Preservation Virginia Blog


The Fascinating Holidays of Colonial Virginia

When colonists first settled in Virginia, they brought many holidays and traditions from their countries of origin with them. Although many of these early holidays would form the basis for modern customs, the characteristics and meanings of said holidays were different from modern ones in surprising and fascinating ways.

Candle | ©Joe Barker/Flickr

 Candlemas Day

Not to be confused with Christmas, Candlemas took place on February 2nd. A Christian event primarily characterized by feasting and the lighting of holy candles, the holiday also featured another, more unusual tradition. Inspired by customs brought to the United States by English and German immigrants, many colonists believed if a hedgehog saw its shadow on Candlemas Day, forty more days of winter would follow. This tradition of predicting the length of winter weather would eventually adopt a different animal as its prophet and become known as Groundhog Day.

Maypole | ©Lukey/Flickr

May Day

Held on May 1st, the aptly named May Day celebrated the beauty of springtime. Early in the morning, colonial Virginians would go “a-maying,” which consisted of venturing out to gather flowers. During the afternoon, the colonists would then raise a pole in the center of the festivities called a “maypole” and decorate it with flowers picked during the morning. Long ribbons were also attached to the pole, which the colonists held onto as they danced and sang around it.

Bell | ©Matthias Mueller/Flickr

All Hallow’s Eve

Celebrated on October 31, the night before the Christian festival of All Hallow’s Day or All Saints’ Day, All Hallow’s Eve was characterized in England by the ringing church bells for the souls in purgatory. People dressed in black would also parade the streets, crying out for souls of the dead. Almanacs show All Hallow’s Eve spread to North America during colonial times, however it is unclear how the holiday was celebrated or if it was widespread. One thing that is clear, however, is by the 19th century, the holiday had a new name — Halloween.

Harvest | ©Kevin Rheese/Flickr

Harvest Festivals

Celebrated during the autumn months, various harvest festivals served as a respite and a time for giving thanks after the harvesting of autumn crops had concluded. The nature of these harvest festivals varied by region, and it seems they served as more general celebrations of the harvest rather than specific ceremonies. In any case, these harvest festivals would form the basis of another famous modern holiday — Thanksgiving.

Snow | John K/Flickr


Although Christmas was celebrated by colonial Virginians under the same name as the modern holiday, the actual celebrations during the Christmas season were quite different. Many towns would begin the season by designating a colonist as the “Lord of Misrule,” who would then dress in yellow and green and lead Christmas day celebrations. The holiday was hard for many colonists, however, as the winter months often lead to many deaths. As a result, it was likely a more somber holiday for many.

Preservation Virginia is a private, non-profit organization and statewide historic preservation leader founded in 1889 that is dedicated to preserving, promoting, and serving as an advocate for Virginia’s cultural and architectural history.