Journal Opinion, Dec 14, 2022
In December 1939, an event occurred in Bradford that would
probably not happen today. Despite a wintry storm, 393 area residents gathered
at the Bradford Academy auditorium for the 3rd annual Christmas pageant.
Produced by the students and staff of the Academy in
cooperation with the Bradford churches and assisted by the Bradford firemen and
families, the pageant recalled the traditional Nativity story. High school
students portrayed angels, shepherds, wise men, and the holy family. The
combined choirs of the churches sang traditional Christmas hymns accompanied by
an orchestra. The audience was encouraged to join in some of the songs.
One spectator remarked: “Christmas in America is still a
happy occasion; let us be in sympathy with the millions in war-torn Europe to
whom Christmas will be just another day of anxious waiting.”
Across the area, similar Christmas pageants were held that
season in Piermont, Thetford, and Groton.
The Christmas season in 1939 had been expanded by one week
when President Roosevelt reset Thanksgiving Day to the fourth Thursday of
November rather than the last Thursday. With five Thursdays in November that
year, the holiday season was long than it had been in the past.
This column is one in a series that recognizes the
importance of the Christmas season in our area.
Previous columns, available at larrycoffin.blogspot.com, have explored the history of Christmas in
America, gift-giving, and holiday foods and sweets.
This column will explore the various holiday observances
held locally in times past. It includes
parades and pageants, holiday parties, gifts for the needy, and church
services. Wat follows is just a small sample of the Christmas season’s activities
found in local newspapers over the past 150 years.
and cantata were a significant part of the area’s Christmas festival
season. There is so much material on
this topic that I will hold it for a column next year.
Puritans objected to Christmas partly because of the unruly
way the season was celebrated in Europe, where it was characterized by “rowdy
displays of excessive eating and drinking, aggressive begging and mocking of
By the mid-19th century, Christmas was becoming
family-centered with Santa Claus bringing gifts to children. This was a
response to the rough gang activities that characterized the season in many
urban areas. Nevertheless, a tension
between religious and secular activities remained.
In the 1860s, local writers told of Christmas Festivals
throughout the area. In 1860, a Christmas Festival was held at Seminary Hall in
Newbury, complete with the Newbury Cornet Band, dramas and charades.
A Christmas Eve
service at the West Bradford Methodist Church featured “a Christmas tree filled
with fruits of all kinds.” In 1871,
Santa Claus appeared at the Orford church “along with a lot of presents for
all.” This practice of a having a
community tree for the distribution of even family gifts continued into the
The Nativity pageant depicting the birth of Christ has its
roots in medieval Europe. The first mention of a Vermont-based Nativity program
with children taking part was in 1858 in Stowe. With children as the holy
family, shepherds, wise men, and angels the story “was softened.”
Local newspapers described annual Nativity performances,
held in town halls, schools, and churches..
Sometimes they were sponsored by a local church or school, and sometimes
by a collaborative effort. Sometimes
they were held during the weeks leading up to December 25, and on Christmas Eve
or Christmas Day.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the Orford Elementary School
sponsored the annual pageant with practices during school time. The final
production was held at the West Congregational Church. Once the play was
completed, a much-anticipated Santa arrived with candy boxes and tangerines for
Having schools actively involved in a religious service
began to be discontinued after the 1962 Supreme Court decision on school
prayer. In 1967, the Vermont Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union
warned that public school programs that were “specifically religious in nature”
violated the principle of the separation of church and state.
To give variety to the pageants, there were various scripts
used to tell the traditional story. In
1935, “The Story of Xmas in Song” was presented in Wells River and in 1940 the
“The Soldier of Bethlehem” was the title of Groton’s pageant.
The First Congregational Church on Thetford Hill used the
talent of its pastor Edward Tyler who in 1967 wrote “The Messengers” and, in
1968, “Joseph Waiting.” In both cases, there were original songs written by
Sometimes, several churches combined to present the
Christmas program. In 1932, churches in
the Bradford vicinity combined to present a program of music and pageants. In
1981, churches from Haverhill, Wentworth, Warren, and Rumney joined for the
Annual Union Christmas Service.
Whether school or church based, these pageants relied on
volunteer, often mothers, to prepare costumes, shepherd crooks, angel wings,
and a manger. The primary roles were often highly sought by older children.
As schools began to hold winter holiday programs,
traditional carols were more likely to be replaced by secular music of the
season. “Let it Snow” and “Carol of the Bells” replaced “Silent Night.”
In the late 1880s, Christmas parades began to appear across
the nation. Businesses saw these
post-Thanksgiving Sant-theme parades as an opportunity to introduce the holiday
A holiday parade in Barre began in the 1930s and annually
drew hundreds of spectators. These included local residents who traveled to
Barre to enjoy the parade and the open stores.
In 1940, Bradford’s local veterans’ post took a float to the
parade. Burlington added a parade in
That same year, Concord, New Hampshire began an annual
tradition of holding a Christmas parade complete with Santa riding on a float.
In 1991, the Woodsville High Marching Band was selected to lead the Concord
Portsmouth, Littleton, and New London have held similar
holiday events. Norwich, VT has combined the idea of a Christmas parade and a
Christmas pageant in an annual downtown event that re-enacted the Nativity
story, complete with a donkey carrying Mary. More locally, the closest to a
Santa parade was the arrival of Santa on a local firetruck.
In 2012, an antique
firetruck delivered Santa to Bradford’s Midnight Madness. For the past several
years, the Corinth Volunteer Fire Department has been giving Santa Claus rides
around the area. The Bradford Fire
Department will join this parade this year.
For Christians of most denominations, church services
complete with a Christmas sermon and carols are the highlight of the observance
and center “the reason for the season.”
These services took place on the Sunday prior to December 25, on
Christmas eve, or Christmas day.
Ministers knew that Christmas services often drew a larger
congregation and put extra effort into the sermon and musical selections. As
early churches often lacked sufficient heat, lengthy sermons could be
trying. Christmas Eve candlelight
services began in the 1920s and became a traditional ending for most current
holiday church services.
For Roman Catholics, midnight mass is a high point of the
holiday. Although I could not find
evidence, it was probably celebrated annually in Woodsville’s St. Joseph’s
Catholic Church after its dedication in 1897.
The local masses held on Christmas eve, 1945, were
special. Instead of being held in
private homes as had been the practice, one was held at the Bradford Inn and
another at an inn in Wells River, both to overflow crowds. The symbolism of the
locations was not lost on participants since there was no room at the inn for
the holy family, forcing them to seek shelter in the stable for the birth of
In 1947, the mass was celebrated in the newly-constructed
Our Lady of Perpetual Help sanctuary in Bradford and, in 1948, in the new
St.Eugene’s Chapel in Wells River. Those who gathered at these events included
members of area Protestant churches.
Catholics who had
fasted before the mass often went home for a late meal. For other revelers, merry rather than Mary,
is the spirit of the season.
Even during Prohibition and the temperance movements bans on
alcohol, New Hampshire and Vermont
residents consumed liquor during the holidays.
Christmas was an excuse for imbibing, and there was often the temptation
to drink more than usual.
That was especially true in 1885 when there was an unusually
large number of drunken men in St. Johnsbury, leading to a police raid on local
For laborers, it was common practice to pass around a bottle
at the mill or shop on the last working afternoon before the holiday break. Inn
1928, a Prohibition-era house party at Newbury’s Abbot Lodge included eight
young ladies “who liked the cup that cheered.”
Office parties were a perfect way for employers to recognize
a year of hard work.
Party refreshments, however, places a certain liability on
the server. Office parties were often
moved to a restaurant for those reasons. In December 1968 Governor Philip Hoff
made the decision that no office parties would be held on state property.
The downside of that holiday partying is an increase in
alcohol-fueled automobile crashes. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is
often the deadliest for drivers. New Hampshire and Vermont have a higher
drinking rate than the country overall. The holidays can have a tragic downside
locally, the least tragic of which might be ending up in traffic court.
Of course, not all Christmas parties are defined by drink.
Numerous newspaper notices of various Christmas parties
included an early one being an outdoor skating party at Lake Fairlee in
1897. Over the years, Bradford s
Christmas Club, the Grange and other organizations, veterans posts, nursing
homes, and hospitals held parties. Private house parties were common. The number of schools that host Christmas
parties has decline.
Notices of Christmas bazaars appeared in local newspapers as
early as 1909. That year, a Christmas
bazaar was held in Newbury’s Chadwich Hall. In 1928, the Fairlee-based Rondo
had its annual bazaar. In 1940, the Social Club of Piermont and the Ladies
Society of Bradford’s Congregational Church each held an annual event. In the 1960s, the Grace Methodist Church of
Bradford held an annual bazaar and supper. These events included the sale of
handmade crafts and baked goods. Luncheons, teas or suppers helped to make
these events successful “socially and financially.”
As the number of church women declined, craft shows and flea
markets helped to fill the place of more elaborate bazaars.
In the tradition of Dickens’s “Christmas Carol,” gifts for
needy families at the holiday season has a long history in the area. In 1932,
the South Ryegate’s Woman’s club created boxes of clothing and toys for the
community’s poorest families. In the 1940’s both the Bradford Methodist Church
and Fairlee’s Rondo created baskets for the needy, sick, and shut-ins. The
Bradford Legion Post Auxiliary provided gifts for patients at White River
Junction’s VA Hospital.
In 1978, the Bradford Lions Club began Operation Santa Claus
to provide toys for needy children in the area.
For many of the years I chaired it, Oxbow’s Senior Class members were
buyers of toys and other gifts using funds raised from throughout the
community. The program was later expanded to include food baskets and winter
clothing. It will be held again this year with Bradford’s Ryan Chase as
In 1997, Barbara’s Red Stocking Christmas project began to
serve the needy of the Fairlee-Orford area. The following year, Toys for Tots
got underway in Woodsville. The response to all these programs is made
more significant because the focus is local and the donations are targeted with
Those who labor to make these local programs possible often
experience a “warm glow,” knowing that hundreds of children awaken on Christmas
morning after a visit from Santa.
As the examples above indicate, the holiday season has
expanded. It seems to now start around Halloween. These events may overshadow
Christmas day itself and the fatigue brought on by the hype makes December 26th
all that much more welcomed.
Nevertheless, Merry Christmas.
Corinth's John Morris told me the following: A youngster, playing the role of the inn keeper in the annual Christmas pageant, decided to be a bit spontaneous. When the holy family approached and asked for room, he said, "Sorry, the inn is full, but you can come in for a beer." The story does not tell us whether or not such a kind offer was made and perhaps accepted.