Christmas Season Foods in Eighteenth Century Virginia

Rosemary Brandau

December, 1983

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series - 0044
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library

Williamsburg, Virginia



Rosemary Brandau
December, 1983

Craft Programs

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Williamsburg, Virginia


On December 25, 1773, Philip Vickers Fithian wrote in his diary that the Carter family dined at four o'clock. Since Mr. Carter stayed in his room, Fithian was the only man at the table. He said, "…I must carve — Drink the Health — and talk if I can! Our Dinner was no otherwise than common, yet as elegant a Christmas Dinner as I ever sat Down to … (Farish, p. 40) Fithian went into detail about the dinner conversation rather than the meal itself. When they rose from the table, it was growing dark.

Christmas Day in the eighteenth century was observed quietly in the home (as evidenced by Fithian), and at church. Businesses and schools were closed for the season. Slaves and servants enjoyed the day away from work if they could be spared. For this reason, quite likely most baking and other major cooking for Christmas Day dinner took place days ahead.

However, the Christmas season itself was a festive and hospitable one as celebrated by Virginians. Fithian said that for a week or more the conversation was of nothing but Balls, Fox-hunts, fine Entertainments, and good Fellowship as Christmas approached. Feasting and at-home entertainment began a full week before Christmas and generally extended until January 6, Twelfth Night.

On December 18, 1773, Fithian described a party of dancing and games. "Half after eight we were rung into Supper; the Room looked luminous and splendid; four very large Candles burning on the Table where we supped; three others in different parts of the Room; a gay sociable Assembly, and four well instructed Waiters!" (Farish, p. 34)

Then on December 29, the Carters "…had a large Pye cut to Day to signify the Conclusion of the Holidays." (Ibid, p. 43)


The colonists continued the traditional holiday foods from England, with Virginians contributing additional local foods.

The eighteenth century Virginia dinner, served between two and four o'clock PM., consisted of two courses following the English manner. The first course was made up of all the non-dessert foods: several meat dishes, vegetables, relishes, and bread. The colonists enjoyed vegetables more than the English, and served more of them with this course. The second course in Virginia was a true dessert course, limited to sweet dishes and fresh fruits, unlike that in England in which smaller cuts and meats were set out with desserts. On formal occasions in some households fruits and nuts were served separately on a bare table, as a "postscript" to the dinner, and a round of toasts would be drunk. (Carson)

The fashionable Virginia housewife followed the guidance of the English cookbooks not only for receipts and appropriate foods, but also for setting the table of these courses. Featured dishes and side dishes were balanced in the arrangement on the table as to colors, sizes, and shapes of dishes and foods.


English cookbooks included suggested bills of fare for each month with the most appropriate seasonal foods The December suggestions from three of these English receipt books that were available for sale at the Virginia Gazette printing office are included on the following pages. Holiday meals in the smartest homes would be composed of these foods.

  • 1.E. Smith's The Compleat Housewife: or Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's Companion, 1742.
  • 2.Sarah Harrison's The House-Keeper's Pocket-book, and Compleat Family Cook, 1755.
  • 3.Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1796.

The London, 1742, edition of E. Smith's The Compleat HOUSEWIFE: or Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's COMPANION (the eleventh edition), starts off with "A BILL of FARE for every Season of the Year," and suggests for December the following:


—First Course.

  • Westphalia-Ham and Fowls
  • Soop with Teal
  • Turbot, with Shrimps and Oysters
  • Marrow Pudding
  • Chine of Bacon and Turkey
  • Battalia Pye
  • Roasted Tongue and Udder and Hare
  • Pullets and Oysters, Sausages &c
  • Minced Pyes
  • Cods-head with Shrimps.

Another First Course

  • Vermicelly Soop
  • Fish of Sorts
  • Jugged Hare
  • Beef a-la-royal
  • Scotch Collops
  • French Patty, with Teal, &c.
  • Rice Pudding

Second Course.

  • Roasted Pheasants and Partridges
  • Bisque of Shell-fish
  • Tansy
  • Dish of roasted Ducks and Teals
  • Jole of Sturgeon
  • Pear Tart creamed
  • Dish of Sweetmeats
  • Dish of Fruit of Sorts

Another Second Course

  • Snipes, with a Duck in the Middle
  • Broiled Chickens, with Mushrooms
  • Pickles of Sorts
  • White Fricassee of Tripe
  • Pulled Chickens
  • Stewed Oysters
  • Stewed Calves-feet
  • Curdoons."

The Williamsburg edition (printed by William Parks, 1742) of E. Smith's The Compleat HOUSEWIFE includes "A BILL of FARE for every Season of the Year," although the printer-noted in his Preface that he was deleting some recipes which appeared in the English edition "the Ingredients or Materials for which, are not to be had

The House-Keeper's Pocket-book, and Compleat Family Cook. by Sarah Harrison, 1755.

Provisions for DECEMBER.
HAM and Fowls, with Carrots, Cabbage, and Collyflowers.
Buttock of Beef boil'd, with Roots and Greens.
Leg of Pork boil'd, with Turnips, and served with Pease Pudding.
Sirloin of Beef roasted, and served with Colly flowers in a Dish by themselve, the Beef garnished with Horse-radish scrap'd.
Chine of Mutton
Haunch of Venison boiled, with Cabbage and Collyflowers.
Pigeons and Bacon boiled, with Greens and Roots.
Leg of Mutton boil'd, with Turnips and Greens.
Leg of Lamb boil'd, with Spinage, to be served with the Loin fried in steaks, and laid about the Dish; there must be some Gravy in a Bason.
Chine of Pork and Turkey, served with Greens and Gravy, garnish'd with Lemon.
Boil'd Pullets, with Oyster Sauce.
Roasted Tongues and Udder, served with Venison Sauce.
Rabbets boil'd, with Onions.
A Hare grigg'd, garnished with Lemon, or Red Beet-Roots.
Calf's Head, dress'd in a grand Manner; with Cock's Combs, Mushrooms, Oysters, and Forc'd Meat Balls, and garnished with Sausages, and Lemon or Orange.
Cod's Head boil'd, with Shrimps and Oyster Sauce, and garnished with Smelts or Gudgeons, and fried Oysters, and Horse-radish scrap'd.
Stew'd Carp or T[illegible], garnished with Eels Spitchcock and Lemon, with Anchovy Sauce in a Bason.
Minc'd Pies.
Stew'd Soles.
Lumber Pie.
Veal Pie.
Squab Pie.
Soups, of Gravy or Pease, or Plumb Pottage.
Venison Pasty.

Rabbets roasted.
Hare roasted, writh a Pudding in the Belly; to be serv'd with Gravy in the Dish, and Venison Sauce in a Bason. Capons roasted, and served with Gravy, garnished with Sausages and Lemon.
Turkey roasted, with Forc'd-Meat in the Crop, and serv'd with Gravy in the Dish, garnished with Lemon; there may be boil'd Onions in a Plate, or Pap Sauce.
Pheasants roasted, with Gravy in the Dish, and Pap Sauce on a Plate. Note, one of the Pheasants may be larded, garnished with Lemon.
Partridges roasted; to be served with Gravy Sauce in the Dish, and garnished with Lemon; you must have some Pap Sauce served with them on a Plate.
Woodcocks roasted, and serv'd on Toasts of Bread, garnish'd with Lemon or Orange, with Gravy in a Bason. Snipes roasted, to be served with Gravy in a Dish, and garnished with Lemon.
Larks roasted on Skewers, with Slices of Bacon between them, to be served on the Skewers, with dried Crumbs of Bread under the, and Gravy Sauce in a Bason.
Wild Ducks roasted, to be served with Gravy under them, garnished with Lemon.
Teal, Easterlings, or Wid[illegible]s roasted, to be served as Wild Ducks. B[illegible]ard roasted, to be serv'd with Gravy in the Dish, and Pap Sauce on a Plate; the Garnish is Lemon or Red Beets.
Squab Pigeons, roasted, garnished with Orange, and some Butter and Parsley in a Bason.
Potted Lampray.
Potted Chards.
Fowl of Sturgeon.
Potted Venison.
Tansey, garnished with Orange.
Pear Tart, with Cream.
Fore Quarter of Lamb roasted, to be served writh Mint shred small in a Saucer, with Vinegar and Sugar; the Lamb should be garnished with Orange, and there should be a Sallad served at the same Time.
Tarts and Cheesecakes.

China Oranges, Chestnuts, Pomgrantes, Pears, dried Grapes, Apples.
N. B. In this Month Brawn is in Season, and must always be served either in the Collar or Slices, before the Dinner comes on the Table; to be eat with Mustard.
Oysters must be opened and laid in their Shells in a Dish, and served before Dinner.
It is to be observed, that in the Course of Dinners, the g[illegible]r Meats should always be set first on the Table; and there should never be two Dishes at a Dinner of the same Sort of Meat, tho' they are diversified by boiling one and roasting the other, or baking it; but make as much Variation as you can.
All boil'd Meats should be Served first, baked Meats next, and roasted last.



by Hannah Glasse, 1796


Cod's Head.
Chickens.Stewed Beef.Fricando of Veal.
Almond Puddings.Soup Santé.Calves' Feet Pie.
[illegible]y small Fillet of Pork, With sharp Sauce.Currey.Tongue.
Chine of Lamb.
Wild Fowls.
Lambs' Fry.Orange Puffs.Sturgeon.
Gallantine.Jellies.Savoury Cake.
Ragooed Palates.
Savoy Calces.Dutch Beef scraped. China Oranges.
Lambs' Tails.Half Moon.Calves' Burs.
Jargonel Pears.Potted Larks.Lemon Biscuits.
Fricassee of Crawfish.

N. B. In your fist course always observe to send up all Kinds of Garden Stuff suitable to your Meat, &c. in different Dishes, on a Water-dish filled with hot Water on the Side-Table; and all [yo]ur Sauce in Boats or Basons, to answer one another at the [C]orners.

MEAT. House-lamb, and doe-venison.
POULTRY. Geese; turkies, fowls, chickens, pullets, pigeons, woodcocks, snipes, larks, wild ducks, teal, widgeon, hares, rabbits, dottrels, partridges, pheasants.
FISH. The same as last month.


MEAT. House-lamb, pork, doe-venison.
POULTRY. The same as last month.
FISH. Turbot, sturgeon, gurnets, dorees, holoberts, barbel, smelts, cod, codlings, soles, carp, gudgeons, eels, perch, anchovy, perriwinkles, cockles, muscles, oysters, brill, and scollop.

VEGETABLES. Many sorts of cabbages and savoys, spinage, and some cauliflowers in the conservatory, and artichokes in the sand, roots as in last month, small sallading on hot-beds, also mint, tarragon, and cabbage-lettuce under grasses, chervil, celery, and endive blanched; sage, thyme, savory, beet-leaves, tops of young beets, parsley, sorrel, spinage, leeks and sweet-marjoram, marigold flowers, and mint dried; asparagus on the hot­bed, and cucumbers on the plants sown in July and August ; onions, garlick, shalots, and rocombole.

FRUIT. Apples, pears, medlars, chestnuts, walnuts, services. grapes, hazel-nuts, and oranges.


Diaries and letters describe Christmas season foods prepared and served in eighteenth century Virginia.

William Byrd in 1736, wrote a letter about the Randolph's impatience to return to Williamsburg after a holiday visit at Westover. Lady Randolph seemed to be anxious to preside over the holiday cookery of her own household. Byrd writes: "In hopes you may be safe at Williamsburg by this Time and my Lady up to the Elbow in Sausages and Black Puddings …" (Bullock, p. 237) Since December was a month for hog-killing, it is very likely that the sausages and puddings were from freshly killed pork. Black puddings are an English tradition made with freshly killed hog's blood, grits and various seasonings mixed together and stuffed into the hog's guts as sausages and boiled. (Glasse, p. 279)

In a diary Sally Cary Fairfax of Toulston in Fairfax County, 1771-1772, writes: "On Thursday the 26th of December, Mama made 6 mince pies and 7 custards, 12 tarts, 1 chicking pye, and 4 puddings for the ball." (CWF Research Files)

Theophilus Bradbury talked about dining with President and Martha Washington in Philadelphia on Christmas eve, 1795. Although not in Virginia, the Washingtons may have served similar meals when at Mount Vernon:

"Last Thursday I had the honor of dining with the President in company with the Vice President, the Senators, and Delegates of Massachusetts, and some other members of Congress, about 20, in all.

In the middle of the table was placed a piece of table furniture about six feet long and two feet wide, rounded at the ends. It was either of wood gilded, or polished metal, raised about an inch with a silver rim round it like that round a tea board; in the center was a pedestal of plaster of Paris with images upon it, and on each end figures; male and female, of the same. It was very elegant and used for ornament only. The dishes were placed all around, and there was an elegant variety of roast beef, veal, turkeys, ducks, fowls, hams, etc. puddings, jellies, oranges, apples, nuts, almonds, figs, raisins, and a variety of wines and punch.

We took our leave at six, more than an hour after the candles were introduced. No lady, but Mrs. Washington dined with us. We were waited on by four or five men servants dressed in livery."


From the diary of Martha Daingerfield Bland Blodget at Cawson's, Prince George County, we have a Virginia Christmas dinner described:

Cawson's December 25th, 1796. Christmas dinner a very large rock (fish) from Chickahomony: saddle of the finest mutton I ever saw, ham of new bacon, wild ducks and roast turkey, veal's head, cabbage, pudding, Colliflowers, artichoakes, cheese-cakes, gooseberry tarts jellys, creams, raisons, grapes, nuts, almonds, apples, etc. (Ibid)

Again there is mention of fresh pork "ham of new bacon." Undoubtedly each Virginia Christmas season meal included a ham. In this menu we see seasonal vegetables that follow those suggested for December in Hannah Glasse's Cookbook: cabbage, cauliflower, and artichokes.

In the diary of Frances Baylor Hill of Hillsborough, King and Queen County, Virginia, 1797, we read:

Monday, Xmas-day 1797 We had a fine Bowl of Egg-nog and a large Cake, no body to eat and drink with us by George and Fanny Gwathmey. I never in my life spent such a lonesome Xmas. (Ibid)

Egg-nog did not become popular until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; but arrack punch, rum punch, and rum flip were popular throughout the eighteenth century, as well as ale, beer, and cider. Wines and liquors that were offered included imported wines like Madeira and clarets (bordeaux), French brandy, sherry, and Virginia-made wines and cordials. (Ibid)

In his diaries William Byrd talked about various foods in his diet during the Christmas season. For the year 1711-1712, during the holiday season Byrd remained at home, having guests for dinner some of the time, and dining on roast beef, boiled beef, broiled goose, turkey and chine, broiled turkey, partridges, roast pork, wild goose, etc. (Ibid)

During 1739-1740 at Christmas Byrd remained at Westover. During the holidays he had frequent guests for dinner, and mentioned eating spareribs, tongue and udder, roast goose, goose giblet, turkey and oysters, roast turkey, cold souse, boiled chine, beefsteak, venison pastry, roast beef, and roast venison. (Ibid)

During the 1740-1741 holiday season, Byrd remained at Westover. He had dinner guests during the season, and mentioned eating spareribs, mutton, sausage and eggs, minced mutton, mutton steak, roast turkey, roast goose, broiled turkey, salt fish and eggs, pork and peas, souse, boiled pigeon and bacon, broiled pigeon, boiled pork, boiled tongue. (Ibid)


From Governor Botetourt's account book, in December, 1769, we can study the foods that were being prepared during the Christmas season at the Palace. Foods listed in the account for purchase include:

Dec. 12Bottle of flower of mustard, wild fowl, 19 doz. eggs, venison, veal
Dec. 142 turkeys
Dec. 15cream and milk, oysters, shoat
Dec. 161 barrel limes, wild fowl
Dec. 17Hares, oysters, cream and milk, 6 shell drakes, 15 chickens, 4 chickens, 2 turkeys, partridges, sweetmeats
Dec. 184 doz. eggs, hares, onions, 8 chickens, mutton, Linder nuts, qtr. shoat, 3 doz. china oranges, 20 ½ lb. veal
Dec. 20damsons, cherries, turkeys, side shoat, 13 rock fish
Dec. 222 qtrs. shoats, 4 chickens
Dec. 236 partridges, cranberries
Dec. 24partridges, 8 dozen eggs, 4 chickens
Dec. 30Swan, 4 ducks, butter
Dec. 31milk, 3 qtrs. mutton, mushrooms, shoat

One can imagine the tarts, puddings, and other desserts baked during the week before Christmas Day using the damson plums, cherries, cranberries, and eggs. The limes and oranges would be good in punches, creams, and for garnishing. The variety of meats follows those suggested for the month of December in the English cookbooks: wild fowl, venison, veal, turkeys, oysters, hares, chickens, mutton, partridges, shoat (pork), and ducks. There are "13 rock fish" listed on December 20. As cited previously, Martha Blodget of Virginia described "A very large rock (fish) from Chickahomony" in the Christmas dinner at Cawson's in 1796.


Some receipts specify Christmas season uses. Cherries, gooseberries, green peas and beans must have been important ingredients for Christmas. foods.

Hannah Glasse includes receipts for preserving fruits and vegetables to use at Christmas: "To Keep Green Peas, Beans, etc. and Fruit, fresh and good til Christmas," (p. 373) and "To Keep Green Gooseberries till Christmas". (Glasse, p. 373)

In Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery there is a receipt "To Keepe Cherries yt You May Have Them For Tarts At Christmas Without Preserving." The cherries are laid into a barrel of hay in layers with the hay. Then it is suggested to set them under a feather bed "…where one lyeth continually, for ye warmer they are kept, ye better it is. see they be neere noe fire. thus doeing, you may have cherries any time of ye yeare. You allsoe may keep cherries or other fruits in glasses, close stopt from ayre." (Hess, p. 153)

In the Williamsburg Art of Cookery there are receipts for "Plumb Pudding," and "Christmas Pudding," calling for currants, raisins, orange and lemon peel, nuts (walnuts, almonds), suet, citron, bread crumbs, variety of spices, and brandy. The puddings are boiled in molds or cloth bags. (Bullock)

For the ambitious cook, Hannah Glasse also includes a receipt "To make a Yorkshire Christmas-Pie." (p. 196) Into a thick standing crust several boned fowl, poultry, and game are placed with seasoning and butter. All is baked together for several hours topped with a thick crust. Note that "These Pies are often sent to London in a Box as Presents; therefore the Walls must be well built." The recipe follows:

To make a Yorkshire Christmas Pie.

FIRST make a good standing crust, let the wall and bottom be very thick; bone a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge, and a pigeon ; season them all very well, take half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of nutmegs, a quarter of an ounce of clove, and half an ounce of black pepper, all beat fine together, two large spoonfuls of salt, and then mix them together; open the fowls all down the back, and bone them ; first the pigeon, then the partridge; cover them ; then the fowl, then the goose, and then the turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the crust, so as it will look only like a whole turkey; then have a hare ready cased and wiped with a clean cloth; cut it to pieces, that is, joint it; season it, and lay it as close as you can on one side; on the other side woodcocks, moor game, and what sort of wild fowl you can get; season them well, and lay them close; put at least four pounds of butter into the pie, then lay on your lid which must be a very thick one, and let it be well baked; it must have a very hot oven, and will take at least four hours.

This crust will take a bushel of flour. In this chapter you will see how to make it. These pies are often sent to London in a box, as presents; therefore the walls mull be well built.

(Glasse, p. 196)


  • 1. Bullock, Mrs. Helen. The Williamsburg Art of Cookery. Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg, 1966.
  • 2. Carson, Jane Colonial Virginia Cookery, Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg, 1968.
  • 3. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Research Department Files.
  • 4. Farish, Hunter Dickinson, Editor. Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian 1773 -1774: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion. Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia, 1978.
  • 5. Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Wakefield, Yorkshire: S. R. Publishers, 1971.
  • 6. Harrison, Sarah. The House-Keeper's Pocket-book, and Compleat Family Cook. London, 1755.
  • 7. Hess, Karen. Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery, New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.
  • 8. Smith, E. The Compleat Housewife; or Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's Companion. London: T. J. Press Ltd., 1968.