Christmas Traditions in New England
“Most Americans observed Christmas – their modern descendants’ most lavish and commercialized holiday season – on a smaller scale, or not at all. Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists, whose Calvinist heritage remained strong, traditionally ignored Christmas completely. It was a day when farmers slaughtered hogs and farm wives dipped their candles,” wrote Jack Larkin in his book “The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790-1840.”
It may seem odd to us, but to New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred, and they considered Christmas carols, decorated trees and joyful expressions a desecration of the sacred event. In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of Dec. 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense, and people were even fined for hanging decorations. That attitude was maintained until the mid-19th century when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.
In his book “The Reshaping of Everyday Life,” Larkin notes that during the early 19th century the celebration of Christmas as we know it today could be found south of New England with more elaborate celebrations by the Lutheran Germans of Pennsylvania. The people of New York City with their Dutch and English heritage celebrated by burning Yule logs, recalling the story of Saint Nicholas, and exchanging gifts. In 1822, New York Reverend Clement Moore wrote his famous poem “Twas The Night Before Christmas” for his own family. At 200 years old, that classic poem is still read on Christmas Eve to this day.
To learn more about the history of Christmas in New England, I searched through the archives of the New England Historical Society website and found an interesting article. Here is what I discovered from the article, “300 Years of Christmas.”
The first documented celebration of Christmas in New England was by French Catholics and Huguenots in 1604 in Maine. There were no Puritans in the colony to question the celebration. The previous June they had settled on Saint Croix Island along the border between New Brunswick and Maine. On a snowy Christmas Day that year they attended services, enjoyed a roaring fire, told stories, reminisced about their homeland and had a feast. It was a very cold winter that year with many of them dying, resulting in the movement of the colony to Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia.
In 1621 at Plimoth Plantation, Governor William Bradford ended an effort by the non-Puritan colonists to celebrate Christmas Day. He had called all colonists out to work, but the non-Puritans convinced him they could not work on this important day as a matter of conscience. He let them off from work, but they soon took to the streets to play at sports, forcing Bradford to send them back to work as a matter of his conscience.
During the next two centuries the Puritan resistance to Christmas as we know it began to diminish, especially among young people. By the mid-19th century English writer Charles Dickens influenced how many people see Christmas as a time of charity and good cheer among friends and family. His 1843 story, “A Christmas Carol” popularized the idea of a more secular holiday, celebrating Christian values of kindness and generosity. The influx of immigrants also changed the way Americans viewed Christmas.
Here is a link to the New England Historical Society website article “300 Years of New England Christmas”: https://newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/300-years-new-england-christmas/
One of our cherished traditions of the holiday season is the Christmas Tree. Today as you gather with family and friends, there is a good chance the distinct aroma of a conifer tree will fill the room. For the majority of New Englanders during the early 19th century, the Christmas tree was an oddity. The first recorded Christmas tree on display in America was in the 1830s by German settlers in Pennsylvania who brought their traditions with them from their home country. Here in New England, Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols as late as the 1840s. But that sentiment was to change over the next few decades.
In 1846, Great Britain’s popular Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert were shown in the “Illustrated London News” standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Victoria was much loved and what was done at her court immediately became fashionable. That fashion soon traveled across the Atlantic to east coast American society. The Christmas tree had arrived to stay.
During the Civil War Christmas came to mean family sentiments and benevolence, as well as an escape from the carnage and destruction of the war. By 1870 the federal government declared Christmas a national holiday and by then many American families put up a Christmas tree.
What type of Christmas tree do you have at your house this year? I remember the first year I celebrated Christmas in Connecticut. It was December 1981 and funds were a bit tight that year, so I hiked into my woods and cut down a white pine about 8 feet tall. It stood proud in our living room, all decorated for the holiday, filling the house with a wonderful aroma. To us it was just as beautiful as a professionally grown tree.
I extend to each of you a joyous Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas. In the coming year I hope you’ll join me, and together let us care for, enjoy and pass on this beautiful place we call home — The Last Green Valley.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 860-774-3300.
Exploring The Last Green Valley, Sunday, December 25, 2022
The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the following article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.
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