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Christmas Memories: The Holiday Has Changed Through the Years

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 was Puritan Cotton Mather’s condemnation of Christmas. From New England’s earliest days to the present there have been mixed feelings about the observance of Christmas.

In 1659, Puritans outlawed the celebration of Christmas in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For them its roots were in the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. In The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum writes that Puritans also objected to the unruliness of yuletide celebrations in Europe with “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 locally.

The Puritan opposition continued long after the ban had been repealed, with some religious leaders objecting to carnival-like celebrations. But others looked to the religious essence of Christmas, held services with carols, and encouraged seasonal charity.

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 the efforts of a group of New Yorkers, including Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore.

These Knickerbockers were moved by both the plight of the 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 survives as the kindly maker of toys.

Gift giving and charity were encouraged by commercial interests. The first Christmas advertisements began to appear in New England newspapers in the 1820s. 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. Public Christmas trees were used in Vermont and New Hampshire by the 1850s. By the 1860s Christmas was a legal holiday in many states and was firmly established as both a religious and domestic celebration.

‘Presents for All’

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 1860s, local columns told of Christmas festivals from West Fairlee and Lyme to Newbury and Woodsville. A Christmas Eve service at a West Bradford church featured “a Christmas tree, well-filled with fruits of all kinds.” Until the 1920s, many families exchanged 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, area merchants took full advantage of Christmas sales. In 1874, the Opinion 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.” It later 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 also reported on relatively new practices of home Christmas trees and the exchange of greetings card. Donation parties were held for ministers to supplement meager salaries. No mention was made of any public or private rowdy alcohol-fueled behaviors, although some probably did exist locally.

Christmas memories of local elders reflect holiday memories from a simpler time. For many, Christmas was a religious observance. That included Christmas Eve services at local churches. Public school students sang carols, staged nativity pageants and held elaborate performances with “spoken pieces.”

Families often harvested their Christmas trees locally and set them up on Christmas Eve. Decorations included strings of colored paper, popcorn or cranberries and gingerbread men. Tree candles were lit 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. Children were admonished to be good or face receiving 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. Cookies, fruitcake, candy and suet puddings were all part of the celebration. Whereas some had homegrown turkey for Christmas dinner, others recall having chicken or rabbit pie.

Let There Be Light

Harold Haskin’s History of Bradford reports that colored lights in homes came into use in the l920s in those areas with electricity. He writes, “It would have been deemed unseemly to have attempted any sort of display to emphasize oneself or one’s home.” By the 1930s most business districts and some village homes were decorated with colored lights.

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, for whom the holiday was “lean.” Gifts were simple and often homemade and depended on the fortunes of one’s family. If a gift was store bought, it was likely an article of clothing. A bag of marbles or small doll was a major gift for some. One elder recalled having a whole 50 cents to spend on gifts for his mother, brother and grandparents. Ten cents for each left the youngster with a dime to buy a game for himself.

The United Opinion of Dec. 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.

In 1942, the United Opinion noted the government’s discouragement of the public use of decorative lights at Christmas because of “the use of critical materials, consumption of electric power, and possibility of attack.”

Post-War Prosperity

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 stores in Bradford, Wells River or Woodsville. There was the Sears and Roebuck wish book 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.

December 1955 editions of Bradford’s United Opinion described the seasonal rush: “Stores in the village reported Christmas trade was excellent. The Christmas lights sparkled in store windows and in streamers across Main Street. Christmas music poured forth at frequent intervals from loud speakers, small children stared in admiration at the vast collection of toys waiting for Santa Claus…” On the 23rd, the newspaper reported that 30-below readings that week must have meant that Santa had left the door open when he left the North Pole. It went on to say, “Trains ran late throughout the week,” under the burden of Christmas mail, Christmas travelers, and crippling cold.”

One might receive Tinker Toys, a Scrabble game or a Barbie. If good, Santa might bring a Radio Flyer wagon or a bike. For many, there were parties and church services. 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.

Christmas Dreams

In asking area elders to reflect on the changes to the Christmas season, the responses were of one voice. They are disparaging of the commercialization, the lack of authenticity and appreciation for gifts given as well as expansive expectations. They look back to simpler times, with memories often made misty by changing circumstances. That is perhaps why the number one seasonal favorite includes the lyrics: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.”

What is interesting is that such negative reactions to 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.