Strange New England

A Compendium of History, Folklore, and Evidence of the Unexplained

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We Did Not Always Make Merry at Christmas

It is that time of year again, and apart from the religious significance of the day, there is the secular aspect of days off, possible Christmas bonuses, money spent on gifts and travel, travel, travel. One thing that most people in New England take for granted is that we have a strong Christmas tradition in this part of the world and in some ways, we are among its greatest keepers. However, that has not always been the case and you should know the truth about the history of Christmas in Maine and Massachusetts. You might be interested to know that the modern idea of Christmas, and the associated days off, are fairly new creations, less than two hundred years old. We did not always make merry at Christmas.

The original European settlers of these lands were protestant puritans, renegades from the Church of England and a people desperate to begin in a new land away from the shadows of religious intolerance they were subject to in Europe at the time. More than one historian as claimed that our founders were ‘thrown out of every respectable country in Europe.”  Of all the things that they brought with them to these shores, their staunch belief in the inappropriateness of celebrating such a thing as Christmas was paramount. Mainly, the idea of Christmas was to have fun and rejoice. Fun was not something they valued. Fun was bad. Alcohol was also often part of the celebration, especially in Merry Olde England, and alcohol was bad, too.

First of all, the Puritans claimed that no one on Earth knew when Jesus was born. Modern scholars and historians have yet to nail down the exact dates, but many claim it certainly was not in December.  The Catholic Church chose December the 25th as Christ’s birthday, they claimed, largely to coincide with the Roman Saturnalia celebration and the celebration of the Winter Solstice. Anything even vaguely related to Catholicism cast a shadow on the Puritan soul and was not to be believed. Even the name “Christmas” broke into its component parts read as “Christ’s Mass” or “The Mass of Christ” and only Catholics celebrated mass. Their need to break with the traditions of the Church of England and of Rome was founded in the idea that there were no special ‘holy’ days. Every day was holy – therefore, every day was a holiday and there was no need to celebrate any one day more than the next. Every day was sacred. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1659 banned the celebration of Christmas altogether. It remained that way for twenty-two years. Less than a hundred years before we proclaimed our independence from the crown of England, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts and by association, also in Maine. If you were caught making merry, the fine was five shillings. christmas-banned

What did this mean for Maine and Massachusetts? It meant that no matter the day of the week it fell upon, Christmas Day was business as usual. Stores were open, business was conducted, folks went to work and life went on pretty much as usual. Marriages were held. So were funerals. The courts were open for business. You could get sued on Christmas. You could also pay your taxes. Christmas was not a legal holiday in any sense of the word and that was the way it should be, according to the founding Puritans.

Maine became a state on March 15, 1820, no longer subject to the laws of Massachusetts. In 1836, the Maine legislature established that would be such a thing as legal holidays. At the time there weren’t many Episcopalians or Catholics in the state, but a year later they were celebrating Christmas openly, without any fear of fines. However, Christmas was not a legal holiday in Maine yet.It did not set well with the staunch, independently-minded Puritan descendants, but it was a crack in the ice. The minority had their fun, but it wasn’t legally sanctioned.

Perhaps the biggest factor that changed the hearts and minds of the people of Maine about the sanctity of Christmas was the publication of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in 1843. Dickens was larger than Stephen King at the time and was the most-read author in the English-speaking world. The redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge resonated in the hearts and minds of his readers and opened the doorway for the idea that Christmas might become a secular holiday as well as a religious one. Regardless of denomination, the book’s message was that Christians everywhere owed it to their savior to think of their fellow men and pay attention to their own salvation through the concept of good works. It wasn’t an instant change in Maine, but in 1840 a tree was put up in Farmington at Christmas, perhaps the first such public display of a Christmas tree in the state. People began to think of Christmas as something worth celebrating, after all. But it wasn’t an official holiday yet.

In 1852, with Christmas not yet an official holiday in Maine, the legislature made it a law that if you owed money and had a grace period that ended on Christmas, you had to pay it before the end of the grace period. As confusing and specific as this law was, it opened the door for a real public acknowledgement of the future holiday. The goose kept getting fatter. Finally, in 1858, the State of Maine declared Christmas an official legal holiday. It was just in time, as an influx of German and French Canadian immigrants came into the state and began celebrating Christmas in loud and public fashion. The descendants of the Puritan fathers were now having to deal with the idea that even though there was no way to prove that December the 25th had anything at to do with Jesus’ actual birth, it was something that the majority of folk felt like celebrating.

We all grow up thinking that Christmas has been the great day that it is for hundreds of years and that we have decked the halls and kept the day as something worthy of pause and celebration since our own forebears came across the water to these far shores. In fact, it has only been a legal holiday in Maine for 157 years. We are latecomers to the celebration, but never let it be said that we don’t know how to celebrate the season. In an official and very legally-binding sense, Merry Christmas!

Tom Burby

Thomas Burby is the owner of and the author of THE LAST BOY ON EARTH and THE SEVEN O'CLOCK MAN, both available on Mr. Burby has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Maine and an MSEd in the Science of Education from the University of New England. He loves a good scary story...


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