Popular Posts


Friday, March 27, 2009

Christmas Memories 1659-1959

Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was first published in 1823 and is now more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas." Moore's poem helped to establish Santa Claus as shown in this vintage illustration.

This 60-year old Christmas greeting from United Opinion publisher John Drysdale and editor Edward Schriftgiesser and their staff expresses best wishes for the 1948 holiday season.

Originally published on December 24, 2008
Journal Opinion

Christmas “is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty…by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling…” That is Puritan Cotton Mather’s condemnation of Christmas. From New England’s earliest days to the present there have been mixed feelings about how Christmas has been observed and how those observances have changed.

In 1659, Puritans outlawed Christmas in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For them it was a compromise holiday adopted by the early Church to win converts from among pagans who celebrated the winter solstice. According to Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, the Puritans also objected to the unruly manner in which the season was celebrated in Europe characterized by “rowdy displays of excessive eating and drinking, aggressive begging and mocking of established authority.” Nissenbaum describes how Christmas was “transformed from an unruly carnival season into the quintessential American family holiday.” These changes are reflected in the way in which Christmas has been celebrated in our local area.

While the Puritan opposition continued long after its ban had been repealed, descendants of the Pilgrims preached on the religious essence of Christmas They held services with carols and encouraged seasonal charity. These are practices that had become part of the religious life of other denominations in America. Many religious leaders continued to object to the excesses of the carnival-like celebrations that were often typical of the season in many communities around the nation.

There was a continuing “battle” over the celebration between religious and secular activities. But, as Nissenbaum notes, “Unlike today, all of these were public rituals…no intimate family gatherings or giving of Christmas presents to expectant children…it was neither a domestic holiday nor a commercial one.” Changes to that began in the early 1800s, the result of activities of a group of New York gentlemen, including John Pintard, Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore.

These Knickerbockers were moved by both the plight of the urban poor and the “acute social threat” of gang celebrations characterized by violence and home invasions. They encouraged more socially acceptable Christmas rituals. Irving’s writings described child-centered family celebrations and Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” created Santa Claus much as we picture him today. While some parts of society wanted to have Santa as the “Lord of Misrule, master of the Christmas carnival,” he survived as the kindly maker of toys for children.

The giving of gifts and charity were encouraged by commercial interests. The first Christmas advertisements began to appear in New England newspapers in the 1820’s.

Santa Claus was included to encourage sales. Almost as quickly as these promotions began to appear, so did concern that to avoid spoiling their children, parents needed to balance indulgence with restraint.

The “invented tradition” of Santa Claus in a domestic gift-centered setting encouraged the use of the Christmas tree after 1830. Evergreens had been used as Christmas decorations for centuries. Public Christmas trees were used in Vermont by the 1850’s, if not before. By the time of the Civil War, Christmas had become a legal holiday in many states and was firmly established as both a religious and domestic celebration.

Local newspapers from the latter half of the 19th century reflect the growth of
the Christmas season. While Bradford’s National Opinion had only a few seasonal advertisements in the 1860’s, local columns told of Christmas Festivals from West Fairlee and Lyme to Newbury and Woodsville. A Christmas Eve service at the West Bradford Methodist Church featured “a Christmas tree, well-filled with fruits of all kinds.” In a custom that continued in some towns until the 1920’s, families would exchange presents in this community setting. Santa Claus appeared in Orford at the Congregational Church in December, 1871 “along with a large lot of presents for all.”

In the years that followed, Christmas meant that area merchants took full advantage of Christmas sales. In 1874, a front page article announced that “Agents for Santa Claus have been in Bradford and called upon most of the traders in town and left a large quantity of goods suitable for Christmas and New Year’s presents.” A later edition reported that M.P. Warren of Fairlee “Just returned from Boston and it is surprising what Christmas gifts you can buy for 10 cts.”

Newspapers went on to report a relatively new practice: “Many of the citizens of Bradford had Christmas trees at their homes.” Another new practice was the use of picture post-card type greeting exchanged between family and closest friends. Donation parties were held for ministers to supplement meager salaries. Prudent in its reporting, the newspapers did not mention any public or private rowdy alcohol-fueled behaviors, although they probably did exist locally.

A number of local elders have shared their Christmas memories for this article. These memories reflect Christmas among rural families and of a simpler time. For many, Christmas was a religious observance. That included Christmas Eve services at local churches as well as public or Sunday school programs. With religion very much a part of the public school, singing of Christmas carols and nativity pageants were common. Some remember the grade-by-grade promotion from pageant cherobs to the roles of Mary and Joseph. Eris Eastman of Bradford recalls elaborate performances with “spoken pieces” in both Corinth’s Town Hall and Bradford Academy’s auditorium. .

Christmas trees were harvested on family or neighboring farms. Whether set up in advance or on Christmas Eve, these trees would be secured by two small boards nailed together. Decorations were often homemade, strings of colored paper, popcorn or cranberries and gingerbread men. Earliest trees often had candles that were lighted under close supervision and with a pail of water close by. The United Opinion of 1909 mentions that the Piermont church had given up candles “less Santa Claus’s whiskers catch on fire.” Stockings were hung to be filled with small gifts and fruit. Children were admonished to be good, for bad children might receive just a lump of coal or a rotten potato.

Some families observed such traditions as fasting before Midnight Mass, followed by feasting on festive goodies. Food was very much a part of the season for all. Cookies, fruitcake, candy and suet pudding were all part of the celebration. Whereas some had homegrown turkey for Christmas, ninety-eight year old Eunice Collins of North Haverhill recalls that her father would sacrifice the largest rooster on their farm for dinner. Dorothy Gibson Stevens of Wells River tells of a delicious chicken pie made annually by her grandmother.

Harold Haskin’s History of Bradford reports that colored lights in homes came into use in the l920’s in those areas that had electricity. He writes “It would have been deemed unseemly to have attempted any sort of display to emphasize oneself or one’s home.” The first electric lights on an outdoor tree were on a lawn on South Main Street. By the 1930’s most business districts and some village homes were colorfully lighted.

Money was scarce and therefore gifts were simple and usually homemade. Robert and Priscilla Fadden of North Haverhill, recall Christmas as they were growing up in Piermont in the 1920’s. Robert recalls that he received homemade gifts such as knitted items or a homemade toy. Some store-bought items such as pants or gloves were purchased in Bradford. Priscilla recalls the Piermont school pageant and tree at the town hall, but also recalls that “slow but sure, gifts began to be given at home.” Her birthday was December 24, but she didn’t recall receiving a double bounty of gifts.

Lucy Dutton Farley of Wells River recalls that in the 1930s, Christmas was a simple time. Homemade gifts and homegrown food were among her favorite memories. Her family joined others for free movies at Woodsville’s Tegu’s Theatre complete with small gifts. Roley Moore of Woodsville has similar memories: of rabbit for Christmas dinner and a whole fifty cents to spend on gifts for his mother, brother and grandparents. Ten cents for each left young Roley with a dime to buy a game for himself, something he purchased after bargaining down the price at a local store.

Those were depression times and as in the periods after World War I and the Flood of 1927, there were calls for donations to help the less fortunate. The amount of anticipated gifts depended on the fortunes of one’s family, with a bag of marbles or small doll being a major gift for some. Roy Tyler, born in Haverhill in 1920 and now of Orford, recalls that when his family lost their farm in McIndoe Falls, their Christmases were “lean.” In contrast, Eris Eastman recalls that her Taplin Hill family was able to provide “lots of gifts at home.”

The United Opinion of December 23, 1938 stated “Nineteen thirty-eight has been a year full of struggle…brought much suffering and anxiety to many people. As we wish our friends a Christmas of good will may we go forward with a determination to make the New Year happier than the old year.“ But the years to come would be darkened by world war and the separation of many from their loved ones.

Carol Tyler recalls the deep feeling of loneliness when she and Roy were separated by his service in the Army, “with letters few and far between.” She recalls seeing the l942 film Holiday Inn with its Vermont location in which Bing Crosby sang Irving Berlin’s A White Christmas. In 1942, the United Opinion noted the government discouragement of the public use of electric decorative lights at Christmas because of “the use of critical materials, consumption of electric power, and possibility of attack…”

The prosperity of the post-war years had its impact on Christmas. But as before, each family fashioned its own traditions. Perhaps it was saving in a Christmas Club or the arrival of packages from distant relatives. Shopping was at the overflowing stores in Bradford, Wells River or Woodsville. There was the Sears and Roebuck catalog and the Saturday Evening Post with its Rockwell Christmas cover. Putting up the Christmas tree with glass ornaments, icicles and hopelessly twisted strings of lights was part of the ritual. One might receive Tinker Toys, Scrabble or a Barbie. If good, Santa might bring a Radio Flyer wagon. For many adults there were parties. The religious significance of the holiday was observed. Radio and later television programs such as Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver told of Christmas practices beyond the scope of many local families.

In asking area residents of age to reflect on the changes to the Christmas season, the response is of one voice. They are disparaging of the commercialization, the lack of authenticity and appreciation of gifts given. They despair over their grandchildren’s extensive wish lists. They look back to simpler times, with memories often made misty by changing circumstances.

What is interesting is that such negative reactions to the changes in the celebration of Christmas have been with us for more than a century and a half. But then, just imagine the darkening days of winter without the holiday. We would, out of seasonal despair, create a similar festival. Remember, that despite the hassle, there is in the holiday, the traditional and heartfelt wishes for peace and good will toward others.

No comments:

Post a Comment