The rough life of the English in this foreign frontier knew no break, even on the most sacred of holidays like Christmas.

The Christmas celebrations of seventeenth century English did not really resemble what we know of today. They recognized the Christmastide (as they called it) as lasting from December 25th through January 6th each year. It was seen as a sacred time of reflection, religious devotion, and fellowship with one another. The colonists celebrated in ways like hanging greenery as decoration and attending church, but the meager supplies in the early Jamestown colony did not allow for the typical English feasting and frivolities.

With supplies scarce, John Smith left Jamestown with two ships and forty men to attempt to trade with the local population. They first landed at Warraskoyack (modern day Smithfield along the Pagan River). After a brief stay there, they left and headed towards Kecoughtan (in Hampton). The unforgiving Tidewater weather conditions forced the trading party to stay put with the Powhatan during the holiday. John Smith later recounted sharing in the winter celebration with the local population in the document, The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia since the first beginning from England in the yeare of our Lord 1606, till this present 1612, with all their accidents that befell them in their Journies and Discoveries.This piece is now seen as the first known written account of a Christmas celebration by the English in the New World. Smith wrote:

"…the extreame wind, raine, frost, and snowe, caused us to keepe Christmas amongst the Salvages, where wee were never more merrie, nor fedde on more plentie of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild foule, and good bread, nor never had better fires in England then in the drie warme smokie houses of Kecoughtan.”

While not a typical celebration for the colonists, it was definitely one that left an incredible impact upon John Smith. It was in keeping with the sense of merriment and friendship felt during celebrations on the homeland, but was a reaching across the aisle to a foreign culture. In reading Smith’s account of the Powhatan’s hospitality, it is alarming how quickly relations with the Powhatan deteriorated over the months following which lead to one of the most dreadful events in Jamestown’s history: The Starving Time from 1609-1610, that saw the deaths of all but sixty of the three hundred colonists that packed into the palisades of James Forte in November 1609.

 





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