Christmas has become such an important part of American culture that it is hard to imagine the month of December without it. But thanks to the influence of the Puritans, who regarded it as a “papist and pagan” tradition, few New Englanders took much notice of the holiday prior to the second half of the nineteenth century. In fact, the timing of the celebration has more to do with pre-Christian festivals that marked the winter solstice than with any evidence that December 25th was the date of Christ’s birth. It was much easier for early Christians to spread their word if they were not asking converts to give up their time-honored traditions.
Most of those early traditions were boisterous celebrations, along the lines of the Roman Saturnalia. The rowdy customs continued in Europe, and despite the Puritans’ resistance, it crossed the Atlantic with many emigrants. One element of this tradition was a sort of social inversion. The rich were expected to share their wealth with the poor, sometimes even waiting on their own servants. According to Steven Nissenbaum, author of the thought-provoking book, The Battle for Christmas:
“It was not just a case of the rich giving alms to the poor, but the poor demanding gifts. In return, the poor offered something of true value in a paternalistic society: their goodwill. Traditionally, it does not seem to have constituted a challenge to the authorities, but was tolerated by the elite, perhaps as a kind of safety valve that contained class resentments.”
As time went on these traditions took on more elements of class warfare, and became increasingly violent. Nissenbaum sees the evolution of Christmas into a child-centered holiday as a response to this threat. Santa Claus was essentially invented in 1823 with the publication of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as “Twas the night before Christmas”). And of course the “jolly old elf’s” appearance as a rotund, bearded man, much as we picture him today, came from Thomas Nast’s classic drawing, first published in Harper’s Weekly in 1863.
Nissenbaum points out that with the powerful adults giving gifts to the less powerful children, the new version of Christmas was in some ways similar to the earlier traditions. But now it was all within the relatively private sphere of the family, rather than between differing social classes. The nineteenth century also saw changing attitudes towards childhood. After the 1840s, children entered the work force at an older age, and around 1850 toys and games made specifically for children became less expensive and more readily available. While we all complain about the commercialization of Christmas, Christmas actually helped to create the consumer culture that has merchants depending on the holiday, sometimes for their economic survival.
This year we will be decorating the first floor of Harrington House as it might have been decorated for Christmas in the 1880s. By then the holiday was well-established throughout New England. The December 13, 1889 issue of The Sentinel, published semi-monthly in Freeport, included several notices such as “W.C. Fogg has a nice line of Xmas Cards, Booklets, Toilet and Fancy Articles, Toys, etc.” Frank B. Clark, at 515 Congress Street in Portland, advertised on the front page “My Christmas Goods are all Open and I have a splendid assortment of Books, Booklets, Photograph Albums, Jewelry, Pocket Books, Plush Boxes of all kinds and a great variety of goods too numerous to mention.” Apparently Freeporters were willing to travel to the “big city” to do some of their Christmas shopping (of course today, thousands come to Freeport for the same reason).
Here in Freeport there were community celebrations as well. The December 27, 1889 issue of The Sentinel describes a gathering in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood, where “the schoolhouse was well filled and the audience were entertained with music, declamations, dialogues, etc. After the entertainment came the distribution of gifts, the display of which was very fine. Two trees were more than loaded. The happy company adjourned about 9:30 o’clock.” The same issue of The Sentinel also described a Christmas tree at the Baptist Church, reporting that “The presents were very choice and pretty.”
We hope that you will find time during the busy holiday season to visit us at Harrington House for “A Coastal Christmas,” and recapture a bit of the spirit of those past community gatherings.
Note: We wish to thank Colleen Sanders for providing much of the research for this article. Steven Nissenbaum is quoted from an interview in an article by Berit Haugen Keyes at http://www.threemonkeysonline.com/als/_battle_for_christmas_stephen_nissenbaum_christmas_traditions.html.