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The Not-So-Historical Tradition of a Colonial Christmas Pineapple
By Nancy E. Sheppard

Pineapple imageA common sight this time of year in Colonial Williamsburg is the pineapple proudly displayed over building doorways. But how accurate is this depiction and what is the historic significance behind it?

For this, we must begin our journey in November 1493 when Christopher Columbus and his crew discovered the pineapple after searching a deserted village in the Caribbean. He took the sweet fruit back to Europe, where it became a sought-after delicacy that only royalty could afford. A legend goes that sea captains would take the fruit and spear it in front of their homes to let neighbors and friends know of their safe return and that they were welcome to visit. This legend coincides with the tradition of pineapples symbolizing hospitality.

Once the English started settling in the American colonies, it was still rare that they had pineapples available to them. Full pineapples were incredibly expensive and rarely arrived whole in colonial ports due to spoilage along the journey. They were usually preserved in sweet meats and pineapples (whole or not) were delivered to confectionery shops in major port cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Annapolis, and Williamsburg.

Because of their expense, a full pineapple came to represent not only hospitality, but also a person’s stature in society. It is said that hostesses would present a whole pineapple on a table to show guests that she spared no expense for their comfort and enjoyment. Confectionery shops would sometimes rent out whole pineapples by the day for these purposes!

The continued vestige of the fruit to symbolize hospitality made its way into Colonial era inn signs, architecture, furniture design, and even adorning decorations on dishes. In 1681, Christopher Wren began decorating the church with pineapple finials this time of year.

How did it become associated with Christmas? Well, the fruit stood more of a chance of staying preserved this time of year because of the cold temperatures. Given its symbolism of hospitality and stature, both of which can be loosely associated with the Christmas season, it is only natural that the two coexist. However, the advent of the pineapple adorning the doorway did not come to be until the 20th century. In fact, most of the decorations associated with Colonial Williamsburg are of more modern advent.

Joseph Beatty, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of research and interpretative development, said, "As far as decorations go, we are pretty confident that maybe a few people would put up a bit of greenery and hang mistletoe inside, as in the English custom, but that was it.” Colonists wouldn’t have wasted precious fruit on mere decorations.

With those of us "in the modern world” going overboard to decorate for the holidays, a compromise had to be met… how do we meet guest expectations of a magical Christmas ambiance but still adhere to an aesthetic more in keeping with the Colonial era? That is when the brilliant pineapple (and other citrus fruit) displays came to be.

While this may make historians cringe at the lack of accurate representation, it is one of the things that welcomes guests each season to Colonial Williamsburg.

 





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