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Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Christmas Pageants, Prayers, Parties, and More.


Children's Pageant:  This 2016 Pageant at the First Congregational Church of Thetford was typical of similar programs that have been held throughout the area for decades. (Courtesy Ray Chin)

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.

  Christmas concerts 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 established authority.”

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 1920s.

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 the children.  

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 church members.

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 shopping season.

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 1949.

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 parade.

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 Jesus.

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 saloons.

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 chair,  

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 little overhead.

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.    


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