Christmas, Then and Now
A look back at Christmas in Plymouth County Two Centuries Ago
It’s a frigid morning here “on the Duxborrow side” of the bay from Plymouth, with sea-ice forming in the coves — the season of the winter solstice, of Christmas, of Hanukkah, and of other celebrations of the astronomical changes afoot in the heavens; so I hope you will forbear me a few holiday thoughts.
First, a housekeeping note: I’ve added a Paypal link here —https://www.paypal.com/paypalme/plymouthcountyobserv ) — as well at the end of this article to allow readers to donate a holiday “tip” should they so desire (my full name, I should note, is John Benjamin Cronin, in case there is concern about who John Cronin is on Paypal — it’s me!) Now to the matter at hand:
( “O the holly she bears a berry!” American Holly on Kingston Bay, December, 2022. Southeastern Massachusetts is the extreme northern limit of the American Holly’s range; photo credit — J. Benjamin Cronin )
One of the things I find most compelling about history is the way in which what is “traditional” changes; in our time, what is considered traditional, at this time of year, is for Christians, as well as non Christians, to put up Christmas Trees, to buy presents for friends and loved ones, to attend Christmas concerts, pageants, festivals, etc., and, for some, perhaps, to attend a religious service on Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, or Epiphany (which is when the Orthodox Christians of the world celebrate Christmas).
Yet if we were to look at our same Plymouth County communities two centuries ago, we find a very different picture of the season. This selection from the 1906 Plymouth Memories of An Octogenarian, by William T. Davis (1822-1907), the Chairman of the Plymouth Board of Selectmen during the Civil War, and an important 19th century historian of the Town, shows how stark the differences are:
Christmas during my day came and went without observance or notice. It was not a holiday, presents were not exchanged, schools were kept, and the wish for a "Merry Christmas" was never heard . Puritan soil was not a favorable one for its observance. In 1659 any observance of Christmas "either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way" was forbidden under a penalty of five shillings for each offence. Though this law was repealed in 1681 the leaders of the Massachusetts Colony, including Judge Samuel Sewall, still looked on Christmas revels as offensive to the Holy Son of God. During my boyhood the St. Andrews church in Scituate, which was later removed to Hanover, where it is now a flourishing church, was the only Episcopal church in Plymouth county. [ ed. — Davis is mentioning Episcopalians/Anglicans here because, especially compared with Congregationalists, i.e., the Puritans, the Episcopalians were active celebrants of Christmas; this would have been understood by most of his readers in 1906.] It is singular that in its early years it derived its membership and support from the Winslows and the Whites, descendants of Mayflower Pilgrims. As far as I can learn nearly all bearing those names in Marshfield and Scituate, among whom I include my own kinsmen, were Episcopalians, and some of those residing in Plymouth, were members of St. Andrew's church. The records of the Plymouth First Church contain a petition of my great aunt, Joanna Winslow, and her daughter, Mrs. Henry Warren, to be admitted to the Plymouth fold, on account of the distance of St. Andrew's from their homes in Plymouth. It is an anomaly difficult to understand that so many of Pilgrim blood should have returned to the faith from which their ancestors were glad to separate. With regard to Christmas I am inclined to think that its observance has found its way through its appeal to the aesthetic rather than the religious sense of the people.
We, of course, live in a far more multicultural Plymouth County, marked by the presence of numerous faiths and religious traditions (including those with no religious tradition). Yet these two poles of the season do seem comparatively constant: on the one hand, conviviality and celebration; on the other, the quiet offices of faith and restoration, together moving towards hope — a dialectic of light overcoming darkness.
Whichever approach to this season more suits your own — the merriness and good cheer of the Church of England, or the wild fierceness and sobriety of the Dissenting Protestants (not just Puritans, see also Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, etc.); or indeed, both at once, or something altogether different and your own — I wish you all a restful and enjoyable holiday.
Thank you for all your support and interest lo these last ten or so months — it truly means a great deal to me, and I appreciate it more than I find easy to say. Stay warm, be safe and well, and enjoy the holiday.
[Here is the link if you wish to add a holiday donation — I think of it as something akin to a “tip jar”: https://www.paypal.com/paypalme/plymouthcountyobserv ].
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William T. Davis, Memoirs of An Octogenarian (Plymouth, Mass.: Memorial Press, 1906), p. 491.