Many people have a romantic image of Christmas in colonial America. While the holiday was observed in some colonies that was not the case in early Massachusetts.
Long before the Grinch, the Puritans stole Christmas, or at least banned it during the seventeenth century. The date, December 25, did not appear in the bible and the Puritans objected to the “mad Mirth...long Eating...hard Drinking... and rude Reveling” that seemed to accompany the holiday.
New Year’s Day, 1776
Christ Church, Cambridge
During the eighteenth century, the holiday made some inroads. By the time of the American Revolution, some Boston newspapers carried ads for Christmas items. (With the end of Puritan rule, some colonists observed the holiday.) Still when General George Washington came to Massachusetts in 1775, his New England officers did not celebrate Christmas. It was a tradition in Anglican Virginia. The Anglican Christ Church in Harvard Square - favored by the Tory elite – has been shuttered. At Martha Washington’s request it was reopened for New Year’s Eve services.
Christmas began to catch on in the nineteenth century as immigrants came to Massachusetts, bringing holiday traditions. The expansion of publishing – particularly in New York City – popularized the holiday through books and mass circulation magazines.
European immigrants brought Christmas customs.
Into the Nineteenth Century
In New York, early Dutch settlers had been more holiday positive than dour New Englanders. They told stories about Sinterklaas, the jolly and generous man that came to be known as…
The tradition began in present day Turkey with stories of Saint Nicholas, the generous bishop who helped the poor. The Dutch called him Sinterklaas and children expected gifts on his feast day December 6th. “Santa Claus” is derived from the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas.
Because Santa comes late at night there have been few reliable sightings. Early accounts filtered into Massachusetts from New York. In 1809 Washington Irving described an airborne Santa flying over the scene in a wagon.
By the time of the Civil War, Santa was on the scene. George Parkhurst, of the 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry wrote home on January 2, 1863 “I am sorry that I was not at home when Santy Clause came round. I think if I had been at home he would done better by you all.”
In 1822 Clement C. Moore got a better look as described in his poem known to many as “The Night Before Christmas.” Santa actually travels in a sleigh and Moore successfully identified eight of nine reindeer. His classic description of the jolly Santa dressed in red and coming down the chimney was irresistible, even in Massachusetts. Later, political cartoonists Thomas Nast fixed the image in the public imagination.
The Night Before Christmas
Santa Claus by Thomas Nast
For many in the United States, America the Beautiful, by Falmouth’s Katherine Lee Bates, is a second national anthem. A great Christmas enthusiast, she also wrote a poem about Mrs. Santa Claus in 1889. While light in tone it has a gently feminist message. Why should Santa have all the glory “And poor little Goody Santa have nothing but the work?” In a 1950’s song Nat King Cole recognized Mrs. Claus’s role in her husband’s enterprise, noting that she “gives the brownies all their spice” and “keeps his red suit looking nice.”
Mrs. Santa Claus
The Christmas Tree
For his young son, Follen decorated a Christmas tree with small dolls, gilded eggshells and candied fruit. Candles were arranged with care on the branches. (Early Christmas trees could be an adventure.) In theatrical fashion he opened the doors at his Cambridge home. ‘The children poured in, but in a moment every voiced was hushed. Their faces were upturned to the blaze, all eyes wide open.”
Martin Luther probably created the first Christmas Tree and the tradition developed in Germany. It first appeared in Massachusetts in 1832. Charles Follen, a radical political reformer, had fled his native Germany and was teaching German and gymnastics at Harvard.
Follen Community Church, East Lexington
Committed to reform, Charles Follen became an ardent abolitionist. His wife, Eliza Cabot, of the prominent Massachusetts family, and friend John Greenleaf Whittier, later said that his outspoken opinions caused his firing at Harvard.
Follen became a Unitarian minister and began planning an octagonal church in East Lexington. Returning from New York he died in a tragic fire on board the steamship Lexington. The Follen Community Church remains. Its annual Christmas tree sales benefit local charities.
The Christmas Tree Church
Sounds of the Season
The music of Christmas is central to the holiday celebration. Several standards have a Massachusetts connection.
As a boy in Medford, Massachusetts James Lord Pierpont watched sleigh races between Medford and Malden. Contestants drove one horse sleighs, open to the elements. Pierpont went on to a checkered career that included abandoning his family for the California gold rush, and settling in Savannah, Georgia where he published the song “Jingle Bells” in 1857. A simple tune it has inspired many inventive arrangements (see Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streissand.) Pierpont later fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
First Parish Church, Wayland
Reverend Edward Hamilton Sears was a more wholesome character who served as a minister in Wayland’s First Parish Church. Depressed by the Mexican War and the persistence of slavery he experienced an emotional breakdown. In 1849 he wrote “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” The poem has a strong anti-war motivation with its hope for peace on earth.
Set to music, its first performance is uncertain. It may have been in Wayland or possibly in Quincy, at the “Church of the Presidents,” the resting place of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams and wives Abigail and Louisa Catherine Adams.
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
During the Civil War Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was also depressed after the death of his wife and wounding of his son in battle. On Christmas morning, 1864, he heard the sound of bells from his Cambridge home. Feeling forlorn at first, the sound gave him hope. His poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was also set to music and expresses the conviction that, “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth good will to men.”
I Heard the Bells on Christmas DayEndFragment
Christmas themed windows by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris at Boston’s Trinity Church
On Christmas Eve, 1941, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt, attended church services together in Washington, D.C. Churchill heard this American hymn for the first time and was struck by the lyrics. The imagery seemed to match the moment. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Reverend Philipps Brooks was another of Boston’s leading nineteenth century preachers. Working with architect H. H. Richardson, he built the magnificent Trinity Church at Copley Square. On a visit to the Holy Land (while serving at a Philadelphia church) he wrote the poem “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Reverend Phillips Brooks
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim…Charles Dickens classic Christmas Carol was first published in 1842. Dickens visited Massachusetts in 1867 and stayed at the Parker House, then a leading haunt for Boston’s literary elite. He performed several readings of the story. “Performed” is the right word. Dickens did not merely read but acted out the main parts. Dickens contributions have made Victorian imagery an indelible part of the Christmas celebration.
A Visit from Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens in performance
Just another day at the counting house for Ebenezer Scrooge
Candles and lights marking the winter solstice have been a December tradition going back to ancient times. In Ireland, during the time of Cromwell, a candle in the window on Christmas Eve was a symbol of the traditional Catholic faith and an invitation for priests to visit. Irish immigrants brought the practice with them to Massachusetts in the nineteenth century, one of many sources of this custom in America.
Early in the twentieth century Beacon Hill residents took a dim view of bright lights. “There is an undeniable charm of old-fashioned dignity in the quiet residence streets of Beacon Hill in Boston. In repose and lack of ostentation they are not of the America we know today,” explained a 1910 article in the Architecture Record.
The article went on to endorse a tasteful change. Noted architect Ralph Adams Cram and several Chestnut Street neighbors agreed to place lighted candles in the window on Christmas Eve. “The effect of a street lighted by candles in the house windows, with no shades drawn, is very pretty as can be imagined.” It remains so today.
Christmas on Beacon Hill
(In 1907 Cram revived the practice. It had started a few years earlier with the Shurtleff family on West Cedar Street.)
Peace and Goodwill
There are countless twentieth century additions to the Massachusetts Christmas tradition including Boston Pops concerts, the unique presentation of Black Nativity, and the lighting of an enormous Christmas Tree on Boston Common. (The tree is a gift from the Province of Nova Scotia, in thanks for support after a tragic explosion in Halifax Harbor during World War I.)
In our increasingly diverse America all do not celebrate Christmas and it is important to respect other great traditions. As Franklin Roosevelt said during the bleak Christmas of 1941, “Our strongest weapon …is the conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man, which Christmas Day signifies.” Recognizing a common humanity in a diverse world reflects the true spirit of the holiday.
McGuiggan, Amy Worf. Christmas In New England. Beverly Massachusetts: Commonwealth Editions, 2006. Highly recommended, the indispensable one volume history of all things Christmas in our six-state region
Bercuson, David and Herwig, Holger. One Christmas In Washington. New York: Overlook Press, 2005. Serious history made by colorful characters (Churchill and Roosevelt) in December of 1941